Poetry Classroom: Only So Much a Poem

Welcome to this month’s poetry classroom, with poet Paula J. Lambert, author of The Sudden Seduction of Gravity. We invite you to respond to the poems we’ll share here—their forms, images, sounds, meanings, surprises—ask questions of Paula and each other, and write your own poems along the way.

There’s Only So Much a Poem Can Hold

        A compilation of quotes from “A Conversation with Mark Doty,”
        Otterbein University, April 2010

When a rupture in your life pushes you into silence,
the light of someone else’s intention, you blunder
forward. You write; think, “I can do this better”; cross
it out. Your work becomes a chronicle of what’s not
there, a fiction we all agree to. What we want most
is to be in touch with our own feelings, but it’s not
what our daily discourse is designed to do. It’s what
we avoid, making ourselves sick in preparation for
avoidance. You have too much to say and therefore
can’t say anything. You think, “How could I ever feel
this way again?” Yet you do. Line breaks let you have
those two things. Multiple versions exist, and that’s
okay. It’s why we need poetry. You reach across
boundaries instead of reinforcing them. You blunder
forward. You blunder forward.

Photo by Motograf, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Poem by Paula J. Lambert.


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  1. says

    Paul, I am a Mark Doty fan. This is brilliant. Would love to read the interview, yet this poem style is an wide open window into him as a person and artist.
    I am smitten with line breaks of late, struggling and playing with them. so this “line breaks let you have those two things…multiple versions exit.” I am stuggling with the title. I may give poetry too much credit but I feel it is a bottomless vessel for holding. I am going to chew on that some more. Don’t we blunder forward? It is what makes us human and artists. This whets my appetite for the whole conversation with Doty. Off to find it. And a favorite poem of his, though I cannot recall the title, is the piece about the dead fish on ice in the market. Are you familiar with that one. Love love it.

  2. says

    Multiple versions exist, and that’s
    okay. It’s why we need poetry.

    Wow. As a child the lesson was multiple versions are suspect- lies – sins. This statement is powerful…. And for me the “it’s okay” is more potent a tonic than the statement of what IS. Multiple versions always exist even if they are at times hard to discern. They are not always so obvious. Poetry let’s me say “A-Ha! I see you, you flip side you!” and it gives me a place to be dramatic or somber or giddy about it!

    Looking forward to the dead fish, Elizabeth! I hope you find it.

    • says

      “Souls On Ice”…sorry for the lack of a link but it is on Poets.org. I love it for a million reasons and I can’t even think of one. Guess that’s poetry.

      Yes “multiple versions” gives a nod and an acceptance to the way the mind and heart interpret an encounter or an experience in a myriad of ways. Glass half empty half full etc etc (insert the king in The King and I accent here) :)

      am going to love this discussion

  3. says

    I was surprised to find this morning that this was the next poem chosen for the Classroom–but delighted too, of course, and I’m thrilled to hear the enthusiasm for Mark Doty and his work. I think I’ve always felt a bit guilty about the poem, feeling that it was essentially “stolen”—all very carefully attributed, of course, but still! It’s essentially a “found poem.” Let me explain:

    Otterbein University, a small private college just outside of Columbus, hosted an event they called “A Conversation with Mark Doty” in April of 2010 (as noted in the epigraph). The first day was a public lecture and discussion–very much in the format of a conversation, with lots of Q and A. On the second day, he led two Master Classes, one an advanced poetry workshop and one a class in Queer Theory. Later, he had his reading. I was able to attend all of it except the final reading, and he was phenomenal. What amazed me about the way he speaks—and here I mean just in the Q and A part, the actual “conversation”—is that every sentence from him seemed profound, sounded like a poem. It was astonishing. I started writing down quotes, as you do when you hear a really great speaker, but found that I was quickly accumulating a list of really great “lines” that in and of themselves were incredible, beyond the very moving and important subject matter he was discussing. He spent a good deal of time on Heaven’s Coast, the loss of his long-time partner, what it was like to live in Provincetown during the AIDS crisis and since, never dreaming he’d find another partner, get over so much loss….

    I didn’t know at first I was going to make a poem out of the list of quotes I came away with, and for a while wasn’t even sure it was okay to. But the resonance was incredible, and I started to very carefully arrange them, being careful to keep the quotes themselves accurate, but play just a little bit with the order in which they occurred, and in the case of “You blunder forward,” repeat the line, interspersing it throughout. It was the line that resonated most to me, and most of the play involved where to place the phrase as a repeating line. The revision in the poem came mostly in the form of taking it out, adding it back in, taking it out. That line, and the full poem, became all about the process of writing poetry—what we all are doing as we write about the beauty and pain of our lives: we blunder forward. That’s all. We blunder.

    • says

      This blundering is, of course, also what we do generally, just moving through life. Moving forward through our existence is a blundering, especially in the face of so much that happens that’s so bad. But along the way, some things fall into place–in ways that are also unexpected.

      I want to be clear that although the poem can be read as meta, as being about the process of writing poems, it’s as much about the process of living, all by itself. I think the latter may have been more of Doty’s point, the former more of mine. Not sure. It’s all tied together, as we are, as the world is. :)

  4. says

    Most definitely poetry is is “a bottomless vessel for holding.” And what great phrasing that is! I was not closely familiar with very much of Doty’s work before this lecture, but had heard him speak at other conferences and always found him excellent–like “excellent” is not even the right word he’s so good. He articulates beautifully with an audience.

    Here is the link for Doty’s essay “Souls on Ice,” in which he explains the process of writing, “A Display of Mackeral.” The poem is at the end of the essay.

    It’s beautiful, and I was not familiar with it before you mentioned it here. Thank for leading us all to it!

    • Elizabeth W. Marshall says

      Thanks for steering us to the correct title of the poem. In my haste to backtrack and locate it, I stopped at his piece “souls on ice” about writing “a display of mackerel”. I have a couple of his books and am eager to revisit his poetry. His heart and heart ached seasons may be what draw me to his work.

  5. says

    “What we want most is to be in touch with our own feelings, but it’s not what our daily discourse is designed to do.”

    “The world is too much with us . . . We have given our hearts away . . . we are out of tune . . .”

    We blunder forward.

  6. says

    In my first post it sort of looks like I’m equating blundering with being out of tune, but that’s not what I meant. Wordsworth continues, saying “I’d rather be / A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn” if it would help him see the world with fresh eyes. Likewise, for me, blundering forward suggests setting aside conventions and expectations and following one’s instincts, intuitions, feelings.

  7. says

    BTW, email follow-up notifications aren’t working for me, so I’m just checking in whenever I remember to. If there’s something I should see, don’t hesitate to message me on FB or send an email.

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