Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I Heart Abrams

This week I have been restructuring my first poetry manuscript. Or rather, I’ve taken a bomb to my manuscript and am seeing where the pieces fall. Sandy Longhorn’s blog recently turned me on to something that Victoria Chang posted on problems she sees as a contest judge for first books. This blog is worth a read to any one wondering how to organize their first books. You can check it out at:

It is number eight on Chang’s list that is the most interesting to me, and that is Chang’s point that sometimes writers don’t consider the reader. This phrase is often said to a lot of aggressive head-nods, and I would agree with those aggressive head-nods, but the issue is more complicated than what it might seem. Not considering the reader is actually part of what contemporary poetry does so well. I should back up a bit and explain myself.

If you have ever been unlucky enough to find me in a bar talking about poetry, I will invariably start yapping on about M.H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp. In short, Abrams claims that we have undergone about four major modes of examining poetry: mimetic, pragmatic, expressivist, and objective. It is the expressivist mode that is the one that most affects contemporary poetry. Essentially, this mode came about around the Romantic period and emphasizes a focus on expressing what is within oneself. If you happen to read any writers like Wordsworth talking about their writing, it’s brimming with these metaphors of something being contained and the poet unleashing it such as with that famous Wordsworthian line that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings...". Frankly, this mode has become so dominant a poet could not even understand the point of a poem if it’s not to express oneself. Mimetic, for instance, privileged the writer objectively describing the world (writer as mirror), and pragmatic privileged the writer viewing his work as a way to inspire a reader to act, feel, or think a certain way (writer as teacher).

With this expressivist mode, a few things happen. The author becomes central to his work since it is the author’s experiences, feelings, and thoughts that he wants to express. Also, sincerity becomes valued over truth. (Whatever is truth anyway?) A consequence of the writer becoming more important in his work is that the reader becomes less important—which leads to other effects. Readers may be confused since this type of writing is more about the writer. Also, more reader confusion leads to a greater reliance on criticism—written by the author or schools or critics—to explain what is being said. Any of this sound familiar? It’s contemporary poetry. Now, just to be clear before I’m called out on this: nothing with literature fits within these tidy boxes, and I can think of many exceptions. Still, the boxes are quite helpful in lugging around ideas I couldn’t hold otherwise.

So, while we often complain that some poems don’t consider the reader, that principle is engrained in our current principle of expressivism. That does not mean it is without problems, but it is intricately linked to what is good about poetry. What does have to happen is each writer has to teach the reader how to read the poem. And perhaps that is what we are saying when we say the writer doesn’t think about the reader: the writer isn’t teaching the reader how to understand a particular poem.


  1. That last paragraph is very well said. Thanks for linking to me and for these insights.

  2. The discussion of audience reminds me of a very interesting ted lecture on a book by Stephen Pinker--"The Blank Slate" where he argues that the decline of "high" art has much to do with forgetting the needs of the audience.

  3. I'm going to have to check this lecture out. Stephen Pinker often says stuff that I find so interesting. Now, since I don't know the area of linguistics well at all, I have to take his word for it a bit too much. Still, I gotta keep reading him. Thanks for this link!

  4. This is one of the things I've always had trouble with in poetry. I just can't figure the use of language that isn't clear to me.