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Documentary Poetry?


In exchange for my share of the filthy lucre, I have worked from time to time as a technical writer, documenting processes, primarily. It sounds boring to most people; they imagine me in a cubicle somewhere writing enervating technical prose when my poet’s pen would rather be inscribing moon-inspired verses. On parchment. Wine-besotted. By the light of a dripping candle.

In fact, process documentation is work I have generally liked. What I enjoy about it is feeling the constraint of material things and events on my writing. I’ve thought about the word-world relationship in poetry, too, and I’ve become interested in poets who, in one way or another, answer to real places, times, events, or activities with a degree of specificity. The appeal of this kind of poetry is contained in Richard Feynman’s well-used quote: “What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?” The facts–leaving aside for a moment that all facts are unstable, constructed, etc.–are sometimes compelling in themselves. And why shouldn’t poetry employ them and be held accountable? We often don’t think of the material, historical world as our domain, and it’s thrilling to think that it can be.
I had a term for this kind of poetry: documentary. So it was with interest that I read Philip Metres’s exploration of documentary poetry on the Poetry Foundation’s website.

Metres gives a fair definition of documentary poetry as a genre, while naming its opposition and pinpointing its inherent conflict:

“[Documentary] poetry arises from the idea that poetry is not a museum-object to be observed from afar, but a dynamic medium that informs and is informed by the history of the moment. In contrast, George Szirtes, writing in the October 2007 issue of Poetry magazine, argues that ‘poetry is useless as evidence. As far as I know, no poem has been adduced as evidence in court. The truths the poem deals with are not evidentiary truths. . . . They do not lead back to the real life outside the poem: their truths refer to the real life inside the poem.’ The documentary poem opposes Szirtes’ idea of a closed system, inviting ‘the real life outside the poem’ into it while also offering readers a journey into the poem. Because of this double movement, documentary poems constantly court their own collapse, testing a poem’s tensile boundaries in the face of what Wallace Stevens called ‘the pressure of reality.'”

He runs down a top-ten list of documentary poets, from Charles Reznickoff to Carolyn Forche to Bob Dylan and Chuck D. Hmmm…I thought. Are we thinking of the same thing? I like his definition OK. It sounds like we are. Would my list be different?

Metres’s list seems influenced by the idea of poet as journalist, bearing witness to injustice. This fits the definition, but it’s just one sort of documentary. There are others. I thought of Jean Follain, who so wished to note the particulars of his vanished village that he “spoke with a shudder at the thought of having been born a year or so later” according to Merwin’s preface to Transparence of the World. I thought of Virgil’s Georgics with its treatises on soil. I thought of Thomas Sayers Ellis. The more I thought about documentary poetry, taking the long view, the more it seemed that the urge to document is so basic in poetry that it hardly seems worth marking. And I began to question this seductive notion of documentary poetry. Is there anything to it?

I think there is something to it, but not quite what Metres’s tidy classification suggests. Instead of thinking of documentary poetry as a genre or a kind, it seems more appropriate to think of it as a current within poetry, both in individual poems and the tradition of poetry. It’s an impulse that’s been with us from The Aeneid to Henry V to The Wreck of the Deutschland to “The Whitsun Weddings” to Letters to Wendy’s. It has counter-currents, sure. To name a few: the magic- and myth-making current, observable in some of Yeats and in Merwin; the current of inventive language-play, ala Oulipo.

It’s the coexistence of the documentary impulse with these other, more “poetic” impulses that makes the documentary notion relevant. The question, to me, is how well these currents and counter-currents can co-exist. What kind of sea do they make? Is the impulse to document necessarily undermined by the poem’s own demands, and vice-versa?

Next week: a reading of the Georgics wherein I attempt to answer this question.