“I had yet to share in the communal sense-making procedures (the horizon of expectation, the interpretive community, what have you) that would make this text readable.”
-- Maureen McLane on Frank O’Hara, from My Poets
I’ve been stuck on community lately—community expectations, the promise of meaning, what it means and what it takes to write a poem. Poetry’s a funny business. We work with a relatively marginal art form that seems to insist on its centrality. And one that, while requiring the fewest possible resources for its creation, seems to require more than most from its audience to succeed.
A bit more on that last part: poems ask us to participate—to give voice, make our bodies into their instrument*. They come to us (for the most part) waving their white space, their apparent emptiness-but-for-us. They so often seem encoded, and sometimes are. And books of poems are perverse, in a way; their design asks us to move forward even as the individual poems insist that they aren’t done. Go. Stay.
It helps for me to have someone else who keeps me there—some imagined or eventual friend or stranger or student who will hear what I have to say about this, if I have anything to say. I like poems better when I’m going to teach them or write about them or share them with a friend. That’s not the case—not necessarily—if I read a novel or watch a movie or listen to a song.
The subject—community, poetry, identity—matters to me for a lot of reasons. I’m an introvert. I’m not a very good joiner. I do a lot of my poetry work in imaginary communities, online. I’m prone to a particular kind of despair—the feeling that things should matter, but don’t. And I have a hard time convincing myself that what I write, or might write, in a poem might matter, while at the same time having a hard time feeling my life matters if I don’t write (and somehow, prose doesn’t count.)
You’ve presumably come here because you care about poems—not all of them I assume, but maybe enough that you care about poetry, too. That’s where I’ll start tomorrow, with the broadest applicable community—poetry people—and my ambivalence about being one of them.
*I'm indebted to Robert Pinsky for this idea.