Poetic context

October 26, 2008

When I started this blog, I promised myself that I would use it as an outlet for my poetry.  That’s been a difficult promise to fulfill.  Not because I don’t have stuff to put up here.  But each poem that I write — and consider finished — is a direct window into (or for me, a mirror to reflect) my thoughts and feelings about life at a certain point and time.  It’s incredibly personal process for me — an emotional braindump into a more or less tightly structured linear, language-based narrative.  As a result, it is an emotionally excruciating act to simply put my poetry “out there.”  To put it another way, it is incredibly difficult for me to show or read my poetry even to those people in my life who are closest to me, and whom I trust the most.

Not that I don’t want to.  I do.  But often times, I just can’t.  Why?   It’s not that I don’t want to.  But there are just some things about me that are very tightly guarded.  Sometimes I try to rationalize it by comparing it to the beliefs of peoples whose spirituality lead them to fear the camera.  Their fear is driven by the belief that their souls will be stolen if they allow their picture to be taken.  Why?  Because reflections do not simply depict redirected light, but one’s soul.  Mirrors take on a spiritual significance.  In this interpretive frame, photos “freeze” and “capture” the soul much in the same way that many of Superman’s enemies were imprisoned in the Phantom Zone (bear with me — it’s an apt analogy!).

I don’t fear the camera, but patently despise most posed pictures these days.  I believe they are often fake and deceptive.  Rather than capturing a moment in time, the intent is increasingly to manufacture a moment and maintain a false memory.  How many family portraits are really cheerful smiles bracketed by petty bickering and bitter arguments?  Image composition, shaping and manipulation tools are now as common as digital cameras.  Just as they can be used to bring forth a deeper truth, people increasingly use these tools to manufacture or manipulate an aspect of an image in order to deliberately distort the subject that the picture portends to faithfully represent.  It’s a distorted mirror showing us what we want, and we fool ourselves into believing it’s an accurate display of what we already have.  And when we believe we already have it, there’s no need to work to obtain it, right?  False happiness in a nutshell and a creepy window into our cultural psychology.  Not that I’m entirely camera shy.  If a camera catches me doing something, fine.  I just refuse to pose.

After all that, I still can’t go as far to say that I fear that my soul will be stolen if I pose for a picture, or make all my poetry available for public viewing (what’s the connection there? Do I even have a soul?).  However, I still think that there’s saliency in the picture/soul point.  As in everything, context is king.  And to publish a single poem is to rip it from its historical and living context, in the same way any decent human needs a healthy terrestrial ecosystem to thrive, and likewise would immediately die if we shot them naked into space.  The point for me resides in this question:  How do I know what level and type of context is enough to prevent my poems from arriving DOA like a naked space monkey?  I believe that largely depends on the relationship between the artist and the audience:  different people connect with and derive meaning from different things.  Is publishing them here really shooting them into space?  Is it tantamount to murder?  I suppose it depends on who reads this blog…

And to what extent should the poem be able to speak for itself?  In other words, how much context does the poem carry embedded within itself?  Is it a trojan horse?  A seed bank, ready to plant and grow a new ecosystem in someone else’s mind to ensure its own survival?  A puzzle or a piece of a larger puzzle, to be interpreted and assembled?  Howsabout a lil’ bit o’all of the above?  Inasmuch as each poem contains potential to create connections between people, too much context might limit or even alienate the audience.  What gives me the right to say someone misinterprets what I write?   And, likewise, what good does context do to protect interpretive integrity in the face of emotional dishonesty and willful ignorance of available evidence?

Of course, there are also more pragmatic decisions to drive my deliberation.  For example, which poem(s) do I start with?  How frequently do I post them?  Is this even the right medium?

I’ve since resolved that a body of poems together create their own context — their own universe.  I’ve given thought to intertextual tagging, which I still might do.  It could help make more obvious the common themes and deliberate cross-referencing that occurs.

If you’ve read this far, at the very least you deserve a poem or three — if not to enjoy, then at least to ground this discussion a little more.  Perhaps we can consider this impromptu essay some of the all-important context I was talking about.  So for all y’all hatin’ to be waitin’ on the poetry: I promise, I’m working on it.  Without further ado…

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