Notes to myself – Poetry and discoverability

2014-08-22 16.42.31 I have been researching an article on poetry and plagiarism (the focus being on what help there is for inexperienced poets to avoid unintentional plagiarism) and the process has unearthed a few thoughts.  So I type them here as notes to myself:

  • There’s a variety of ways in which poets indicate that they are borrowing from/commenting on another poet/poem that don’t necessarily spell it out for the reader
  • There’s a high degree of assumed knowledge that a reader of poetry must possess to fully appreciate or perhaps even understand some poetry
  • This assumed knowledge barrier may be more harmful to the wider craft

Some of the joy of poetry is of course returning to a poem and discovering something new.  I particularly like Frost’s Mending Wall for that reason but experiencing poetry communities from the outside (ie not tertiary educated in poetry specifically, only recently affiliated with any online groups) I do feel I am lacking some understandings, rules of the culture if you will.

Take for example the long established tradition of dedicating a poem to someone.  I, in my ignorance thought that this was only the poet being nice.  What no one tells you, what you have to work out for yourself is that this is one way in which poets reference the work of others or note that the poem you are currently reading is in dialogue with or is potentially taking ideas/words from another poem, by the poet who is referenced in the dedication.

This is only one of the myriad ways a poem indicates it’s referencing other work, it’s a little more obscure than say titling a poem A Reply to ……etc, or including an epigraph,  but the variety of ways in which a poem can be referenced, and the lack of any Rough Guide to referencing poetry had me thinking about discoverability and how I find poetry, how I, an inexperienced poet but not uneducated person make connections between communities of poets dialoguing with each other.

There is an expectation(probably as a result of poetry that originates in academia) that if you are going to write poetry and read poetry there’s a long apprenticeship, there’s some learning to be undertaken.  Consequently there’s an aversion to dumbing down or making some things as plain as day. I understand that argument and agree to some degree – practicing a craft, requires actual practice and learning from those further along than you. 

But I do think there’s room for some facets of the craft to be documented or more readily available, even standardised.  It is glaring that  in the three “How to” poetry books ranging from general audience to university text, that I have, that there’s little on on the subject of citing or referencing other’s poetry in your poems. There’s copious documentation on referencing for other non-fiction ie essays etc, but little for poetry. 

Hard to accuse someone of playing fast and loose with the rules when the rules aren’t written down or there’s no common understanding or different understandings are held between different types of poetry communities.  But ignoring the plagiarism angle for a minute I thought about how being made aware of the more obscure ways that poets reference each other opened up links to other poets and poems ie if poet a is talking about poet b’s poem than I should try and read both no?.

I’d like to think that a very broad and basic understanding of how to reference or borrow other poet’s work might not only contribute to less plagiarism or at least leave sneaky plagiarists with less wiggle room but also leave signposts to explore other poets and poems.

So not handholding per se but directing me for further reading.

But I suppose it depends on who you are writing for.  I wouldn’t expect to sell a chap book of Haiku to a very large audience because the form requires a bit of leg work to appreciate.

I tend to favour more information about poets poems and collections, than less.  Case in point a recent library borrowing, Uncommon Light by Brook Emery.  I wouldn’t have known that that Emery was referencing the thoughts of St Augustine if it hadn’t told me on the jacket. Now that connection isn’t necessary to gain an immediate appreciation but it places the work in context.

I love it when poets include notes on specific poems as well.

Sure a poem should stand on its own, and I do like reading it “clean” first but I also like seeing where it fits; in the head of the poet, in the greater dialogue etc.

Do you think insularity or an assumed knowledge culture harms poetry?  How do we convert non-poetry readers into poetry readers?  Does poetry have too high an entrance exam to steal a phrase from the Coode Street Podcast?


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