the discussion begins here with my undergraduat thesis, which was included in the copy of my amatur collection of poetry that i sent to arch as a birthday prezzy.
**This is the official introduction to my collection entitled PoemTree. Selected poems from this collection can be found at something.katy**
While this collection of poetry evolved into its current form, Professor Jennison and I began to talk about the recurring characters within it. She cleverly led me into questioning why I had written a collection of poems instead of a narrative piece if I felt so strongly about the character development. In order to answer such a mammoth question I had to first decipher the difference between a novel and a collection of poetry.
Making a distinction between the two literary forms was no simple task due to the modern blurring of the genres in the forms of prose poetry, poetic prose and the development or degeneration of the English language. I began by referring to, obsessively, various poets’ work on the matter of defining poetry and giving justification to their work. My hunt for the answer to my ultimate question of ‘what is poetry’ lead me into the laps of Wallace Stevens’ "Adagia" and parts of John Cage’s Themes & Variations in which both notable poets filled pages with aphorisms and little truths about poetry. These postulates, however meaningful they might be, fell short when it came to defining the genre of poetry.
Exploring further I settled on Gertrude Stein’s Composition as Explanation which digests the notion of all reality down to the reality of composition. Where Stein writes, “everything is the same except composition and as the composition is different and always going to be different everything is not the same,” was where I began to realize the differences between narrative and poetry immerges when we study the composition or either form. Holding Gertrude by the hand I moved forward into Louis Zukofsky’s An Objective, an essay which examines the balance between the writer and the reader perspectives, histories and efforts in the art of poetic transactions. Zukofsky’s analogy to poetry as an optical lens which brings “rays from an object to a focus” lit a spark in my mind using the match I had already been handed by Stein’s revelations.
By merging Stein’s concept of difference in composition and Zukofsky’s optical analysis of poetry, I eventually developed my own elaborate analogy with light as it projects through three-dimensional shapes, namely a cube and a prism. The difference between these two shapes is the way they distort light. A cube, which I compare to narrative work, such as novels, does not distort the light shown through it very much if even at all. It does not matter what sort of light you shine on it, the light will always go straight through. The prism—which is analogous to poetry—shows an array of colors separated by the path the light takes through the shape. The end-product, the rainbow, varies in spectrum depending on the light source. The light source is the individual and all of his experiences.
The novel does not rely on the light source for output; whereas the poetry, like the prism, fragments the light to reveal its components. With my analogy in hand I began to realize the importance of audience perspective as a tool for dissecting the two genres. While considering audiences, it became much easier to recognize specific differences between narrative and poetry such as length, layout of time and space, and continuity within the work.
Excluding the epic, quintessential poetry is limited in its length. This brevity allows for blank space between pages where the reader has room to interpret the words resonating in his mind. Instead of doing the work of a narrative, such as detailed descriptions of time and space, the poem relies on the work of allusions to a particular reality and the reader’s ability to fill in the blanks. Because, too, the novel is longer in length it must sustain the reader’s imagination, causing them to forget the reality of whatever sofa they sit on or whatever train they are riding. The novelist does not want the reader’s imagination to wander off between chapters. On the contrary there is the poem, which encourages wondering and does not provide a solid cube of thought. Instead, poetry hands the reader a prism with which to view the world though at that instant. A poet wants the reader to remember that article he read in the paper this morning and imaging what it would be like if, say, the article were written by an unsuccessful astronaut, or a depressed, tin robot.
I have given you a pair of prism-eyed spectacles to wear while you read about rivers and the lives of trees—what do they look like now? If I had chosen to present these characters in a narrative you would have been told about the astronaut’s failure explicitly and how that reminds us all of a worthless king amidst his revolting subjects, or I could have described to you the ebb and flow of the green river, how the rays of sun make it look alive in the morning, like a translucent serpent with feminine features—a modern Eve.
Instead, what have I done? I have alluded to the astronaut’s failure, the robot’s despair and the love of a fox. I have give the reader sips and tastes of the meal instead of the layout of the dining table or the chef’s favorite receipts. I have provided that path for the light to follow in order to escape the opposite side as a rainbow.
What the sips and tastes do in poetry is to allow events in time to occur all at once on the page. The poet never says explicitly that this event occurs before this one. To keep his audience from getting lost the novelist must provide such a timeline. In poetry, however, if everything were happening at once the human mind would become overwhelmed with this incomprehensible truth; therefore, the reader must be able to time-line the events as he deems fit.
Yet, it is impossible, as the poet, to avoid imposing a filter of my own personal experiences on my readers. Even if poetry could be dispensed in fortune cookies or plastic Easter eggs then the way in which the reader opened and read the poems would still be subject to an imposition made by chance and probability and other mathematics. Therefore, it is impossible to avoid some form of interference or bias through the delivery of the poetry. Thankfully however, even though I have done part of the work by arranging the poems in a book-format, there are still instances of overlapping in time which can be arranged in whatever order the reader’s own experiences allow. In its ideal form, poetry would be displayed as a mural is; overwhelming the reader until he can make out the finer details. In this form it can be assumed that the possibilities for variations on the work’s time-line would be as ranging as the individuals’ experiences― innumerable—and no intervention on the poet’s behalf.
The poet has less difficulty presenting an unbiased spatial layout for the collection. Because, ideally, there is no set timeline, there must be no definite landscape. This lack of landscape is yet another function which sets the collection of poetry apart from the novel. Everyone knows, for example, that Narnia can be found by walking through a specific wardrobe, but who could draw a map of Hardy’s imaginary Wessex? Even if several individuals, let’s say, could draw a convincing map of Wessex, each map would most likely be contradictory, or at lest varying, from the next. Instead, and for the same reasons as with time, the land is disorganized and disfigured until the reader draws a mental map of the world. We know there is a river and an ocean, but do they meet? How much time does it take to travel from one point to the other?
As the poet I have some control over the space, as with time, because I am responsible for creating all the elements that are expected to fit in the space. However, this space building only works if all the elements—the river, the trees, the rotting city—are meant to exist in the same space. Therefore, there is yet another level of variation when we begin to address the issue of continuity and community of poetic collections. Perhaps not all events and places exist in the same imaginary universe.
Every person exposed to the collection of poetry may come away with their own distinct reality, including a timeline and landscape which is different from one person to the next. By contrast each person who reads a novel would be more likely to agree on specific details involving time and space. In poetry, the decision to place one event after another and this item beside the other is ultimately in the hands of the reader. Each personal experience determines the interpretation of the work. The light each reader holds the prism up to determines the rays which leak out the other side.
While there are all of these differences between the narrative and poetic genres of literature, there are unavoidable similarities. Poetic, sometimes even flowery, language is often times found in novels. There are instances of ambiguity of events in some novels. There are even, as this collection of poems demonstrates, poets who build their work around the growth of characters.
The decision to represent my ideas to an audience of poetry readers as opposed to novel readers was, in part, to justifiably demand a certain level of work to be done on the reader’s part; similar to how Zukofsky demands his readers to partake in a set amount of labor while reading his or any other poetry. If I am going to spend a year creating and organizing, then I want the reader to spend a similar length of time understanding and deciphering. I have left the appropriate blank spaces on each page and given the reader specific cues to follow.
My reasoning behind allowing these pockets for readers’ thoughts comes from Stein’s Composition as Explanation; more specifically, from the concept that work “is what is seen when it seems to be being seen,” in other words, the work differs as a result of who reads it and when. This open space and allusive time-scale gives my readers some of the creative power while they read through the collection. I want everyone to create their own timeline, their own landscape, their own story based on the pieces I have lent to in this collection.