October 26, 2007

How We Categorize

I've been thinking about how we categorize poetry: surrealist, modernist, beat, experimental, romantic, Oulipo, confessional. It seems odd that we apply these labels to the poets, rather than on a poem-by-poem basis. That's certainly easier to keep track of, but we're settling for 80% accuracy at best; and worse yet, perhaps hobbling poets from writing outside the "school" that's given them the most success and acceptance. Jessica Smith, more than once, has said on her blog that--despite being primarily known for experimental works such as Organic Furniture Cellar--she has a lyric/biographical impulse at heart. She always sounds a little apologetic, but what's wrong with having an accessible narrative or two in your back pocket?

I remember, back when I was doing my MFA work--workshops with Henry Taylor, the Medea sonnets, my circus sequence--someone casually called a formal poet. It totally brought me up short, even though it was meant as a compliment. I wasn't ready to be "schooled," though it might have had certain professional advantages--I could have built up affiliations to journals, editor, presses, narrowed my focus on what to read and where to aim. Instead, I rebelled. = ) Now I'm reconciled to the fact that my first book will probably invite a "confessional" label, because many of the poems draw on autobiography. But I've rebelled again, and the work I'm doing now is probably surrealist, more than anything else.

Do I have MPPD (multiple poet-personality disorder)? Worst case scenario, I'm an embodiment of the concern that a natural voice can be thrown off-track by too many workshop influences. But honestly, the categories of poetry that interest me most (for now) are these:

-poems based on a personal reality
-poems based on a historical reality
-poems creating a philosophical reality

I find these categories really helpful in understanding what I read, why I like it (or don't like it), and what I can push myself to do that I haven't done before. But one migrates between these categories, on a poem-by-poem basis, in a way that tramples the boundaries between agreed-upon schools. Some outside examples might be the leap that Nick Flynn from Some Ether to Blind Huber. Rita Dove casually uses a formal approach all the time in her books, but I don't find it useful to label her a "formal" poet. I find it much more useful to think about whether she's writing from a personal narrative (poems in Thomas and Beulah), or a historical reference point (her Hattie McDaniel poem), etc., and the intrinsic challenges of each, the shifts in tone.

I'm not crazy about Ron Silliman's "School of Quietude" label, because it has a built-in denigration factor, but I do admire that he wasn't afraid of naming a new, intuitive category based on his perception of what's out there. If it helps you navigate the poetry world, so be it.

What are the ways you think about poetry? Not the roster of agreed-upon academic categories--anyone with an MFA can probably identify the textbook difference between a post-modernist and a neoformalist. But what are the divisions that really mean something to you and your work? How do you measure when something has shifted?

UPDATE - Alice Blue is back! Use the link at your leisure.
P.S. - As Deb pointed out to me, the link below to the Alice Blue Review has gone wonky--perhaps they have not renewed their domain? I'll see if I can get the poem text from Mr. Schomburg himself...in the meantime, you'll just have to take my word for its glory. Sorry about that.


Nick said...

Welcome to the club. I belong to MPPD Anonymous. ;-)

michi said...

i am michi, i have MPPD, and i'm proud of it. :)

i've never felt comfortable with labels - neither in poetry, nor in music. when people ask me to label a poet's style, a musician's style, i go descriptive, give examples, talk a while, and usually end up saying "i'll give you something to read / listen to".

i don't think i'd want to be labelled A or B. i probably dislike that for a similar reason i dislike people saying "and stay the way you are". it reeks of stagnation.

there are probably phases when i lean more towards one style than others, or one topic, but that doesn't mean i won't write a love sonnet one day, followed by a confessional prose poem, an experimental poem on the third day, and a haiku on the fourth. :)

i wonder what answers i'd get if i asked people to label me. hm.

interesting post, sandra.


jsa said...

Very helpful post. Thanks, Sandra

Josh Anderson