approaching poetry

Having not read a lot of experimental poetry and then reading Douglas Kearney’s “The Chitlin’ Circuit” I gained a better sense of how far experimental poetry can really be pushed. During my first reading of “The Chitlin’ Circuit,” I immediately flipped the book around on its side to read the text starting from left to right. This was not intentional, but I think the mindset of reading ‘poetry’ and reading text out of a book made me approach it in that way. But after reading the first line, I didn’t really know where to go from there and ended up reading in order of the size of the font, almost like a poster. I understand that simply due to the poems form it may not be intended to be read in any specific way, but simply based on its label, ‘poetry,’ even if experimental, had an influence on my experience with the piece and what I feel I am obligated to do with text, which is usually simply to read it.

I later went back to it, stuck on how it was different from a lot of the other poetry in this anthology, in its form, both font choice and size, and the way it made me move around the page, and move the page itself around, to fully experience it—having an impact on even the way I interacted with the materiality of the piece. In my second reading of the poem, I approached it more as a piece of art, taking it in as a whole image, first. It was then that I was able to clearly see the train track imagery, and appreciate the poem visually, and not just the way I moved through the language and syntax. Had this poem been hanging on a wall on its own in gallery as a piece of visual art, or even presented without any type of categorization at all, I believe I would have approached from a more artistic approach on my first encounter with it, and then zoomed in on the text. That makes me wonder if having it in a book or being labeled as experimental poetry is essential to the work and how it is perceived, or if a label is not actually doing the work any favors by limiting the audience’s approach. Unless of course, the intent is to have the piece read in a certain way.

I switched from viewing experimental poetry as text written in an inventive and experimental way, to seeing it as a piece of art (whatever that even means) that could stand on its own that happens to be made up of text. One way isn’t any better than the other, but it definitely had an effect on what I was able to takeaway from the poem. Then again, separating how I approach different kinds of work in this way may say something more about me, and my own limitations and attachment to rules and following certain structures and expectations.

Kearney’s poem also made me question the definition, limitations, and opportunities of poetry. Because poetry deals with text, the poet is really only confined to the shape of the letters themselves, in order for it to be text and for that text to be at all legible. And even that can be skewed with greatly, to a point where the letters are unrecognizable. But, if the words themselves, although there, are quite literally unreadable, does it still count as poetry? Is there a line that can be crossed, where it maybe is just, art, and not the literary art form of poetry. There probably isn’t, because if you say it is poetry, it is poetry, and I might be getting too hypothetical.

It’s interesting how certain labels and qualifications invite certain expectations and behavior of the audience. It is also making me question which of my own limitations am I bringing to the next poem, and how can I have a more openminded approach.

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One Response to approaching poetry

  1. Erica Mena says:

    Yes yes yes! Such great questions about category and expectations. When we approach something as a “poem” how does that condition and constrain our engagement with it? You’re asking all the best possible questions about categorization and genre I think! And noticing your own readerly impulses and reactions, and how they change, is the best possible way to be engaged in your reading as creating meaning in response to the text. I love this!


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