Last night I turned in my last paper and portfolio of the year. A few days ago, I attended a defense of a fellow MFA poet and learned what to expect in my own. As a result, I spent a few hours yesterday beginning an outline of the critical readings I encountered this year, which I will make into notecards. This has actually been enjoyable work for me because it has enabled me to begin to make connections between things, to create a sort of conversation in my mind—conversations between the theorists, and conversations between them and myself. It's been a good opportunity to review what I've learned this year, both in terms of my own aesthetic and in terms of craft.
So: what have I learned? How am I different, as a poet and as a person, because of this year's adventure in school?
Well, to answer that thoroughly, I would have to post my two term papers here, which came in at 12 and 20 pages, respectively (they were supposed to come in at 8 and 12; I just can't NOT research thoroughly and put it all in there!). Which brings me to point #1:
1. I work a lot harder than most people on papers.
I don't know whether this is because I'm older (and scared?), because I’m more organized (getting things done earlier than everyone else), because I'm more thorough, or because I am there at school out of sheer desire and I wanted this more than anyone else. At times, it is irritating to me. (I will be in the grad carrels and hear other students talking, a day or even just a few hours before the deadline, about how they "haven't even started yet.") Then I will see them whip off something that looks pretty darn much like a paper. (Sometimes they don't even make it look like a paper but instead write something "experimental.") I don't, of course, see the grades these last-minute efforts get. But the prodigal-son's-brother in me wants them to SUFFER. Thankfully, that's only a tiny part of me, and the rest of me doesn't care that much because I find the work rewarding, and because these papers, especially, will turn into the critical intro. to my thesis. So what if I work harder when the work is so enjoyable?
2. Putting more recklessness, chance, subconscious leaps into my poetry makes it more intriguing and gives it depth.
Last semester I encountered Dean Young's Art of Recklessness. That, more than anything else, has influenced my work this year. I still am not where I want to be in terms of playfulness, but I'm improving, and I think my poetry shows it. I’m not sure whether people who have enjoyed my poetry in the past (many of whom don't read other poetry) will still like it, but that shouldn't matter. I've also been influenced by Bill Stafford's philosophy of "Lower your standards"—this has helped me produce some interesting things I never would have tried before, when I was trying to write a great poem every time.
3. But too much recklessness is obnoxious and unkind.
Here I differ from the aesthetic of some of my classmates, who feel that it's ridiculous to consider audience at all when writing. It's hard not to allow that attitude to mess with my self-esteem (some poets tend to have such a condescending attitude towards those whose aesthetics differ, as if they are constantly patting me on the head—"bless her heart, the poor, earnest thing"). But an interesting session at AWP in
Boston with Tony Hoagland helped me see that
not everyone who hasn't given up a desire for meaning in their work has lost
respect in the world. I'll stick to my guns, even when it makes me look
provincial and unsophisticated. I'll write what brings me joy—and that
involves, for me, some measure of bringing others joy as well. Which brings me
4. There are lots of aesthetics out there.
There's no one way of defining what makes a poem good. Even among poets reading other poets, tastes vary widely and most of us hate what others of us love, and vice-versa. But the good news is that this means that poets are succeeding at all sorts of things.
5. And I am succeeding. (See my previous post.) At least at something, for someone, I am doing OK.
6. Specific things:
Well, one specific way that my work is different (besides the inclusion of more recklessness) is that I've been trying some new forms such as sections and prose poems. I've also been trying more language-generated leaps (as opposed to having a goal for the poem before I begin it). I'm also writing some flash-nonfiction, or turning what used to be poetic impulses into flash-nf impulses, and what used to be too-narrative, autobiographical poems into flash-nf pieces. With success.
7. The canon.
I entered the program at a disadvantage since I wasn't an English major (I was humanities with English emphasis) and missed some of the English classes others took, and since it has been so long since I've been in school, and since I have read, comparatively, much less poetry than I should have for a program like this. So I've been getting acquainted with things that other students already know (who are the "Objectivists"? What is L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry? Why was Charles Simic's Pulitzer such a big deal? etc.). It's nice to finally know what's been going on. I'm still weak in this area, though, and plan on doing more reading over the summer. It'll be fun!
So that's that. It's been a fantastic, soul-wrenching, joyous year at school. I'm so grateful for it. I'm glad to have a break for the summer, to play with my kids and clean out the office. I'll work during the summer on some reading and write a few poems, but it'll be a nice breather. By August I'll be hungry again. I'm so glad I get to go back. I'm so sad that this will end someday. What in the world will I do then?