I have decided to celebrate National Poetry Month by submitting questions by readers of poetry to some of the top poets writing in America today. The following five questions come from a pool of over 30 questions offered to these magnificent authors.
1. Do the Internet and social media contribute to the well-being of poetry?
Alfred Corn (author of Unions, forthcoming in 2014)
Yes. By introducing poets to the audience and alerting participants to new publications and readings. Also, some of us on Facebook are engaged in a fairly constant discussion and debate of aesthetic issues, political concerns, and language usage. Come join in.
Naomi Shihab Nye (author of Tender Spot):
Yes! Students are able to punch in "William Stafford" and read William Stafford. They are able to access his entire archive via Lewis & Clark's digital library of all his work. They are able to look up contemporary Iranian poets and Palestinian poets, anything they like. BUT they have a bigger challenge too -- maintaining the slower, deeper attention streams which poetry invites and, in fact, requires. Good luck balancing it all.
Heather McHugh (author of Upgraded to Serious):
Neither more nor less than do other media. The Internet -- starting with two computers in conversation, and then comprehending the network of computers, and profiting from the increasing speed with which signals pass along the netting, ultimately disregarding geophysical boundaries -- is a pseudo-neurological instrument and repository. It brings with it its own compositional (and conceptual) possibilities. For a lively editorial acumen, the internet is rich both in meanings and in means. (Almost not a day goes by when I don't consult the anagram generator. My oracle.)
2. What do most poorly-written poems have in common?
Adam Fitzgerald (author of The Late Parade):
Matthew Zapruder (author of Sun Bear):
Matthea Harvey (author of Modern Life):
Boring titles and a lack of specificity. Poets should spend at least as much time on their titles as they do on their hair.
Laura Kasischke (author of Space in Chains):
A poorly-written poem is one a poet decides to write for the wrong reasons -- to be published, or to experiment, or to impress someone -- and the poet knows that he or she has cheated, and the reader senses that it's not authentic, the impulse out of which the poem arose. A poorly-written poem is a marriage of convenience, and it might look even better than a towering passion, on the surface, but we all sense there's something fundamentally messy and crucial missing.
3. What do most well-written poems have in common?
Paul Legault (author of The Emily Dickinson Reader):
I like it when they wink at you. When they ask you to ask: what the hell is this?
A beauty that obliterates all consideration.
Henri Cole (author of Touch):
A truth-seeking flame. Aesthetic dignity.
Well-written poems can be deadly, if they're just good from a craft point of view--who wants a perfectly formed fish lying dead on the page? Great poems are unpredictable, imaginative and a bit alarming, like a consortium of octopuses escaping through a one-inch hole.
They, as has been said, arose from necessity. The subject matter of the poem matters. The sound and the imagery and the line breaks all serve that important subject matter. Often, such a poem is written, it seems from what poets' tell us, in a semi-conscous state, and the fact that it all falls into place is as haphazard as it is attributable to the talent or genius or learning of the poet. Something has taken place at a deeper than conscious level for the poet, and this is brought to the surface for the reader, who has a similar experience reading the poem.
4. How important is accessibility of meaning? Should one have to work hard to "solve" the poem?
Nick Courtright (author of Let There Be Light):
I think a poem should be a gift that keeps on giving. In other words, I think something rewarding should be present on the very first read, that the poem shouldn't be so inscrutable or filled with obscurities and allusions from deep in the stacks of history that it cannot be enjoyed on an initial encounter, especially if it's encountered aloud. But I also don't want a poem so "simple" that it doesn't offer much on subsequent readings. To me, the perfect balance is a poem that is friendly, but thought-provoking, which, like an individual, can be a tough thing to find, but worth searching for.
Robert Pinsky (author of Selected Poems):
The words "accessibility" and "solve" don't seem useful to me in relation to poetry. Other people may like them, and I can respect that: the terms just don't correspond to my actual experience as a reader or a writer.
Difficulty isn't reason enough not to read a poem. Accessibility can be over-rated.
Probably the biggest misconceptions among the general public about poetry is that the poem is a riddle that hides what the poet is "really" saying. Despite what we might have been taught in school, great poems are never, ever written that way. If you are trying to "solve" the poem you are reading in the wrong way. And if you are writing poems that need to be solved, or in any way hiding what you are saying behind decorative language and imagery, please stop. If a poem is difficult, and they often are, it must be because the poem is approaching what is impossible to say in any other way.
What I want to hear about a poem with which I've engaged, but found no answers in, from the poet is "I was trying to figure out what this poem was about as I was writing it, but I still don't know." But there's a thin line between mystery and obscurity. Mystery leaves the door open to many possibilities. Obscurity leaves the door firmly shut. If I'm not going to leave a poem knowing exactly what it meant, I want to leave the poem wondering, worried, intrigued, bothered, pestered by it for life.
Richard Siken (author of War of Foxes, forthcoming in 2015):
If there was a scale from 1 to 100 -- from pure clarity to absolute incomprehensibility -- I would want each and every number within that range to be represented. There are, and there should be, as many kinds of poetry as there are genres of music, architecture, painting, sculpture. I think we're so impoverished in our thinking, so frugal in our experiences, that we believe we always know what we want and we should get that every time.
5. What book are you reading right now?
Einstein: A Biography, by Jürgen Neffe, translated by Shelley Frisch.
The Journals of Sylvia Plath.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi.
Cyrus Cassells (Author of Crossed-Out Swastika):
Right now I'm reading The Earth Avails by Mark Wunderlich.
Joe Wenderoth's If I Don't Breathe, How Do I Sleep.
The Roots of Romanticism by Isaiah Berlin. Also, Welcome to Dingburg, by Bill Griffith.
David Lehman (author of New and Selected Poems):
Exit Ghost by Philip Roth.
An early novel of Marguerite Yourcenar's, titled Coup de grâce. I don't believe it has been translated yet.