Wednesday, February 07, 2007


As I receive the reviews that will come to comprise the fifth issue of Galatea Resurrects, I paused over one because the reviewer had made the point that he might have read one poem -- call it "A" -- differently if it had been placed earlier in the book and before some other poems that came to affect his reading of "A".

This points out how the order of poems matter; some of us -- and I often do -- read poetry collections in the order in which the poems are presented because I assume that the poet had something in mind about the order of the poems, and I wanted first to meet the material on the poet's own terms. Later, I might jump around the book, relishing any one poem, but I actually want my first read of a poetry collection to be read chronologically.

Anyway, this issue also relates to something I've sometimes addressed here: the "narrative arc" of poetry collections which, at one point, I called "inevitable." Clearly, some people design a poetry collection to be just that: literally a collection of individual poems. I don't actually dispute that (since I'm not interested in a binary of that approach versus poetry collections put together as a "book", which presents its own dimension)...but that response bypasses something I mean when I discuss narrative arc in poetry collections. (Not to say that others can't mean differently the notion of narrative arc).

But in my case, while I believe that (1) poems can be written as a series of sorts (thus promoting an "arc") versus individually, as well as (2) individually-made poems later can be contextualized under some arc viz a book, there's really another concept that relates to why I think a "(narrative) arc" is inevitable.

It has to do with how poetry transcends authorial intent -- that language's power can transcend any one poet's conception of it (this is basic, yah?, and exemplified often by how the same poem(s) can generate different readings from more than one reader). To paraphrase Stein, you put two (or more) seemingly unrelated words together and yet, somehow, that phrase creates a significance (if not meaning) to the reader due to such combination.

Similarly, a poetry collection which might be intended by the poet to be just a group of poems with no arc intended will still generate an arc based on how the poems relate to each other and flow from each other page to page. Hence, we have the example of this one Galatea reviewer whose reading of a poem somewhere in the middle of the book was sizeably influenced by the poems that preceded it.

Put another way, let's say you want to put together a poetry collection by randomly ordering a group of poems. If I read those poems together I can still sense an arc to the poetry collection -- an arc that the poet may not have intended. The only way, perhaps, to avoid this effect is to do what certainly many other poetry readers do, which is open poetry books at random and read one poem here, one poem there...over a prolonged interval of time. A friend reads my 504-page ENGLISH this way, reading a poem a day, which is a legitimate way to read the book (and addresses the test of whether any one poem is a good poem versus "filler"), even as this reading approach doesn't fully meet the work on its own terms since the overall organization is part of the project. Matter of fact, a Peep backchannelled recently to ask how I managed to create a unity among disparate fragments in ENGLISH. So here -- a reader "got" that book's arc.

If the narrative arc happens to be what's fashionable nowadays, and some poets deliberately write as such, this has nothing to do with my concept of an arc's inevitability. Actually, I believe most poets just write whatever it is they feel compelled to write, regardless of what's deemed fashionable. No doubt, some may consider me naive for believing that...which is a shame in itself.