When Poetry Meets Essay Meets Memoir

Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which I recently read for the first time and am already rereading, puzzled me. It’s a memoir mourning the death of a relationship. It’s also a series of numbered mini-essays, meditations and aphorisms linked to the colour blue, in its literal and metaphorical manifestation. At times, it reaches poetic intensity, but this is not what we would usually describe as poetry. (Foyles had it displayed in the poetry section, however.) It is the prose-poem mix and research-intensive, allusive type of poetry which has become fashionable in recent years:  practised by Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Ariana Reines and Bhanu Kapil. (There are plenty of earlier examples of it, but it seems to be much more mainstream now.)

I like each of the above-mentioned poets and I liked this book too, if we think of it as poetry, as sudden illuminations of a dark area of the human heart and mind. Vignettes about loss and pain, where the anguished cry of hurt and anger is kept at bay through careful selection of information, data points, quotations. Mediated through this semblance of rationality, the unruly emotions can be filtered for public consumption, unlike the angry, self-pitying outpouring on a blog for instance (just talking about myself here). So a very useful device for passionate writers who want to avoid descending into self-pitying bathos .

135. Of course one can have ‘the blues’ and stay alive, at least for a time. ‘Productive,’ even (the perennial consolation!). See, for example, ‘Lady Sings the Blues’: ‘She’s got them bad/ She feels so sad/ Wants the world to know/ Just what her blues is all about.’ Nonetheless, as Billie Holiday knew, it remains the case that to see blue in deeper and deeper saturation is to eventually move towards darkness.

138. But perhaps there is no real mystery here at all. ‘Life is usually stronger than people’s love for it’ (Adam Phillips): this is what Holiday’s voice makes audible. To hear it is to understand why suicide is both so easy and so difficult: to commit it one has to stamp out this native triumphance, either by training oneself, over time, to dehabilitate or disbelieve it (drugs help here), or by force of ambush.

The author acknowledges this distancing effect. By writing things down, by finding words to share certain moments or feelings with others, she is robbing those moments or feelings of their mystical power. Which can be both good and bad. It might work as a way of overcoming sorrow and loss, but at other times it feels like you’re giving up something too precious:

193. I will admit, however… that writing does do something to one’s memory- that at times it can have the effect of an album of childhood photographs, in which each image replaces the memory it aimed to preserve. Perhaps this is why I am avoiding writing about too many blue things – I don’t want to displace my memories of them, nor embalm them, nor exalt them. In fact, I think I would like it best if my writing could empty me further of them, so that I might become a better vessel for new blue things.

Maggie Nelson, from Goodreads author picture.

However, there are two objections or hesitations that I have with this kind of writing. First, if it is poetry, it is too much ‘telling’ and not enough showing. I don’t think rationality and emotion have to be at odds with each other, but when I read or hear poetry I like to feel as if the poet is reaching directly inside my chest and pulling at my heart, or has seen directly into my head and made me aware of things that I’d previously hardly dared to voice. It’s very much like Emily Dickinson said: ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.’ There has to be something unspoken and ungraspable about it. It encompasses all of the poet’s feelings, plus mine, plus so much more.

Secondly, when this type of book is supposed to be a novel, such as Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculationit feels to me like an incredibly lazy way of handling a story arc. Vignettes, no matter how well written, avoid the connective tissue and real plot development. Perhaps it’s a trick writers use to hide their lack of ideas for plotting. It’s as if I were writing the exciting scenes of a novel but leaving out all the links between them, anything which might explain character development (other than the narrator), or running away from the saggy middle because I can’t think how to improve it, or chickening out of a proper ending because I’m afraid I can’t handle it.

This is not the case with Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, but I now feel the urge to read her The Argonauts, which has a clearer narrative structure, to see how she handled that. While I agree that modern life is messy and oddly dislocated, it is:

a) Not a new thing: Modernist literature is entirely predicated on this loss of innocence and decline of society.

b) I don’t see why coherence has to be sacrificed to describe messiness in fiction. Perhaps in a time of confusion, we need the boon of structure more than ever, supporting us just enough so that we can play freely within it.

15 thoughts on “When Poetry Meets Essay Meets Memoir”

  1. What a thoughtful, interesting post, Marina Sofia. This really is a different (if not exactly new) sort of writing, and I can see your concerns/hesitations about it. I’d suppose it has to be handled very carefully, and by someone comfortable enough with both poetry and narrative. Fascinating

    1. I can see how this sort of approach adds something to poetry without requiring the lengthy footnotes of T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, for example. Or an advanced literature degree to read it. But it’s never going to be for everyone.

  2. Hmm. Interesting. I have to say the excerpts had me saying, in my head ‘interesting’ but I did not get any piercing through of visceral ‘YESSSSSSSSSS’ or that lifting off the top of the head, which I always seem to relate to as being ‘poetic writing’ which can of course happen in prose too. Poetry, to my mind, is never completely understood by coherent, logical, rational discourse. I understand (I think) everything she is saying, and could explain it easily to someone else. True poetry is grasped in sinew, heartbeat, viscera – you know it – but can never properly relate it – except by the words the poet has themselves used. Any more than an extraordinary piece of music can be ‘explained’ by talking about the musical notation. I’m with Dickinson on this

    1. Thank you, thank you, expressed with more eloquence than I can muster! And of course there is more obvious poetry too which veers more towards the ‘interesting’, where you admire the craft or playfulness or allusiveness of the poet rather than being excoriated emotionally. Perhaps we need to have both, but I still have qualms about calling this kind of thing poetry.

  3. Very interesting post, Marina Sofia. Like Lady F, I didn’t feel an instant need to rush out and read the book, and yet I’m often drawn to what might be called prose poetry. But it’s always something I respond to with emotion rather than brain and I think these extracts didn’t have that element, or didn’t draw me in. I’m with Dickinson too I think.

  4. Even though I’m not familiar with this book, I can see where you’re coming from with your comment on too much telling and not enough showing, especially if this is designed to be seen as poetry. There has to be enough breathing space for the reader to use their own imagination – or at least a little more than appears to be the case here?

  5. Hmm… the excerpts don’t read either as poetry or even poetic to me. As you say, more like essay-writing. I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to poetry – I find the form helps the content and as a result rarely think of prose poetry as actually being poetry, since I draw a clear distinction (but one I would find hard to define) between poetry and poetic writing. Poetry doesn’t have to have rhyme but it ought to have some kind of rhythm or structure might be vaguely what I’m trying to say… for me, obviously. But I won’t campaign for it to be made a law… 😉

  6. Thought provoking blog, which is sending me to the authors you’ve mentioned to read/ reread their work. I am interested in your comments about showing & telling. As an ex-medic used very much to telling, as concisely and sparsely as possible in my writing, the show-not-tell has been my biggest stumbling block in moving into creative writing. Although I’m 99% converted, I do think that it is possible to appeal to a readership when shifting the balance a little more towards telling – maybe even gaining a new readership?

    1. There is certainly room for this kind of writing as well. And I enjoy it and am constantly informed and humbled by it. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is a towering achievement of… and this is where I struggle, because I am not sure what label to put on it. Poetry? Essay? I think we should just call everything a literary creation and have done with it!

Do share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.