Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sorry I didn't write yesterday, but I had to get a boy to school for a soccer tournament, and then I had to come home and tie up all of the sunflowers that the rain had bashed to the ground, and then I had to help load some nasty old mouse-smelling items into the back of Tom's truck for a dump run, and then I had to stand around and marvel at the goat barn that Tom is turning back into a garage. If all goes well, this winter I will be parking my car under a roof behind a door that closes. I feel so suburban. Of course, on the plus side there will be no electricity, no automatic door opener, and a long dark slippery downhill walk to the house. At least I will be able to feel like I live in the 1940s.

Little by little, my editing life is becoming more manageable; and it's possible I may be able to begin writing again. Those 1970s Didion essays I've been reading, combined with the Kenyon poems, are leading my mind in various, possibly productive directions; and once I get Beowulf back from my son (he's borrowed it for a school paper), I can return to that project as well. School starts for one boy later this week, for the other the following week. Our household crush 'n' fun will diminish, and the days will get shorter, and the grass will stop growing, and at some point I will be able to open my eyes and look outside the circle again.

In the meantime, I've been thinking about an email I received about the way in which I write about poetry: "You . . . talk about how poetry is baked but never seem to get it out of the oven." The note was from an acquaintance with whom I've had a long and difficult correspondence. It's not a random trolling remark; nonetheless, it was certainly intended as criticism--in particular, of my inability to expound on poetry as philosophy, ideas, concepts, whatever term you prefer. He dislikes my focus on concrete details of language as a centerpiece for discussion; he thinks that true poetic conversation should be more exalted.

I cannot talk that way because I cannot think that way. My mind shuts down, just as it shuts down when anyone starts discussing calculus or Kant. Do I believe those topics are stupid and useless? No. Please, talk about them all you like. Please, discover something wonderful in the process. Please, use your discoveries to enhance your creative and moral life. Please.

But I think there's something terrible in presuming that different thinking is lesser thinking. I spent so many of my early writing years, in my teens and 20s and 30s, weighed down by my non-scholarly "female" mind. I did not want to be a Muse, I did not want to be a Philosopher, I did not want to be an Academic, I did not want to be a Poet. I wanted to make something . . . something rough and round and small and mine.

So what I want to say here is: Please. There is grace in saying, "I don't understand why this matters to you, but I am happy that you are excited."

I promise that I will try to do this for you as well.


Ruth said...

Oh thank you so much for this post! I so often glaze over, mostly with awe, when the discussions get overly technical and analytical. I start to feel less than intelligent and severely lacking in education. I've spent my whole teaching life trying to help students understand that different is valuable and to be encouraged.

Carlene said...

I am nonplussed by those who insist that poetry should be considered exalted, much as I am a little more than a little concerned about those who put other authors on pedestals that they likely do not wish to inhabit. In fact, I am deeply suspicious of those who spend inordinate amounts of time climbing those pedestals in order to plop their behinds on them and wag their heads o-so-knowingly. For heaven's sake, language is communication, regardless of what form. Poetry is a way of communicating, and of course the subject matter, the words, and the voice are concrete. It is the concreteness of these things that make them both personal and --sometimes--transcendent.
Pish poshness.
As my daughter, and so many of her age-mates are fond of saying, "you do you."

David (n of 49) said...

Bravo to this post and both comments above. Your acquaintance’s baking metaphor is no doubt clever. But I find plenty of ideas and philosophy on this blog, and in the Frost Place group. Is it elevated the way your acquaintance means? Elevated and challenging enough for me. This blog is personable and makes poetry approachable. The thoughts and conversations and work presented here have added so much to my life, in how I approach poetry, in what I read and how I read it, and how I look at the world and the people in it. I don’t need it to be about or from a valuable-in-its-own-right philosophical stratosphere; when I do need that, I can look elsewhere. Your blog carries meaning and value and pleasure. It’s on a human scale, with a conversation that is intelligent and intelligible, thoughtful and thought provoking, and often moving. Meant for what Robertson Davies used to call the “clerisy” (maybe like Virginia Woolf’s “common reader”), regardless where the content here might register on someone else’s scale of values. As Carlene says, continue to “you do you.” Every post, I’m grateful that you do.

Sheila said...

What an obnoxious jerk! He's mansplaining how you, a successful poet by any measure, should think and write about poetry. I'd think about cutting him loose, you are far too generous and gracious with him. I doubt he'd be as overbearing and critical with a male poet of similar stature.

Dawn Potter said...

Honestly, I've been a jerk to him too. We don't talk the same language about many things, and I lose patience quickly. He's a good man and a good poet, but clearly we are not twin minds. It's not bad to have one's world view challenged, and I appreciate his willingness to do that rather than flatter me. But I don't have to agree with his point of view or his methods, and I'm old enough now to know that.

Maureen said...

Pedantry is a poison pill. There is so much of it in literature (it infects those who write about visual art as well), and I find it unbearable.

As one who reads your poems and your writing about poetry, I can say how truly wonderful both are. You share insights that open poetry up, infuse it with the experienced, and your own lifetime-long passion of reading, and demonstrate in many clear-eyed ways how a poem is or can be given meaning well beyond the printed page. I've learned much from your approach, how the questions focus the senses to experience what the poem offers.

I especially like that you used the word "conversation" in the title of your most recent book. What you put out in the world is anything but a lecture, which is the sum of too much poetry teaching and criticism. A poem that leaves a reader or listener wanting to have a conversation about it with someone, that excites or moves one, that lives in the mind and heart, too, is a poem worth reading.

You illustrate by example (including through your own marvelous poems) what makes a poem a poem a poem - sound/music, play of imagery, etc. - and, as the best teachers do, you know when to explicate and when to let your students (many of whom are your readers) take a hand at mixing the ingredients and do the baking on their own. The meal is infinitely more satisfying, more filling.

I can only imagine how extremely well you teach in person.

I wish the e-mailer well. To be close-minded is to miss so much.

Dawn Potter said...

Of course I am grateful for your good opinion, and a little bit tearful. Thank you. I am not an angry person, but I have lost my temper repeatedly with this correspondent. There seems to be no other way to stand up for myself and my work.