A conversation with Elizabeth Willis on poetry and purpose

<p>Poets Elizabeth Willis and Alberto Mobilio spoke at Brody Theater Thursday as part of the English department's Blackburn Poetry Series.</p>

Poets Elizabeth Willis and Alberto Mobilio spoke at Brody Theater Thursday as part of the English department's Blackburn Poetry Series.

The first time I attended a poetry reading was last Thursday at Brody Theater on East Campus. As part of the English Department’s Blackburn Poetry Series, poets Alberto Mobilio and Elizabeth Willis came to campus to present their poetry and discuss the process of creative writing with students. Mobilio read pieces from his recent collection, “Touch Wood,” as well as more recent, unpublished works. Willis selected poems spanning her career as a poet, including selections from “Meteoric Flowers,” “Address” and “Alive.”

During the poetry reading, I felt a distinct sense of frustration. Both Mobilio’s and Willis’s poetry contain an implicit logic that drives the momentum of the work. But it is impossible to get ahold of that energetic force when the poem is read aloud and its words drift away, ephemeral and eager to slip through your fingers. 

The simple fact is that poetry readings are a unique space for engaging with poetry. Poetry traditionally tends to be read in a solitary setting, or at least in a private state of mind. However, poetry readings create a communal space through which we can appreciate the outward silhouette of a poem, gaining an understanding of its aesthetic quality even if we cannot grasp its inner significance. Elizabeth Willis, who is the professor of poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a Guggenheim Fellow and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, noted the necessity of having a communal sphere for engaging with poetry. 

“For me, poetry readings are opportunities for certain kinds of collective experience that requires the reader to let go of the need to comprehend everything as it is happening,” she said. “It is time-bound, it’s not going to stop, so I think one benefit of a reading is that it tends to foreground the lyric components of a poem.”

The two poets’ work is ideal for the setting of a poetry reading. Both writers have a profound awareness of sound, syntax and rhythm. Piecing words together to create a poem is much like assembling a piece of music. Aesthetics matter just as much as the explicit, logical meaning, and the former is often intertwined with the latter. A poetry reading, then, provides listeners an opportunity to appreciate poetry as music.

“Sound and the rhythm are integral to the meaning of a poem,” Willis said. “If you think about the way we take in music as an art form, it often touches our emotion in some way that we find inexplicable, and yet that doesn’t mean that it is a non-intellectual form. … Poetry functions in the same way.”

In my conversation with Willis, she often used terms that made it seem as though we were talking about every form of art other than poetry. At times she emphasized the “texture,” “weight” and “coloration” of text, which are tied to the implicit meaning and emotion of a word based on its history, its connotation and its sound as spoken aloud. She often spoke in musical terms, referencing the “melodic pattern” of syntax, the “notes” of different vowels and the “emotional patterns” brought on by sound and rhythm. Poetry functions both as music and as art, drawing on and incorporating history into its emotional weight. 

“There is the melodic pattern of a sentence or line of poetry, but each word has a history of usage as well,” Willis said. “Words have meaning because they have been used by a lot of people and there’s an agreed upon sense of what they mean. That whole history is integrated into the poem, and that adds coloration to the poem.” 

Poetry has the capacity to be treated with an awareness of artistic taste. This type of “implicit” meaning is key to Willis’ work. 

“My idea of an ideal poem is that whoever encounters it will have a meaningful experience regardless of how well they understand the way the poem is working,” she said. “If there is an attention to the music, then it can be a pleasurable experience even if you do not understand how it functions. … Just because we use language as a medium for communication doesn’t mean that every use of language has to function in precisely that way.”

Nonetheless, poetry finds itself at a unique juncture in that it operates as art but also exists within an academic sphere that emphasizes explicit meaning and clarity. In order to remove ourselves from the trappings of academic analysis and precision, what we must consider as being of utmost importance when assessing poetry as art is intentionality rather than intellectual meaning. Intentionality, simply put, is emotion driven by how we choose words; it is an awareness of mood and an understanding of how to create it. 

“To me, emotion and thought are inseparable,” stated Willis. “I think sometimes we think things associated with the body are connected with a lower consciousness or the subconscious. ...  I’m more interested in a more integrated view of what it is to be human, which is that it is difficult to distinguish between thought and feeling, especially when it comes to poetry.”

“There’s an implicit logic which has to do with where the intentionality is coming from,” she continued. “So, if I’m imposing a logic on a poem, that’s one thing, but if i’m allowing the poem to drive, then I’m working with the implicit logic that has to do with an intentionality that I think is within the language … the materials are leading.”

The fact that poetry functions with implicit intentionality means that it is always political, even when it lacks a clear-cut, definitive political purpose. Explicitly political poetry has grown in popularity over the last year. However, Willis asserted that poetry is inherently political because words have a historical denotation and connotation that can be wielded as a weapon. 

“I think that politics are implicit to the art of poetry. … Certainly the practice of poetry can have a political component without its content being explicitly political, even just depending on how you use your pronouns,” she said, citing the use of the second-person pronoun in Claudia Rankine’s book “Citizen.” 

The history inherent in words and phrases means that when one writes poetry, one participates in a “transhistorical, transnational conversation.” Poetry that is explicitly political should be treated in the same manner as any type of poem. Just as political language can be manipulated for good and bad, we must be aware of “how we use poetry and how it uses us,” Willis said. 

Thursday’s Blackburn Poetry Reading was an opportunity not only to interact with renowned poets but to realize the potential of poetry as an art form. It is emotional and profound, but that yearning can be intellectual as well. 

“Wallace Stevens has said that a poem is ‘the cry of the occasion,’ with that cry signifying the intensity or insistence on the part of the poem for being heard,” said Willis. “For me, the occasion is the moment of perception, the moment of reception, and that may be painful, and it may have an intellectual component.”


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