Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Context Is Everything?

"What is the context of this poem?"

This is one of the things I hear in workshops now and then. Another of those muddy, general words that seems to change meaning even as it’s being asserted. That’s always the case, really, when talking about art, it seems to me.

So, context, then.

Context as the writing situation? The site of reception? Where one might need to theory up the reason why this thing that’s being said is being said... ?

Or is it simply the scene of the poem itself? So we can see where the action is unfolding?

I suppose it’s a bit of both. Make it a little checklist of the poem:

Do I have my rhetorical situation defined? The “why.”
Do I have my scene adequately described? The “what.”

I’m not much interested in checklists, however useful they are. They make me feel I’m in a business-writing course. But, inside such motivations is a desire to be generous to the reader. The reader does want to know why he or she is reading the poem, and, along with that, what the poem is “about.” The “about,” and then the “what the ‘about’ is about.”

Can one have too much context?

It’s one thing to see the “context as scene” in, say, “The Red Wheel Barrow,” and quite another to then have to sit through the whole story behind the poem, right? Is that second, that added context, really adding to the poem, or is it overly placing the poem in a singular context? And why do people keep telling the story?

I dislike the story behind “The Red Wheel Barrow.” For me it over defines, it reduces, the “so much depends / upon” to one thing, when I want it to remain “so much.” the second story, the one with him at the farm house window, is not imporant to me (however it might have been to the child, and to the creation of the poem). This aspect of “context” I feel gets over relied upon in most poetry. It just feels so narrowing to me. (I would also argue that this narrowing is also a move into sentimentality, where we all can sit around and worry [without real worry] about a sick child, and leave the poem entirely.)

On the other hand, I really like the presentational quality of language. “Chair.” “Window.” That sort of thing. Context as scene. But I’ve always been a big fan of strong images in generalized situations.



At 12/13/2007 6:18 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

I think whatever context a poem has needs to be in the poem. And imagine how bad "The Red Wheel Barrow" would be if it included the whole sick boy setup in its lines. Takes it from something intriguing and mysterious (not that I'm a huge fan of the poem as-is, but it's definitely those things) and makes it utterly banal and the sort of button-pushing, cheaply earned epiphany that mars much contemporary poetry. Which I assume is a large part of why it's not in there. However, I'm a big believer in context in terms of tangible objects, recognizable sensations, etc. (more broad definitions from me). Washes down the medicine.


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