Friday, December 20, 2013

On Writing #17 : Edward Smallfield

poetics as space
Edward Smallfield

Many years ago, when I was first starting to try to learn to write poetry (something that took me a very long time), I had an aversion to talking or writing about poetics. I now realize that my reluctance to talk or write about poetics was based on a misunderstanding, a fallacy. I was afraid that articulating a poetics meant that the poet was somehow bound by those poetics, so that the idea of a poetics became a restriction, a kind of straightjacket or fence.
I now realize that we make our poetics, we articulate our poetics, every time we write a poem. If our work is evolving, if our work is changing, our poetics is evolving and changing. A poetics can be improvisational, can open doors and windows rather than closing them.
If we think about the idea of “composition by field,” we might consider that our poetics is way of defining what the field consists of. (Just as we create the field by using it each time we write a poem.) Most of us would like to keep the field of our work, and of each poem, as open as possible, but the right kind of definition can help us see new possibilities rather than excluding options.
In thinking about this, I thought it might be interesting to take the conversation out of the contemporary realm and begin by talking about work that is really, really old. If I think about Archilochos—writing in something like the 7th century BC, and usually thought of as the first lyric poet—I find a remarkably open definition of what poetry can be. Archilochos obviously has no idea that there is a “poetic” language and an “un-poetic language”, or that there are poetic or un-poetic subjects or emotions or states of mind.
After saying this, I realize that it would make sense for someone to ask me what makes Archilochos’ work poetry (and especially lyric poetry), when a prose writer could write about the same subjects using the same type of language. My answer—unsatisfactory, I suppose, to some—is that Archilochos is using very different language to make a poem about a battle, an insult, a curse, a love poem or an elegy, but that his relationship to that language is always the same—unbelievably intense, self-reflexive, aware of each word and each syllable.
If we return to the idea of composition by field, I wouldn’t want to say that someone couldn’t use the field of the poem to write a prose essay. (There’s nothing wrong with prose essays; I’m writing one now.) But, both as a reader and as a writer, I wouldn’t think that was the best use of the energetically charged space that the field of the poem presents us with.
Probably the best way for me to begin to articulate a poetics (other than writing a poem) is to think about the poets whose work has most engaged me, not just in terms of an admiration for particular poems or the study of particularly techniques, but in terms of an overall approach to poetry.
The two poets whose work I return to over and over again are Williams Carlos Williams and Lorine Niedecker. It might be fair to say that I can’t get away from them. I’m sure it’s important that one is a woman and the other is a man. I’m equally certain that for me they represent the two most essential polarities in American poetry, just as Dickinson and Whitman represent those polarities for others.
One of things that I can’t escape about Williams is the absolutely compulsive quality of his writing. In spite of his frustration about the distractions of his medical practice and family life, the sheer massive bulk of his collected works (not just the poems, but the novels and the plays) proves how often he was able—or was compelled—to return to the field of the poem.
On the other side of the balance we have Niedecker’s Collected Poems, which tends to balance by remaining unbalanced, because it’s perfectly possible to balance weight with lightness. For me, Niedecker’s approach to writing is as obsessive and compulsive as Williams, but the compulsion turns inward, towards revision (as she often says herself), rather than outward, toward production of new work.
Each is equally incapable of breaking out of her/his own particular method of writing, which flows from his/her particular preoccupation with language, which flows from her/his particular world and self and way of being in that world. Both are much more attentive to the music of vowels than most other American/English poets, for example, but it’s the very peculiar particular approach to language—which for me can’t be imitated successfully (though many of us have tried)—that delights me in both.
For me, this inability to escape from self, this way of making a poem, this unique approach to language (which seems to be in the DNA of each), gives them a particular freedom. When Williams tries to settle into a long project like Paterson the focus that we might expect in a long poem is absent—everything continues to come in. (But haven’t you forgotten your original purpose, the language?) For me, this is a great advantage. There may be a project, but the urgency of the moment can override it at any moment, which seems to be essential for an truly engaging project.
The same is true of Niedecker—there may be things that she wants to say, but her obsession with the language, its music and intensity, always overrides and balances them.
We all know that Williams and Niedecker are intensely local poets. For me, local in this sense does not necessarily mean “staying in the same place,” though both of them chose to do that (and Williams argued passionately and explicitly for that definition of “local”). What seduces me in both is the attention to the local—the bird calls, the language that is spoken, even the clouds and the wind.
I should say too that I don’t think we should limit our considerations of poetics to poetry. The way a painter approaches the field of a canvas could be equally useful as a example, though I admit that music has been much more important to me. (I remember Robert Creeley talking about his novel The Island in terms of the kind of music that he listened to while writing different sections of it.) I often write in public places, which have their own particular distractions and pleasures, but when I write at home I always listen to music. I like many kinds of music, but for writing the list is quite limited—Bach, Monk, Bud Powell and a few others. Obviously the improvisational nature of the work is crucial for me.
I started by talking about starting to try to learn how to write poetry. In some ways, I hope we’re all continuing to do that; if we ever decided that we knew how to write poetry, I don’t think our work would be very interesting any longer. When I was starting to write, there was much talk (perhaps even more among fiction writers than among poets) about “finding your voice.” I now find that idea more related to marketing than to creation. What I find in Williams and Niedecker is not a need to find a voice, but the need to write something, a compulsive, obsessive, inescapable need to make something in language, regardless of the result. A reckless, experimental impulse.
“Miles would rather have a bad band and play bad music than play the same thing twice.” It’s good advice.

Edward Smallfield is the author of The Pleasures of C, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (a book-length collaboration with Doug MacPherson), locate (a chapbook collaboration with Miriam Pirone), equinox, and, most recently, lirio (a chapbook collaboration Valerie Coulton). His poems have appeared in alice blue, Barcelona INK, bird dog,, Five Fingers Review, New American Writing, Páginas Rojas, Parthenon West Review, 26, Wicked Alice, and many other magazines and websites. He has participated in poetry conferences in Delphi, Paou, Paros, and Sofia, and lives in Barcelona with his wife, the poet Valerie Coulton.

No comments: