Poetry and genre

Joshua Gottlieb-Miller

Dec 02, 2011

When I began writing poetry, the only agenda I had was to write poems I wasn't embarrassed to share with other people. I didn't have any loyalty to metaphor or narrative, or any other element of craft as a monolithic organizing principle. I hadn't learned to classify myself as an imaginative poet or a musical poet, or thought that I would always need some measure of story or structure. I've benefitted enormously from trying to better understand why those distinctions matter, and when to be considerate of them in my own work. Eventually, though, questions of genre or type seem inherently limiting. It's easy to fail when you don't know anything, but it's even easier to fail when you think you have to know (and do) everything. This isn't where I thought my blog post would start. Initially I had planned to discuss the lack of magical realism in contemporary American poetry and a similar reticence towards surrealism in fiction. The word "inappropriate" comes to mind. Fiction's tendency towards plot and character often precludes too much traffic in the privately unreal. It's important to note that the magic in magical realism frequently emerges from, or to be more specific, relies on a mundane context. Poetry, in all of its brief glory, rarely has the space for an out-of-place event to appear to be out-of-place. The prevalence of metaphor may also explain why poetry is more hospitable to surreal work, with its less straightforward sense making. But even these generalizations seem canned. There is surrealistic fiction and there are magical-realist poems. The poet James Tate's narratives, despite his surrealist label, often allow for strange happenings within mundane circumstances. Even the immensely readable Lucille Clifton features a relatable human speaker in one poem among winged sorrows who also happen to be choruses of desire. Fiction offers enough space for genre. Are poems long enough to truly be sci-fi, or to embody horror? Can we consider Confessional poetry to be genre-like (i.e. to have conventions that if met, qualify a work as Confessional), or Deep Image poetry? Perhaps poets more allow for categorization when seen in their collections circling around the same themes and returning to the same images. A book might reveal interests that single poems don't. The poet might find these interests useful, pursuing the sci-fi poem or the post-apocalyptic dramatic monologue. And yet, how refreshing would it be to return again to the notion of the single poem that does not know what it is. Perhaps we write this poem more often than we realize. We try to define what we have written, forgetting that so much magic is already expected.