Welcome to dVerse Poetics poets and friends! I’m Charles Miller (Chazinator to my friends). I’ll be your host this evening for the second time at dVerse Poetics. I hope the words are already blowing the tops of people’s heads off in there and I’ll explain how this works in a few minutes. Last time we started out in Athens, but tonight’s prompt originates in the terraced city of Florence, Italy, a long time ago …
But first, I’m sure you’ve been at poetry readings and experienced moments when the poet reads a poem, but before or after the reading they describe what circumstances gave rise to the poem.
This has often seemed somewhat ironic to me. Why doesn’t the poem rely on itself? Why do I need a framework that puts the poem in its place? Why isn’t the poem self-sufficient so as to need no explanation? Does this mean the poem is somehow deficient?
Those familiar with TS Eliot’s poem The Wasteland, might see this poem as the perfect example of such poetry. We actually find a set of notes that provide further reading and clues concerning the numerous literary, historical, and anthropological allusions in the poem. (Of course, we can throw away this ladder, as Johannes Climacus might say, after we reach a certain awareness of the spiritual depths of the poem.)
But Eliot never really divulged the personal and spiritual crisis that gave birth to the poem. We have his biographers to thank for that.
More modern poets make up for this disjunction between life and poetry by filling their poems with more and more personal, historical, social, or other details. Many poems try to fill in the gaps left by the disjunction between the moment of poetry and real life by providing enough detail to let you know what gave rise to the poem. No doubt, we aren’t talking about causal events like a chemical producing a reaction but cause defined in terms of meaning, not always directly discernible by observers or instruments.
So, there can be several reasons we might wish to give the details “behind” the writing of a poem:
- The details give the place of the poem in our lives
- They provide some needed information that allows us to appreciate and understand the poem
- They provide historical details that are now wholly or half forgotten
There are, no doubt other reasons and ways that descriptions like this work in orientating readers to the reality or meaning of a poem.
In world literature, one example of an attempt by a poet to fit their work into a fuller, existential landscape is Dante’s short masterpiece, La Vita Nuova (The New Life). When I was first starting to write centuries ago, this little book meant a lot to me and I always wanted to do something like it. Unfortunately, my life hasn’t hung together enough for me to see its arc. But about that in a minute.
Dante’s book includes sonnets and canzone, ostensibly to the woman who inspired the poetry, the now immortalized Beatrice, known more widely from his epic, The Divine Comedy. Each poem in Vita is introduced with the biographical circumstances that gave rise to the following poem. Early in the work, Dante even dissects some of the sonnets written, showing how each stanza or part fits with his previous description.
His narrative of the sparks that ignite his poetic genius are fascinating, giving intimate insight into the poet’s psyche. From angels in real life, to intensely detailed descriptions of dreams, to marvelous narrative of social mores and customs; all combine to provide a rich tapestry depicting how and why Dante writes his poems.
In the following example, Dante describes a vision and then the thoughts that plagued him afterwards. His description is precise and vivid, giving us wonderful insight into his thought processes. Even more rewarding, the vying thoughts give birth to a sonnet, which he then records.
(image: John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
After this vision I have recorded, and having written those words which Love had dictated to me, I began to be harassed with many and diverse thoughts, by each of which I was sorely tempted; and especially there were four among them that left me no rest. The first was this: “Certainly the lordship of Love is good; seeing that it diverts the mind from all mean things.” The second was this: “Certainly the Lordship of Love is evil; seeing that the more homage his servants pay to him, the more grievous and painful are the torments wherewith he torments them.” The third was this: “The name of Love is so sweet in the hearing that it would not seem possible for its effects to be other than sweet; seeing that the name should be like the thing names: as it is written: Nomina sunt consequentia rerum.” And the fourth was this: “The lady whom Love has chosen to govern you is not as other ladies, whose hearts are easily moved.”
And by each one of these thoughts I was so sorely assailed that I was like one who doubts which path to take, and wishing to go, goes out. And if I decided to seek out some point at the which all these paths might be found to meet, I discerned but one way, and that irked me. It was this: to call upon Pity, and to command myself to her. And it was then that, feeling a desire to write something about this in rhyme, I wrote this sonnet:
All my thoughts always speak to me of Love,
Yet have between themselves such difference
That while one bids me bow with mind and sense,
A second says, “Go to: look you above;”
The third one, hoping, yields me joy enough;
And with the last come tears, I scarce know whence:
All of them craving pity in sore suspense,
Trembling with fears that the heart knows of.
And thus, being all unsure which path to take,
Wishing to speak I know not what to say,
And lose myself in amorous wanderings:
Until (my peace with all of them to make),
To my own enemy I surely must pray,
My lady Pity, for the help she brings.
– Trns. Dante Gabriel Rossetti
This amazing view into the poet’s mind is fascinating in and of itself. It shows us the powerful psychological insight of this poet, at the same time that it shows us how he fashioned his poem from the living materials of vision, life, and thought.
There’s one more thing we should consider. Dante wrote the Vita not as a literary exercise just to astonish a small circle of friends with his brilliance. Granted, the work operates at several levels, but its overarching purpose is to show how Dante’s love for Beatrice fit a larger pattern: coming to understand his relationship to a transcendent reality. This is important, I think, because it reveals a man consumed with finding meaning in his life, poetry, and thought. The Vita is a work that ties in those aspects of the human soul seeking an understanding of its place in the universe.
You’ll notice that I haven’t used the term commentary for what Dante does in this work. This is because I don’t think he’s doing literary criticism or dissecting his work like a literary critic does. Instead, he’s trying to show us how all the pieces fit together: his meeting Beatrice, his love for her, his poetry wrestling with the emotions, dreams, and visions of that love, and ultimately his journey to that higher reality, led by the image of his beloved Beatrice.
In this week’s prompt, let’s take a poem or part of a poem and put it into the larger context of our lives, like Dante did. To accomplish this, you might describe the psychological state you were in when you wrote your poem, the social events underlying it, or the thoughts that were alive in your mind and heart when the words formed themselves into a poem. Taking the example above, reconstruct for us as much of those things to provide a vivid account of how your poem came to be, fits into the overall fabric of your life, the dreams or visions that brought it to be, etc.
Cool? Then let’s get it on. Here’s how it works:
- Post a poem based on tonight’s theme to your blog.
- Link in the poem you’d like to share by clicking on the Mr.Linky button just below.
- This opens a new screen where you’ll enter your information, and where you also choose links to read. Once you have pasted your poem’s blog url and entered your name, simply click Submit.
- Don’t forget to let your readers know where you’re linking up and encourage them to participate by including a link to dVerse in your blog post.
- Visit as many other poems as you like, commenting as you see fit. Chances are if you comment on others they will comment on you. Funny how that works.
- Remember, we’re here for each other. Engage your fellow poets, talk, chat, comment, let them know their work is being read, and enjoy the input you also will receive. Feel free to tweet and share on the social media of your choice.
Finally, enjoy–this is poetry alive.
thank you charles for an interesting and thought-provoking article… i always find it fascinating to hear about the circumstances and the background of a poem…so looking forward to some backstage glimpses in the pub tonight..
A very well written and thought-engaging article, Charles. Enjoyed the Dante, and certainly have felt that way myself at times, though so far have not done much in the way of creating immortal masterpieces. ;_) I often have long process notes with my poems, not generally to explain what I felt while composing and decomposing, but as your fourth reason lists, to define things that are not commonly known any more, or may be peculiar to my own approach of adding in magpie bits of myth and factoids from hither and yon to everything.
Let me think about this awhile and see what percolates up.Thanks for hosting this session, Charles–so good to have you with us here at the pub.
oops, that was your third reason, but I think you probably got my drift–meant to say also I was just re-reading The Wasteland in a copiously annotated version (notes on Eliot’s notes) –can totally see the need for a lot of it too, as more and more of the classical references are just drifting out of our culture.
Laurie Kolp said:
Fantastic article, Charles. I hope this is what you meant.
and Chazz…(do you pronounce it like Jazz…?) love the music…soothes my soul…ha…thank you…smiles..
just about to drive my youngest one to a friend and start my reading here in a bit…
I learned something… thank you.
Victoria C. Slotto said:
Charles, this is so good. Time has been an issue for me, but I will make it happen, even if I have to use one of my older poems. A poem I know in Lake Tahoe calls this “pimping your poem.”
Glenn Buttkus said:
I will try again to leave a comment, bless WP…leaving you a short poem today, not typical for me, that seems to zero in on the request.
I’ve always liked to know what the thoughts are behind a poets writings. It helps somewhat to understand what they are trying to convey.
Great prompt Charles.
Have fun all.
brian miller said:
this was a very interesting experience charles….usually what you get in my poems are the feelings swirling about in a given situation but i think i was able to capture a little bit more personal nature behind mine…
Brian your’s was a poem to explain a poem…beautiful!!!
Very thoughtful lesson. Thanks Charles. I often hide behind my poetry so I’m not sure about this prompt but have always enjoyed others’ author notes.
smiles…i tend to hide behind my poetry as well at times…
Well I put my big girl pants on, went back and unmasked my latest poem.
Buddah Moskowitz (@ihatepoetry) said:
I try to write as plainly and simply as possible – I long to be understood, and to that end have a hard time finding any poems I wrote that need explanation.
Toward that end I sent up and oldie, from 1988, before some of you were born….
Old Man Moskowitz
A wonderful article Charles…your mind always leads me to pondering 🙂 Just wanted to swing by and issue a formal and slightly unpoetic welcome…and you never know…I just might find the time to offer up a little something….
Charles, it’s a wonderful article. I’m not sure I’m up to it in my present circumstances, traveling, but I’ll see.
I have tried at times to take a prose piece–and I really consider myself a prose writer, not a poet at all–and turn it into a poem.
This is a big issue for me actually–writing poetry at all! One reason why I’ve liked to work with forms so much, a bit of a crutch but also a “deciding factor” as it were.
Anyway, thanks for the piece, enjoyed the Dante, and will see what I can come up with. K.
Very interesting Charles … especially learning more about Dante … as I read the article, I kept thinking, ‘I’m sure I have at least one poem where I detailed state-of-mind’ after writing it … I hope that’s the sort of thing you might have been looking for …
Charles, I am having a helluva lot of trouble commenting on Word Press…..Just want to say that I appreciated this prompt, as I wrote something I woud not have otherwise. It needs work, revision. But it is the seed of something.
brian miller said:
thanks everyone that came by already…been on an emergency call since about 530…just getting in…will be around in a bit…
Oh no, B! Hope everything turns out okay.
Victoria C. Slotto said:
I think I screwed up with my first link (#10)….that was the poem for Open Link Night. So check out the one that says “This one!!!” Sorry.
It was a neat sestina, though, Victoria. I’ll read your new one in the morning when my brain is fresh.
Jody Lee Collins said:
Victoria–so glad you re-posted. “this one!!” painted such a vivid picture. Thank you for persisting.
g’nite folks, gotta rest 😉 but i’m in 😉
brian miller said:
on my way to bed as well…caught up through adan…and will check in tomorrow in the AM and see who has joined the party….
Jody Lee Collins said:
Chaz (may I call you Chaz?)–I guess overall I’m a pretty straightforward poetry person–more often than not I’m just using real words to paint feelings….(very poor explanation). Many, many of you lovely writers use such abstract words to paint a picture and when I finish I say, ‘wow!’ though I can’t tell you exactly what I read, and I always hope/wish someone would explain it to me (but then my ignorance would be showing).
I was glad to have a chance to share this time and do some ‘splainin’ first–the subject–September 11th–is a deep one.
Thanks to all at the Pub….I’m having the most fun ever with just drinking words!
Claudia Schoenfeld (@cmschoenfeld) said:
just wanted to say good morning… won’t manage to read now as i’m starting work early to get some urgent things done… so will be around in the evening…
Cressida de Nova said:
Thank you for this prompt Charles and well researched interesting ,article. It was timely in my case and the poem metaphorically fell straight into my lap. I have not given any process or background notes . I am unable to do this with certain topics. Anyhow the poem is self explanatory and I know ( because of your previous insightful comments on my work) you will definitely understand it.
hannah uk said:
Such an eye-opener and so beautifully constructed.
So timely as well, as for the past week, since I started having a go at writing poetry, I have been wondering about the relationship between writer and [supposed] audience.
I remember getting very irritated by T.S. Eliot when at school we had to struggle with a rather obscure poem about a river in Wales. It had something to do with a pub sign. Today I found out a bit more. For those interested, take a look HERE
Anna Montgomery said:
I have linked a post from October which may have gone too far in explicating but it was a new to me form that opened previously shut expressive doors. Thank you for the excellent article.
margo roby said:
Thank you dVerse for the weeks of pleasure your site has given me. Thank you Charles for the exercise. Thank you Yousei for pointing out this post meets the bar!
My post arises from a posting three weeks before where I asked my readers to discuss comments that didn’t match what they were commenting upon and whether that was important. The following week, I collated the responses and gave them a synthesis. The post here is a follow-on to show how I use comments as a critique medium.
My husband and I are latecomers:
Really great article here Charles. I haven’t stopped in two days. Great weather and I’m working around my house and have yardmen here with trees, etc. I haven’t been writing lately and while I really would like to have linked I couldn’t. Promise to next time. Think this was a great topic and one I’d like to pursue later when I can. Again welcome to the pub. We knew you’d bring your own unique voice. Thank you.