Relevance

The virus year has left me questioning the relevance of my poetry practice to the world of literature, such as it is. I have not been sending work to journals. I have not spent much time on revisions nor on going through my work in order to assemble another manuscript (or two).

My father suffered awhile, then died–what can I say? It has been hard to write, especially given the mental challenges of learning a host of new technological platforms and completely redoing my syllabus to adapt to the changed methods of college classroom instruction and tutoring. How does the saying go? “I ain’t as young as I usta be.”

Given that the year has been even more of a media frenzy and social norms chaos than the years preceding it, the word unprecedented has been overtaxed into meaningless syllables; and the word relevance has taken on a sort of socially-annointed value that leaves me certain I have nothing to contribute except more noise. Why bother to write poems? It may be that there are more useful ways I can spend my “senior years.” Reinvent myself as an advocate or mentor in some other field: gardening/environmentalism, education, literacy, hospice care…

Maybe I could just go back to hobbies. Photography, embroidery, sketching and painting, flower arranging, hiking. Or take up some new craft or endeavor. Maybe birding. And am I then somehow engaging in more or less relevant processes?

Garth Greenwell has an essay in a recent Harper‘s, “Making Meaning,” in which he poses questions about the concept of relevance as it relates to art and concludes that he disagrees with “relevance” as a critique criterion, one “that feels entirely foreign…to the real motivations of art.”

If I had a question like that on my mind as I tried to make art, I would never write another word.

Greenwell

These words, to me, are encouraging; while I may not buy into every point of Greenwell’s essay, the fact that someone other than myself (and a better writer than I) wrestles with aspects of relevance confirms my discomfiture as–well, valid? In his case, critics suggesting the less-than-relevance of his fiction are those who think stories about gay men and their sexualities and their stories are too “niche” to be relevant to readers of literature. A far cry from my own form of irrelevance, which is that my poetry is too tame and nature-oriented and dissociated from the suffering, disoriented, unequal, unjust world of human society to be truly relevant to readers. I am no performer, but a writer:

When I consider the subject matter of a work of art, I want to talk; when I consider its form, I want to contemplate.

~

…I do believe in the universal, that some commonness in human experience can be communicated across gulfs of difference, and I believe that art can give us access to it.

Greenwell

The essay is worth reading in its entirety, as some of its assertions deserve discussion. Especially noteworthy is Greenwell’s anecdote about reading and loving Augustine’s Confessions, a text I re-read and still love for many reasons, not one of which is due to religious beliefs. Greenwell says Confessions is still relevant today because of Augustine’s creative and relentless questioning and the ways he expresses his own confusion, “making bewilderment itself a tool for inquiry.” Yes! Among, of course, many other things.

Why do we make art? Maybe just for the challenges it presents, the inward puzzles we invent for ourselves and must solve for ourselves or leave unsolved. I’m looking out my window at snow coming down just now, a wet snow that sits heavily on the pine branches and lends a “clean” look to the surrounding fields and lawns. Relevant takes a prepositional phrase: the snow, the meadows, the hedgerows are relevant to my experience, if to no one else’s; if so, I suppose I compose/make art for myself…and if others find resonance there, the work is done by the reader, or on the reader’s part.

A good definition of art, it seems to me, might be the science of making meaning-making tools.

Greenwell

Diversity of form

“Diversity” is a buzz word among educational institutions these days, and I sometimes get a bit tired of hearing it. Diversity as a buzz word becomes like a dead metaphor; we stop thinking about what it means.

Yet when I am reading about biology or evolution, “diversity” flowers into meaning again.253142_2101392498695_2412222_n

Also, after the reading I recently gave, a thoughtful member of the audience remarked upon how literal and concrete the poems in my first book are–especially compared with some of the more speculative and abstract poems I read in response to the “questioning” theme.

Has my writing become less concrete over the years, I wondered. The response is yes and no. In some respects, my poems convey specific and concrete images and actually-possible events, but a mixing tends to occur between & among the lines. Even in that first book: it is, in fact, about building a house. (Concrete was involved!) As I composed the poems that make up the book, however, I realized how metaphorical the whole idea of house, home, hearth, shelter is. Think of the imagery of a house and ingrained, almost mythical connotations arise. The window. The door. The key. The roof. The rooms (stanza means “room” –even the poem offers shelter).

So back to diversity–there is, in the world of poetry and poetics, diversity of form, just as in biology. There are “set forms” such as the sonnet, which turns out not to be quite as “set” as might be expected (see this entry at The Academy of American Poets and this one by Rachel Richardson at the Poetry Foundation). I love diversity of form and have experimented throughout my life with different strategies of written expression, sometimes sound-based or rhythm-based or image-based or codified by the “rules.” I have also broken the rules just for fun, often to good effect. Free verse, metrical verse, alliteration, allusions, puns…I love them all.

The downside of such play, if this can be considered a downside, is that winging it the way I do–as to formal approaches–means that my collected work does not fit a style. I wonder if that is why my second full-length collection languishes unpublished. It’s entirely possible that the poems in The Red Queen Hypothesis are not very good poems. Critical feedback has suggested that isn’t the problem, though (whew!). The problem may be diversity! Publishers, like most human beings, love to categorize. What does not nestle into categories becomes the odd duck.

http://asymptotia.com/wp-images/2009/10/odd_duck.jpg

odd duck

The reason I chose these poems for this collection, however, has much to do with varieties. The poems deal with the abstract and the biological, the cosmological and the everyday. They stem from a notion that life evolves continuously, making each object and being individual as part of an ever-changing, meshing, chaotic and– paradoxically, but of course!–unified universe. Uni (one). Verse (a pun). The underpinning of The Red Queen Hypothesis is diversity, though that may not be its theme.

So I am not planning to revise the already-much-revised collection; I’ll just persist in sending it out to publishers while hope springs eternal. In the meantime, I have been pondering where the next set of poems is headed. Possibly along the edges. It will be interesting to find out.