Non Fiction

Denying All-Encompassing Meaninglessness

Every day I try to maintain or reconfigure my poetic compass. Although I don’t necessarily write a poem once a day. I like the idea of writing poetry each and every day, like William Stafford did, but I think choosing not to write a poem at a given moment can do as much nurturing as writing one would. I went to a reading where Curtis Bauer mentioned this as an important question that the poet needs to ask, should I write this thought or experience as a poem? I find that if I internalize a subject, a poetic idea in particular, then all different perspectives of it brew in my mind, sometimes subconsciously, and so I’ll get to the point where the poem blooms out of me seemingly spontaneously. Yet how can this be true? Shouldn’t the poet be content with attempting to create something out of nothing at the moment the idea sprouts? That’s true, but there needs to be a reason for searching for reason.

For me, not writing a poem helps me think poetically. Much of my poetry has to do with observation, hence relating external reality to internal semi-reality. I used to think that there was no such thing as objective, external truth. Surprisingly enough poetry has changed that for me. I hear people say that poetry is the most subjective form of expression when it comes to literature, and I couldn’t disagree more. Good poetry should strive to be universal. And no, I don’t claim to believe now that poetry is in the business of telling the truth, not only because that’s cliché, but because it’s insincere when poets exclaim that, and also not humble. Apparently the mindset for many in contemporary poetry is that you’re in one of two camps: the self righteous truth-seekers, or the insincere, excessive irony users. I’m not explicitly in the business of irony because that’s all been said and done before. America’s popular culture and capitalist society are irony-laden enough already, there’s no reason to unnecessarily inject more into the mix.

What’s the point of irony if you’re only unveiling something that’s thinly veiled? I’ll be honest; my poems are often dotted with observations of the ironic. Take On a Corner of “the French Quarter” for example. It’s a poem that at first sight is simply observational, a street scene, one that is stated to be insignificant in the first line. But there’s more to it underneath. “A cameraman from Channel 6 Action News/films insignificance on/the corner of 18th and Walnut./A police car is parked in front/of TD Bank across the street./The trash can named/’Big Belly Solar Compactor’/overflows with debris and graffiti/has been sprayed on the side.”

These first three images belie irony because they allude to larger societal problems that can be seen in the dichotomy between the rich people strutting around and those who come up to me asking for a cigarette or spare change at the end of the poem. The cameraman is filming a supposedly innocuous street scene that in reality portrays the outward signs of income disparity in a section of the city that caters to the upper class. The police aren’t protecting people but banks. The supposedly high tech, “green” trash compactor doesn’t do its intended job and has been reclaimed by the streets with a graffiti tag. These are just two images that are at first only observational but then become ironic given societal implications.

And yet the irony in this poem is not overblown and not meant to be obfuscating. It’s even originally unintentional, as I set out to simply describe what was happening before me. Yet as I revised the poem I arrived at a point where I was able to extract meaning out of the seemingly mundane, the otherwise insignificant. I realized that the poem reflected a nurturing step on my poetic path. My goal is to reconcile truth and irony, and in order to do that I must nurture my writing at times by not writing, but thinking poetically. I try to analyze the world around me because there is meaning in the mundane. And doing so helps me fight against nihilism, which is the reason why I write poetry in the first place.

Kierkegaard wrote about overcoming what he called levelling, which is similar to nihilism. Sketch by Christian Olavius Zeuthen.
Kierkegaard wrote about overcoming what he called levelling, which is similar to nihilism. Sketch by Christian Olavius Zeuthen.

9 replies on “Denying All-Encompassing Meaninglessness”

Dude, that poem you wrote is trash. It’s worse than Bukowski’s stuttering shit-mistaken-for-poetry. Your discussion of your own work is perverted. In my mind, you’re like an old man who lets his grandkids sit on his lap even when he’s got his own spooge-crust staining the crotch of his elastic-waist “dungarees.” Take a ride in your poem-dumpster, …trash-headed fart!

Thanks for elaborating. The poem I was writing about didn’t really have metaphors. I guess you could say that the objects like the cop car and the trash can were symbols, but that would imply that they were placed there in order to intentionally allude to a wider idea. However, they were real objects, along with real people, so I’d like to think that they’re more like signs of endemic issues in society. And the problems I’m focusing on are universal in this globalized capitalist technocracy that is, as I said, thinly veiled.

I was just curious that’s all since you were talking about meaning and the essay resonated with existential angst.

Some poets insist that the reader tell them what their poems mean, others think that their work must exist independent of the creator – but since meaning and art doesn’t exist in a vacuum so there are others who insist the “right” meaning is anchored to the creator’s time, place, etc. This is why, I chose to use the term “cultural context” because not all metaphors and symbolism are universally understood or applicable – despite how much American cultural capital dominates the world’s literature and media.

Anyway, it was merely a question, and your answer seems to be that one isn’t any more important than the other.

It’s not an interpretation of my own work, it’s me explicitly explaining the, as you say, cultural context of the work, but I’d prefer to say societal context if anything, which I think is plain enough to see in any American city- wealth disparity.

I don’t quite understand the question because I think meaning for the person writing the poem is a completely different process than the reader understanding the poem. I thought I made my point clear that meaning should be uplifted, not derided, which is the trendy thing to do in poetry now. I don’t understand why you would place more importance on one over the other. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding what you’re trying to say.

As a reader existing outside and unaware of the cultural context of On a Corner of “the French Quarter,” I’m glad I read your interpretation of your own work.

Which raises the question, which is more important: what the poem means to the poet or what it means to the reader?

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