Continuing our series of thoughts by poetry editor Tania Runyan in response to questions from Brad Fruhauff's Studies in Poetry class. This week's question: How do you avoid agendas when writing poetry?
We travel under the steady gaze of agendas every day. Every billboard, storefront, and political sign exists for the sole purpose of gaining our attention and esteem. Likewise for bumper stickers and an alarming percentage of Facebook posts. While agendas in themselves aren’t necessarily harmful things (we gotta choose some candidate or sandwich), I like to think that art can and should transcend such simplistic ends.
In his book The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera argues that “a poet [i.e., writer] that serves any truth other than the truth to be discovered (which is dazzlement) is a false poet.” When a poet sets out to prove a point, the work begins to serve that point and limit the writer’s ability to open the imagination to the unexpected image or turn of phrase. Curbing those “dazzling” creative impulses in service to an agenda in effect cuts off a poem’s power to inspire and confound a reader with its complexities. I’m not saying that a poem needs to be “difficult” to be good. It should, however, work on enough levels that a reader can return to it and discover new ideas, memories, images, and questions with each reading. Commercials rarely do that. Laugh, they tell us, or remember this jingle. Feel good, and remember that feeling next time you travel the Pop-Tart aisle.
The original question, of course, is how I, as a poet, avoid agendas when I write. I believe Kundera’s statement best describes the attitude with which a poet should approach his or her work. When I sat down to write about Dinah, for example, the woman in the Old Testament whose rape was avenged by a mass murder, I could have easily told myself, “Write a poem that reveals the ugliness of sexual assault.” Of course rape is a heinous act, and maybe we do need to be reminded of that from time to time. But when I began to write from Dinah’s point of view and allowed her heart to be discovered, I found her identifying more with the men who died of no fault other than living in the wrong place at the wrong time. The images of corpses in battlefield held her fast. She identified with their feelings of pain and helplessness in a world where people consume one another to meet their own agendas.
I did not begin to write with this conclusion in mind, and I was surprised when the words arose on the page. However, I believe the “truth to be discovered,” in the end, is more interesting. In fact, a reader once shared with me her discomfort with the poem’s emotions. As a die-hard people-pleaser, my first reaction was to explain the discomfort away. Then I stopped, reminding myself that a poem that is hard to shake is probably more successful than a poem with a pat answer, a poem that solves an agenda’s simple equation. Advertisements make us decide. Art makes us change. And then maybe change again.