Is there something wrong with writing poems about writing poems? And if so, what? My friend Richard Howard was the first person who told me he didn’t approve of that subject, but since he said it while saying nice things about a poem I had written on that very theme, I didn’t take it as a blanket prohibition, just a personal preference. It turns out a lot of people share it. Jackie Sheeler, commenting on yesterday’s post, compares it to ‘talking to your analyst about being in therapy." Actually, I think that’s what psychoanalysis is supposed to be all about (see Daniel Menaker’s hilarious novel, The Treatment, for the cleverest portrayal ever of a shrink, the impossibly vain, hostile, and infuriatingly accurate super-Freudian Dr. Morales, who thinks everything is about himself, sex, or both). But maybe that’s why I didn’t stay in it very long: talking about the shrink to the shrink just seems so rude. Expensive, too.
The self-referential nature of art is old news. We don’t mind songs about singing and singers, or paintings about painting and painters, as any self-portrait is bound to be: here am I the painter, painting myself painting myself. There are dozens of movies about movie-making: Sunset Boulevard, Day for Night, Contempt, Adaptation, to name just a few. Why should poetry be different? Why shouldn’t poets, from time to time, reflect in verse on what is, after all, their occupation and preoccupation?
Perhaps there’s a moral aspect: poetry is not "the real world," where real people , ie people who don’t read poetry, live. So if you want to reach real people, you have to write about something they care about– baseball or the Byzantine Empire or having a baby, whatever, just not about poetry, because you can be sure that’s the one thing they don’t care about. Writing a poem about poetry only going to puzzle and bore non-poets. Worse, it’s going to sound "elitist," which is a grave sin in our faux-egalitarian country, where it’s okay to rejoice openly in having lots more money, houses, boats, cars, gadgets, and power than others, but not in having a big working vocabulary, a good education or a consuming interest in anything unprofitable. Perhaps writing poems about poetry comes across as a way of saying, I’m so special. Prompting the inevitable response: Who do you think you are, anyway?
Given all this, it’s not surprising that when poets write about writing poetry, they often sound a little depressed. My psychiatrist-writer friend Anna Fels , whose book Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives you should read right away if you haven’t already, takes a clinical view: "As a shrink," she wrote in an e mail after reading yesterday’s post, " I’ve wondered sometimes if such poems represent depressive periods in bipolars or cyclothymics since so many modern poets have been bipolar." Maybe, but maybe those poets are just responding naturally to the situation of the poet in our time, the sense of being always at the margins, of having to justify one’s existence, of offering the world something the world doesn’t really want.
Here’s a wonderful poem by Grace Paley (right) about exactly that:
The Poet’s Occasional Alternative
I was going to write a poem
I made a pie instead it took
about the same amount of time
of course the pie was a final
draft a poem would have had some
distance to go days and weeks and
much crumpled paper
the pie already had a talking
tumbling audience among small
trucks and a fire engine on
the kitchen floor
everybody will like this pie
it will have apples and cranberries
dried apricots in it many friends
will say why in the world did you
make only one
this does not happen with poems
because of unreportable
sadness I decided to
settle this morning for a re-
sponsive eatership I do not
want to wait a week a year a
generation for the right
consumer to come along
****Just out from Random House: The Mind-Body Problem: Poems by Katha Pollitt