Memory & Experience

Generic Disclaimer: to say that I was a complete failure this past fall in terms of reading, writing and working on my own projects would be a huge understatement. I’m only mentioning this to explain why it is just today that I read the December 2010 issue of Poetry.

This particular issue of Poetry was dubbed “Q & A,” so you had poets writing poems and then answering questions about those poems. Some of my favorite work in this issue included poems or quotes from Michael Robbins, Paula Bohince, Tom Pickard, Charles Baxter, and Jane Hirshfeld.
It was what Jane Hirshfield said in her two Q & A sessions that gave me the most food for thought. She made this comment after her poem “Sentencing:”
“We’ve all had the experience of lifting some fantastic stone out of a streambed or off a wet beach, and then finding it later, dry on the shelf, quite plain and dull. ‘Why is this here?’ you wonder, when it catches your eye at all. Some experiences are like that. Their full inhabitance requires the moment in which it lived.” (215)
She made these two comments regarding her poem “Sonoma Fire:”
“Real beauty, for me, is never a distraction. If it were, the its not beauty-it’s prettiness or decor.” (217)
“…if we find fire, or tragedy, beautiful, it is because we ourselves have been, fore the moment, spared.” (218).
I like the first quote because I write a lot of poetry from my experience or from the experiences of those close to me. However, I’m constantly grappling with the question of whether or not I can adequately convey that experience. Can I do it justice? Do I have the right to write about experiences that are not mine? I may think of a memory or moment in time that would make a terrific poem, at least in my mind, but then when I try to commit it to paper it jut doesn’t work. It turns into that dull stone.
As far as Beauty (with a capital “B”) goes, I also struggle with that definition and what it means to my work now as opposed to what it meant 5 years ago. When I was working on my manuscripts for both my MA and MFA, I feel like I had a somewhat warped sense of the world. I don’t mean to say that what I observed wasn’t valid but I think it was too limited. Actually, I don’t think, I know. The poems I’ve written over the past two years or so are broader in their subject matter and as a poet (still feel off saying that) I’m less afraid to tackle topics or ideas that are not “beautiful.” I’m trying to write a poem right now that kind of addresses that transition from on phase of writing to another. It’s tentatively called “Out of the Woods” because I feel like for awhile my poetry has literally been stuck in the natural world, and while I will always go back to that subject matter because it is beautiful and, I believe, there are still important things to say about it, I also know it’s time to move on.

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