The Poet in Poetry

By Gregory Chandler

I have no particular interest in helping to sling blame in the Best American Poetry debate that’s flooded the internet over the last couple weeks, but something that Sherman Alexie said in reference to Derrick Michael Hudson’s poem got me thinking about the way we view poetry through the eyes of the speaker, and how too often the reader finds the speaker and the poet interchangeable. In his September 7th post on the BAP blog, Alexie writes “I found [Yi-Fen Chou’s poem] to be a compelling work…And most important, it didn’t contain any overt or covert Chinese influences or identity. I hadn’t been fooled by its “Chinese-ness” because it contained nothing that I recognized as being inherently Chinese or Asian…In fact, by referencing Adam and Eve, Poseidon, the Roman Coliseum, and Jesus, I’d argue that the poem is inherently obsessed with European culture…I’d briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery, and I marveled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives.”

Alexie, too, in paying attention to the discord between the culture of the poem and the perceived culture of the poet, is blurring the line between the speaker and the poet, as well as between the poem and the poet. Rather than reading the poem in closed context of the hundred or so words on a page (or screen), Sherman Alexie has juxtaposed those words to the nine letters that follow the word “by,” nine letters which, in this case, had been strewn together in hopes of getting a poem published where it otherwise may have not.

But isn’t that what we’re all doing when we’re reading poetry, or reading short stories, or listening to music? We have a hard time separating the content of the poem from the context of the poet’s life, even though we know that a good poem ought to stand on its own. We don’t read a poem like Dickinson’s “Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church” without remembering that Dickinson herself was a bit of a recluse, nor do we grasp a handful of subtle meanings in Nick Flynn’s poetry without having read Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. It’s nature for us as readers, and as human beings, to be curious about the lives of others, to seek out new information to supplement existing information.

Sure, Sherman Alexie is the guest editor for the 2015 Best American Poetry collection, and not the 2015 Best American Poets collection, but I think that it would be nearly impossible to sterilize a collection of poetry to the point where we neither need nor want anything about the poets themselves to feel it complete.

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