Self-referential poetry is the surest sign you've run out of ideas. – Robyn Smith, 13 Words that Should Never Appear in Poetry
The expressions ‘confessional poetry’ and ‘self-referential poetry’ tend to get a bit mixed up and it’s easy to see why. Who is the ‘self’ that’s being referenced? Is it the poem or the poet? For the purpose of this article ‘self-referential’ means poetry written about poetry.
There are those who look down on poetry about poetry—no matter what you do there’ll always be someone ready to dismiss it—and yet poets have been writing about their craft since at least 1848 when Keats penned ‘On the Sonnet’ and probably much earlier. I’ve never understood why some are so opposed to this topic because if there’s one thing poets have the hardest time doing it’s defining poetry; we write about love all the time (which we don’t understand) so why not poetry (which we also don’t understand)? I’ve heard some wonderful attempts at defining poetry (and some very poetic ones at that) but the more you hear the further you actually get from actually grasping what poetry is and, for me at least, the more fascinating it gets. Me, I don’t know how poetry works. I’ve been doing it long enough that I’ve got a feel for it but I don’t understand why when I try to write I end up with something artificial and yet there are other times, whilst watching TV for example, when a poem, often almost fully-formed, will pop into my head. I’m just grateful they do and know to jump when the ideas come lest I lose them but I really don’t understand the process. I couldn’t explain it very well any more than I could explain what being in love is although I’m pretty sure I’ve known when I was and when it was just infatuation. So, is it any surprise that I’d find myself writing about poetry? I think it’s the most natural thing under the sun and judging by the number of poets who’ve written artes poeticae (from Horace and Aristotle on) I’m far from being alone.
There are three main questions:
- What is a poem?
- How do you write a poem?
- What do you do with a poem?
That third one’s a good one too. As far as I’m concerned all my poems are perfect. Whatever’s missing on the page is in my head so, of course, they’re perfect. They only stop being perfect after a few years and I’ve forgotten all the stuff in my head that stopped me seeing how imperfect they really were. The hardest thing for any writer is getting rid of all that stuff in their head and looking at their work objectively. In fact it’s not hard; it’s virtually impossible.
The Northern Irish critic Edna Longley says that every poem worth its salt is in part about poetry. Sounds cool but what does she mean? If I said that every piece of music is about music would that make any more sense? Probably not. For me you can’t ignore the medium. I can’t see the lines on the page or the stave but I know they’re there. I know that poetry and music are artificial constructs; people made them; they devised a set of rules and played by them. Maths and physics dictate the rules for music—they’re much easier to quantify—but poetry’s a slippery bugger. The rules aren’t so easy to express but there’s obviously a process of encoding and decoding going on. I’ve written dozens of poems about poetry like this one:
This is the skin
of a poem.
Its heart still sits
inside of me.
This holds true for
No poem is a
All poems are
Poems are flat.
I suggest a
number ten blade.
Thursday, 14 June 2012
This is a good example of the self-referential poem. It’s metaphorical, symbolical, metafictive, requires the involvement of the reader. This was certainly not me running out of ideas. This is me trying to explain poetry. Poems have height and width—they sit on the page; they’re two-dimensional; they need you to look under the skin, to cut into them but even when you do you’ll still not find the heart of the poem. I’ve spoken before about iceberg poems—most of the poem stays with the poet and only a fraction ends up on the page. Beauty is only skin deep and maybe the same applies to meaning. Superficial meaning jumps off the page and it’s easy to read a poem, especially a short poem, and go: Is that it?
[A]t some point the poet will refer to the poem as though it were a creature, or physical object, the poem itself will take on metaphorical qualities.
He’s just published a small—literally—book of fifty poem poems entitled Fact and he sent me a copy to have a look at. The blurb says:
The poems are philosophical, humorous, and often conscious of themselves. The book is small enough to slip into a pocket, handy for those moments stolen for contemplation or distraction.
I told my friend Vito Pasquale that I was working on this article and he dutifully went away and looked up Glenn online. I wasn’t surprised to find that he enjoyed what he came across because Vito’s another of us—I feel like we’re a clique but I bet there are thousands of us—who enjoys writing and reading poems about poetry. The poem from Glenn’s collection that jumped out at him was this one:
The poem is absolutely
quiet. You might've heard
little scratches as it
moved away from the
pen. But it got here,
the place it made for,
when the pen let it go.
about which he said:
The poem that starts. . . '[The] poem is absolutely quiet' has a nice, nice, nice image in it of the words receding from the pen. Never pictured that before myself and now that I have, I wish I had. I'm not sure he planted that vision in my head as perfectly as he might have though. I might have left out that whole first sentence.
I actually like the opening sentence because the poem is quiet now. All poetry reaches this state of quietude but to get to it some noise has to be made, be it the clattering of plastic keys or the scratching of a pen or pencil on paper. Of course, as is the case with many poems of this ilk, Glenn anthropomorphises the poem; it becomes a thing apart from its creator capable of scrabbling across a page; it has its own intent. Any writer will acknowledge this duality. Novelists talk about characters taking control of the story and they mean it; we all accept the fact we’re only ever partly in control of the writing process. When I get an idea for a poem something inside me tells me to get it onto a page, be it literal or electronic… or, perhaps, ‘let it’ is a better expression, let it onto the page because that’s where it wants to be, what Robert Duncan called, in his poem ‘Poetry, a Natural Thing’, an “inner persistence / toward the source”. This is why I struggle with poetry as a vocal thing because my first urge is to write the poem, not recite it.
One of the problems with poetry of this ilk is that it doesn’t usually amount to much on its own; the same can be said for concrete poems and pwoermds, haiku and Ginsberg’s American sentences. Here’s one of the book’s shorter poems:
Read this poem again.
On this surface this appears trivial, a throwaway line and yet there’s intent here. The first thing I noted is that because the poem is called ‘Instruction’ I did read the poem again. Okay it must have taken me all of a second to do so but that’s not the point. Poetry needs to be read again. A lot of prose doesn’t—good prose does—and many people read poems as if they were chopped-up prose even though they know they’re poems. They don’t read them like poems because they don’t know how to read poems, so they read them the only way they know how and move on. There are about 1700 words in this collection which most people could read in five minutes and then what? Will they read the poems again? Or will they just sniff and go: “Not much there to write home about” or, as Glenn puts it in this poem:
Yours is the first
gaze to touch upon
the alien landscape
of the poem. But, as
though your landing
craft were out of whack,
you swoop over without
raising the ancient
dust, leaving no suggestion
of your passage.
On its own ‘Instruction’ is not a great poem, I grant you, but as a part of this collection it has its place because as you read through this wee book the effect it has on you is cumulative. The same goes for “Yours is the first gaze” although, being longer and having an actual narrative, it does stand better on its own. I think this is an excellent metaphor, a poem as an alien landscape. I know when I first encountered the unique typography employed by E E Cummings this is exactly how I felt: How on earth do I read this? And I probably did skip over it and go searching for something more traditional and familiar. For others though any poem is an alien thing. It’s like Glenn says in the very next poem in the book:
This poem is easy to understand
when read in the language in which
it was written
by one for whom reading
is a familiar and comfortable occupation.
The poem makes no other claims.
In what ‘language’ is a poem written? English is the obvious answer and there’s not a word in it that any average reader won’t be able to understand so why, when you arrange them thusly, do they feel like a foreign language or an alien tongue? The tiny poem ‘Instruction’ is the perfect example here. A five-year-old could read that poem and follow its instruction and yet there will be grown men who read it and go: “I don’t get it.” And they will mean that.
Haiku is a popular form of poetry. This puzzles me a little because I don’t find good haiku especially easy to understand. Sure, it’s easy to read, but they demand attention, more attention that I expect the average reader gives them. A number of the poems in this collection are written in that same spirit like this one:
This poem makes no effort
to stir the emotions, hopes
rather, that they will settle,
as, at the bottom of the cup,
there is the fine powder
from the teabag, the
How do you read a haiku? Not an easy question to answer briefly but here’s a start:
The central point about haiku is that they present in brief compass the record of an illuminating moment or perception, a satori, and do so in a way that encourages readers to share deeply as many aspects of that experience as they can open themselves to. Good haiku need to be read slowly and repeatedly, and despite their brevity will not be easily exhausted. Reading them is in itself something of an art. – Gary Eaton, 'A Note on Haiku', The Cambridge Quarterly, Volume 38, Number 4, p. 328
This isn’t a haiku but I think a similar approach is the right one. There is danger reading tiny poems like this that you treat them purely as intellectual exercises, puzzles to be worked out and, yes, that is one way to read them but that’s only a superficial reading. You really need that No 10 blade. (The No.10 blade, by the way, with a curved cutting edge is one of the more traditional blade shapes and is used generally for making small incisions in skin and muscle.)
I thought I’d ask Glenn a few questions about this book and about poem poems in general.
JIM: When I first got this book in the post my first thought was, God, it’s so small! I’ll never be able to read it—I did, in fact, have to use a magnifying glass—whereas my wife’s initial reaction was, “It’s precious!” Mind you she would’ve needed to use a magnifying glass too. Why produce a book so small?
GLENN: I asked Andrew Topel, who runs Avantacular Press, if he could share some thoughts on the design of Fact. Andrew wrote back:
When I read the poems, they seemed to me that they needed an intimate environment to be set down in, so the small format was decided right off the bat. At the same time, I was toying with an idea of publishing a book that fit in a miniature suitcase, as I shared with you at one point, so this also had me thinking small.
I had some input into the design, but I wanted Andrew to make the project his own. Andrew is a visual artist. Two of his own poems are included in the newly published The Last Vispo Anthology from Fantagraphics Books.
JIM: Why’s the collection called Fact?
GLENN: Very few of the poems are titled. The poems being so brief I thought titles would burden them. What they were saying was what they were about. On the other hand when I thought about gathering them into a book I knew a title was needed. I title my notebooks and had used “Fact” as the title for the notebook in which the series got started. (The previous two notebooks are titled “Art” and “e”; with “Fact” the three notebooks’ titles read Art-e-Fact.) That’s the truth of it. But once I’d settled on Fact it seemed to fit. The poems did not to think of themselves as fiction.
I will add that I used to be a huge fan of the rock band New Order and their music was released by Factory Records, which at least once appeared on an album cover abbreviated “fact.” (Note the period; I used a period in the title of the book, too, until at some point it fell away.)
JIM: I have to say I'd never thought about these as examples of nonfiction poetry. I guess it depends on how you define 'fiction'. I think it's an interesting point and perhaps a good way to approach this kind of poetry. They're probably closer to philosophical texts—we are after all examining the nature of poetry—than entertainments.
For all that poetry about poetry—or poem poems as you call them—are generally looked down on. In his poem 'Decision for Self-Love' for example the poet Landis Everson wrote
Sometimes you write poetry about poetry.
You can’t help yourself.
Your fingers stray down there where there is
suggesting that poems about poetry are nothing but a masturbatory dead end and yet I suspect few poets will have been able to resist the urge to write one or two. How do you feel about this? Is it okay to do it as long as you don’t talk about it?
GLENN: It’s okay to do whatever. Subject matter taboos are silly. In the lines you quote Landis Everson is writing about his feelings. Feelings of shame and lack of self-worth, perhaps? He is looking for the place “where there is still feeling,” which sounds rather alienated. “Learning to love yourself,” if we’re to take Whitney Houston at her word, “is the greatest love of all.”
Poem poems are poems that speak for themselves. They may have their own feelings of doubt and shame, but it is of their own bodies they are dubious or ashamed, not someone else’s. The poem is a metaphor, just as a word is a metaphor for meaning, a sentence a metaphor for thought. The poem poem stands in for the reader. The poem is being spoken and heard by the reader in her own voice.
JIM: Poetry, certainly from the twentieth century onwards, has become an amorphous term and few I would imagine—certainly not after someone came out with, "It's a poem because I say it is"—are now comfortable trying to define poetry. Do you think this is one of the reasons you're drawn to poem poems, you're trying to either define or at least identify what poetry's becoming?
GLENN: I define Poetry as “Art made using language as the material.” This is, of course, laughably broad. Are you laughing?
JIM: Actually, no, it’s a good starting, point although I think it’s a bit too broad. What you’ve been saying so far does remind me of this poem of mine:
Body of Work
This is a naked poem
so try not to stare.
There are no meanings
for the words to hide behind.
Just let your eye brush
over them and don't ogle;
I know that it's hard.
You can't touch them and
they're not allowed to touch you.
Think of it as art
Friday, 2nd October 2009
For me poem poems are about stripping away everything bar the process: I am reading a poem; what am I doing? Of course novelists use language as their raw material as do songwriters and even t-shirt designers and a distinctive feature of modern art is the fact that many artists incorporate language into their art, as in the case of Tracey Emin’s neon art, but putting that aside for the moment…
GLENN: Recently I wrote a sort of gigantic poem poem in prose called Autobiography of a Book. The book’s life is what takes place in the language of which it is made. It is alive so long as it is being read and if it lives on beyond that it is in memory.
JIM: Now that reminds me of the Bishop Berkeley's famous maxim: "esse est percipi" (to be is to be perceived) which was the inspiration for Beckett’s film Film and what I take from that is that a poem—indeed any literary work—only truly exists in the mind of its reader.
GLENN: While struggling over a poem that didn’t work once, I got the feeling I wasn’t trying to make something, I was trying to free something that was trapped. Sometimes I see the page as a covering that has to be scraped away in order to release the poem inside it.
JIM: No, I get that, which is why I've never sat down to write a sonnet or a sestina. I see them as artificial constructs. My poems have structure but that structure evolves as a part of the writing process. I don't force the words into a (what would be for them) unnatural shape.
GLENN: I understand that many readers wish words were invisible, that their meanings would instantaneously and without ambiguity translate to their minds the important stuff—the story, the scene, the conflict. That sounds like a philosophy of prose. Poetry wants you to notice the way it’s being said as well as what it’s saying. Poem poems show you that language, like the rest of us, is in a struggle for meaning. Per Mr Love, that struggle is universal.
Very interesting stuff. Personally I liked this collection. I didn’t like its physical size but I suspect most people with a decent pair of eyes will have no problems with it. As a body of work it’s thought-provoking and deals with many aspects of the nature of poetry. I talked at the start of this article about how poems appear mysteriously and here’s this wry observation from Glenn:
This poem was
in my DNA and
is being revealed through
the inevitable progression
of a system of chemical
reactions. Having written
it I can see I couldn't
help it and am content
to disclaim any
responsibility. It grew
out of me like a thumbnail,
and now I am cutting
This makes so much sense to me as a fellow poet. I’ve always resisted the urge to think of my poems as my babies—which doesn’t mean I’ve not on occasion given them their own voice—but I can relate to them as a by-product of the poetic process. I write to work things out and once they’ve been worked out I’ve no further need of the poem that was produced in the process. I suppose there’ll be people who collect their nail clippings in a jar. I collect my poems in a big red folder. Same difference.
Fact costs a mere $5, postage included, if you live in the States. It won’t be for everyone but if you enjoyed any of the above then you should think about it. I liked it. To help you make your mind you can read some of the poems from Fact online:
Glenn Ingersoll lives in Berkeley, California having moved there in 1991 to finish his undergraduate studies at the University of California. His work has been published in Exquisite Corpse, The Quarterly, Phoebe, and Columbia Poetry Review, among other places. In 1993, he won the Charles B. Wood Memorial Award from Carolina Quarterly. His chapbook City Walks (Broken Boulder Press) was published in the spring of 1999 and can be downloaded from them as a pdf here. It’s a little different from Fact.