Research is not the map (there is no map) ...
A recently published study in a journal called Qualitative Research is entitled "Expressive research and reflective poetry as qualitative inquiry: a study of adolescent identity." The five authors of this study summarize their project thusly (from the abstract): "In this study of adolescent identity and development, poetry is used as data, as a means of data representation, and as a process of inquiry."
Poetry as data. Wow. Whoda thunk it? Poetry, apparently, is big in qualitative research.
The idea seems to be that poetry may be used as an investigative tool in the field of scientific inquiry—at least, in the social sciences. I can find no evidence to suggest that the "data" of poetry has proven equally useful in the hard sciences. While I take a guarded, not to say dim, view of such methods in general, I won't be on the picket line at the fourth Annual International Symposium on Poetic Inquiry. As my grandmother used to say, if that's their idea of fun they can have it.
Before we move on to matters of research more relevant to the actual writing of poetry, qua poetry, I cannot resist relaying two more examples of poetry as research, two studies that uncover enlightening relation between (or as a result of) poetry and research. The first makes a stab at combining poetry and "hard" science, the second confirms what most of us moderately successful poets have long suspected:
"Poetry Writing and Secretory Immunoglobulin A," G. Lowe, J. Beckett, and G. M. Lowe, Psychological Reports, vol. 92, no. 3, part 1, June 2003, pp. 847-8.
The method, the result:
17 healthy students provided saliva samples for Immunoglobulin A (s-IgA) assay before and after sessions of either writing poetry or reading magazines (control). Levels of s-IgA increased after the poetry-writing sessions, but not after reading.
"The Cost of the Muse: Poets Die Young," J. C. Kaufinan, Death Studies, vol. 27, no. 9, November 2003, pp. 813-21.
The method, the result:
This study examines 1,987 deceased writers from four different cultures: American, Chinese, Turkish, and Eastern European. Both male and female poets had the shortest life spans of all four types of writers (fiction writers, poets, playwrights, and non-fiction writers), and poets had the shortest life spans in three of the four cultures (and the second shortest life span among Eastern European writers). Possible reasons for the poet's shorter life span are then discussed.
Dear Poets, the moral: buy term life insurance, early and often. And be sure to spit in a cup immediately after writing poems. Place cup in freezer. Save those immunoglobulins for a rainy day.
But this is not what I mean by "research" in relation to poetry.
What I would like to look at is the idea that research into the world of hard facts and bodies of knowledge—especially those conventionally thought of as outside the domain of poetry—can enhance, enrich, and open out the poetry we write.
I think it's more or less understood that, in a wider sense, a poet's research includes every perception and experience in this life, starting with the first slip of consciousness. An alert awareness to past and present, the poet as wakeful witness, is essential to writing.
I think the trick is to pay attention; but really I'm saying what my trick is, and it's not so much a trick but a lifelong habit.
What I'm talking about is a more focused kind of investigative fact-gathering used to broaden the poet's vision and language, to expand the container called "poetry."
Poets have been using research in this way for some time now. It's an interesting and valuable contemporary trend: welcoming into our work odd and unexpected knowledge found "outside the self."
Of course, in a sense this has always been so. Early poetries were largely indistinguishable from other intellectual disciplines, or served as nascent versions of other disciplines, carrying inside their rhythmic borders millennial histories of war and rulers, origin stories, cultural movements and changes, observations of nature, etc.
Nineteenth-century poets were curious and informed about the science of their day and attempted whenever possible to include it in their work. In fact it was expected by many Westerners of that period that science would soon solve all our questions and problems, and poets, for the most part, signed on to that program with enthusiasm. A neo-renaissance seemed plausible, a period of union of art and science. Poets and scientists often knew and socialized with each other: Keats's "watcher of the skies" was pointedly modeled on astronomer William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus. Later, during the fever pitch of "Romantic Science," Coleridge invited the extraordinary chemist Humphry Davy to set up a lab in his Lakeland home. Davy did, and the two proceeded to have a grand old time getting hammered on nitrous oxide (Davy taking notes, of course), among other perhaps more edifying shared experiences.
A history of the relationship between science and poetry would make for a fascinating book. Someone should write it. Avanti.
When I was forming myself (and being formed) as a poet in my twenties, the fields of science and poetry had amicably separated. It is difficult to imagine Strand or Merwin, as learned and urbane as they were, laboring to insinuate the latest discoveries in physics or cosmology into their pared-down, stone and bone, deep-image poems. And it is equally hard to imagine that Robert Creeley or Alan Dugan sat down with much more than their own minds, which lucky for them included encyclopedic knowledge of English and American prosody, to write the next poem. It is true that Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, and other pioneers were bringing fresh cultural, ethnic, and gender perspectives into what was at the time a practice dominated by white men. And there was "language" poetry, which came packed with its own political theory and ambitions for wider cultural inclusion. But beyond these exceptions the era of the seventies was more romantic than classical, and the brief lyric issuing from a definable self was clearly the dominant and ascendant mode.
Everything changes. Today young poets have the speed and reach of the Internet at their fingertips. This, coupled with a postmodernnist worldview that inherently distrusts the notion of a stable self, has made for an innovative and decentered poetry that allows for a sometimes bewildering range of voices, tones, rhetorical sets, "nonpoetic" disciplines and obsessions, jargons, and exotic, un-"poetic" bodies of knowledge, to be incorporated into the work. It has resulted in a restructuring of what we mean when we say poetry. It has made for an amazing variety of poetries.
There is no codification for the research methods employed by poets in the construction of poems, thank God. But there are a few specific examples I'd like to give as illustration, and some words from the poets themselves on process. I think this may help, Dear Poet, to fire up in you a passion for experimentation, such that you too consider opening your poetry to some of the neglected detritus of the world, cyber and otherwise, and particularly to those facts and disciplines that have never yet seen the inside of a poem.
I asked my friend, colleague, and fellow poet Kiki Petrosino for her thoughts on "research" in poetry. Here is how she replied:
My research is pretty unscientific. Right now I'm in the office, working on a new poem. So far, I've looked up information on skeletonization, the ancient demon Astaroth, carnivorous beetles, sunfish, the mallow plant, and the Lesser Key of Solomon. Much of this has been through Google, because I only want to know a little bit about each thing right now ... just enough to complete an image and move on to the next line. I look something up, think about it for a few minutes, turn it over a few times in my imagination, and then test out a phrase. Undoubtedly, what I come up with has very little to do with facts and much more to do with making noise! I count Susan Howe as one of the major poets in my constellation, but I rarely devote myself to the painstaking research on single topics that she is so adept at. My method is to do a lot of jumping around (literally—moving from my desk to the computer, to the dictionary, etc.).
Kiki's informal method is, I think, the method of most poets, a matter of what we might call "research by association."
Poems can begin in a variety of ways: with a line, an image, a rhythm, a piece of speech, an obsessive dream, or worry. Poems can even begin with an idea, though this may be the rarest of incitements. But in most cases the actual work of the poem doesn't really begin until some words appear on a page. In this instance Kiki had obviously started, had already written down a few words that interested her. She looked these words up. She mulled over her findings. She delighted in parts of it, and allowed those parts to suggest further words, rhythms, lines, or targets of research.
And so she went, moving blissfully on a kind of poetry scavenger hunt, where the prize at the end is the larger mystery of the newborn poem itself. On the way, one clue leads by association to the next, and the explorer keeps moving, even though the "correct" number of clues is unknown, it's up to the poet to decide even what a clue is, and even some of those unearthed treasures that seemed most promising will be discarded in the final work.
Crossing a stream, rock by rock, throwing down each new stepping-stone as you go ... which brings us to the second part of Kiki's answer, and an even better simile:
One line leads to another (at least, on good days), like a rope of scarves through a magician's hands. Some piece of language will come up—for example, the word "swamp," which I love. And then I think to myself, what grows in the swamp? And I remember a Workshop friend of mine, Nellie. She has this recipe for "real" marshmallows that uses the mallow plant as an ingredient. Nellie hunts the mallow in the marshes near her childhood home in the countryside. So then I look up the word "mallow" to see what comes up, not because I'm going to talk about Nellie—or marshmallows—in my poem, but because I like the sound of the word "mallow" and think it might be spooky enough to work well in this line I'm trying to write about the swamp. The word "mallow" leads me to the word "stem," and suddenly I'm thinking, "what else has stems?" And that thought eventually leads me to this line: "I hear your old jaws snag on the stem of a grin." Did I mention this is a completely arbitrary & weird process?? Research is not the map (there is no map), but it might function as a kind of compass through the field of language. A terrifically broken compass, of course.
"I hear your old jaws snag on the stem of a grin"—an interesting line, and what a journey Kiki took to arrive at it. I really don't know of a better, more specific description of the odd and intuitive way poems may be made. In one compressed paragraph (well, now two) we see clearly how the associative process moves in many directions at once in the poet's brain—the sound of one word leads to contemplation of its literal meaning, then to all that the signified "thing itself" (swamp) contains. This leads to a memory of a friend whose interesting habit Kiki associates with swamp. Then the why of the association brings up a specific, lovely word—mallow—which the poet "likes the sound of." The poet then looks this word up. The results of this bit of "research" lead the poet to consider one part or implication of that word, again shifting from desirable sound to a more literal, material denotation. Finally, Kiki asks herself to think of other contexts or categories in which this last clue in the trail might appear. When she finds the right one, the line comes to her, presto—as if by magic.
Another method of "poetic research" is writ large by the work of the prolific and interesting American poet Susan Howe, whom Kiki mentioned. Howe has completed several book-length works on historical figures. The result, however, is not by any means the poetic twin of "historical fiction." Howe does obsessive, exhaustive research into the life and work of her models—but the final work includes actual as well as imagined scenes from the lives, pieces of speech, comments, and perspectives from other writers and thinkers, as well as Howe's own responses to the model's work and thought. She likes to see and feel actual objects her subjects used. Interspersed among the pages of her published poems she includes photocopies of many actual documents discovered in her research. Her method permits meditation on such figures as Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Charles Peirce to raise epistemological and linguistic questions suggested by their work, but not limited to it.
She also includes her own questioning—Howe is centrally interested in language, its operations, capacities, and limits. The result is that the figures the poems investigate come off as fascinating and much more complex than any of us had thought, and their work is placed within a larger context of language and the possibilities of meaning. Still, the real star of the work may be Howe herself—her urgent interactions with Emily, dramatized in meticulous, self-questioning lines.
Here is Howe, speaking in an interview about her projects:
I need to ground my work in particulars. In my case this usually means a material object such as a book, or a manuscript, most recently lace. Often a historical moment, or a specific person. Not a made-up character—I could never be a novelist—but I try to understand all aspects of the person I am writing about the way a playwright or an actor might. Esther Johnson, Emily Dickinson, Mary Rowlandson, Hope Atherton, Anne Hutchinson, Thomas Shepard, Clarence Mangan, Herman Melville, Charles and Juliette Peirce—the only way for me to reach them, or for them to reach me, is through the limited perspective of documents. This doesn't say much about my notion of self—because for something to work I need to be another self.
We live in an age of nonfiction. Our loss of faith in the imagination is evident in the proliferation of reality-based TV shows, and the popularity of the memoir, over and against such forms as the novel and other explicitly imaginative forms (poetry?). Even popular scripted shows, like the CSI series, make exhaustive use of scientific (forensic) facts and methods, as if to assure the viewer that, it's all right, this stuff is the way it's really done, it's true. Prosecutors now complain that the show has embedded in the public mind the notion that every crime can be neatly solved, in every case, by DNA evidence. The verdict in the recent Casey Anthony case, in which the DNA evidence was slim and inconclusive, is instructive. Casey Anthony—the lurid, unfolding-in-real-time courtroom drama, presented as another form of reality theater ...
Why this hunger for the factual, for "reality"? Is it because our personal experience has become so mediated, so meta? Many people have asked this question, and by now it's nearly a dead horse. I will not add any further blows.
But the relationship between the real and the imagined is not a new fascination. In fact, it is the same question that gave rise to the shadows on the walls of Plato's cave; it's just that we still have no answer, not even a satisfying distinction between the two realms.
What is new in poetry, and in the interesting genre-bending that has become a more general literary trend, is that the question is currently being raised in more explicit, concrete form, as an expression of the work itself.
Kathleen Ossip's recent book of poems, The Cold War, contains a number of smart longer poems that mix factual data of various kinds with more conventionally "lyric" language. Ossip has an apt sense of the dramatic, and these poems develop and accumulate force as they progress.
One of them, "American Myth," assembles a kind of meditation on that period of American history known as "The Cold War Era." The whole book, of course, is concerned with that period, but "American Myth" seems to me a particular crystallization of the book's themes. The poem weaves together three distinct strands, two of which are narrative and based on the lives of historical figures Wilhelm Reich and Will and Ariel Durant. The third strand takes the form of lyric interludes—brief, short-lined, and more dreamily suggestive than the denotative narrative portions. The lyric sections lead the reader toward the speculation that they issue more from the poet's point of view, though that is left indeterminate—the poem's author seems to prefer to keep her distance, from us, if not from the characters in the poem.
Here is what Kathleen told me about the subject of "research" and poems, as it applies to her practice:
I'm usually more comfortable dealing with atmospheres and sensations than irritably reaching after facts. "American Myth" began, really, when I was a kid, dipping into books I didn't understand on my parents' bookshelves. Wilhelm Reich seemed to have something to do with sex and that was a plus. The Durants as a married couple who wrote books together were intriguing, as was their huge success. Later on, when I was writing The Cold War, trying to figure out that period of history (and my parents) (and our current mess), Reich and the Durants seemed emblematic of two vaguely opposing ways of behaving in the world, both American to the core. But I didn't have the facts to back up my intuition. One summer I bought and begged for four days away from my family. I locked myself in a motel room with a biography of Reich, some of his books, and a joint autobiography of the Durants. There were the facts and they were interesting enough to make a poem, which took a prose-poemy shape. But I added some lyric interpolations, for mystery. Fact + mystery became my stab at "reality" or "truth."
This paragraph is instructive for several reasons. First, Ossip reminds us that the most interesting writing, however the writer accomplishes it, proceeds from personal obsession or passion. This is why I think many of the current spate of "research" poems fail—the writer was more interested in being admired for her own cleverness than in the subject of her poem. Don't write about what you know—write about what has made you ill with interest, what has infected you.
Then sex (of course!). To paraphrase the Goncourt Brothers, sex would be the most ridiculous and trivial of subjects, if only it did not contain the secret of life. That the poem centrally features sex Ossip wryly calls "a plus."
Then there is the necessity for sustained and concentrated attention, especially in the case of the long poem. Ossip "bought and begged for" time to write the poem. I find this formulation touching; anyone who has schemed and longed for time and space to write will empathize. I speak in other parts of this book about the essential selfishness poets must practice, and how difficult it is to find balance between this necessity and having a life that includes others, perhaps even a family. There are no one-size-fits-all answers to the dilemma, and there is no way around the need to solve it.
Finally, we can add Ossip's equation to the others I have put in this book, in my ongoing quest to formulate the mathematics of poetry:
Fact + mystery = "reality" or "truth"
Now, go find Kathleen Ossip's poem, and read it. Look into Howe and Petrosino's books. The best way to emulate certain authors, or to absorb their methods, is to read their work, with love and hunger.
Then, open your poems to the wider landscape, especially the "unpoetic" parts. It's an enormous, fertile field.
About the Author
Jeffrey Skinner is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Salt Water Amnesia (Ausable Press, 2005), and two anthologies of poems, Last Call: Poems on Alcoholism, Addiction, and Deliverance; and Passing the Word: Poets and Their Mentors. Poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Poetry Review, Poetry, BOMB, and The Paris Review, and his poems, plays, and stories have gathered grants, fellowships, and awards from such sources as the National Endowment for the Arts, The Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Howard Foundation, and the state arts agencies of Connecticut, Delaware, and Kentucky.