No Experience Necessary
BY CHRISTINA PUGH
"In some poetry you feel there is too little lived experience—here you feel there is almost more than you can take in." Such was a
blurb I found the other day on the back of a first book of poetry. Read this, and be overwhelmed by experience: on the face of it, a
strange way to recommend poems. But on the other hand, I knew I'd seen that blurb before. Even in a poetic climate that supports
the cerebral, ludic peregrinations of The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, reviewed by Danielle Chapman in the
January 2005 issue of this magazine, there is still a sizable minority of poets and readers who come to poetry looking for a
measure of "experience"—and what's more, "lived experience." What, in fact, are they really looking for? Is experience
quantifiable? Is it equivalent to an empirically exciting life? Does it drive a red Ferrari, or is it a rambling pedestrian with a long
white beard? Is there a difference? And when so many come away from American poetry today—particularly from the work of
younger poets—with a feeling of disappointment or outrage, is experience what they are really missing?
The category of experience is seldom defined or questioned; as a concept, it's more like a wink or a nudge in the ribs. But those
who uphold it as a value seem to want to appeal to a shared sense of humanity—an unspoken agreement that despite our many
cultural, racial, sexual, and economic differences, we all are born, live, and die. In this new, graciously multicultural universalism,
the category of "experience" wants to provide a comforting sense that we're all in this together—and that we can, at least, agree on
what "this" might be. And of course, "experience" wants even more to be the sine qua non for writing the type of poetry that will
speak to "people" and not "just poets."
But as the messy legacy of the American poets known as the Confessionals—particularly Lowell, Plath, and Sexton—the thirst for
experience reveals its own fundamental contradictions. Plath died at thirty: from the perspective of anyone but the teenaged, how
experienced could she really have been? Sexton and Lowell, for their parts, lived the life of economic privilege—which placed them,
in Wordsworthian terms, "at a distance from the kind." The writing of both Plath and Sexton was, to a great degree, forged by their
struggle with what Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique called "the problem that has no name": the mind-numbing burden of
domesticity faced by women in an America that had yet to undergo the changes brought about by Second-Wave feminism. Can this
be what is touted as "lived experience"?
The category of experience seems to promise a place for everyone: like Walt Whitman, it wants to invite all of us to dinner. But it's
clear that many readers simply can't identify with the life stories of Lowell, Plath, and Sexton. And though one could easily follow
R.D. Laing and claim that mental illness itself is a voyage of discovery, it's not clear how such a voyage, as articulated in the work
of the Confessionals, would feed into the common construction of experience as a shared and democratic value.
Fascinatingly, the contemporaneous New York School, who were chattier than the Confessionals and just seemed to have a lot
more fun, played down the role of experience in writing. As O'Hara so succinctly put it, "Nobody should experience anything they
don't need to, if they don't need poetry bully for them." Or Ashbery's ruminations in an interview with Kenneth Koch: "We seem to
be determined both to discuss poetry and not to discuss anything at all. This is probably what we do in our poetry. I only wish I
knew why we feel it to be necessary."
An even better indictment of experience-as-value comes in Ashbery's "And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name." There he inimitably
asserts that for the poet, "Certainly whatever funny happens to you/ Is OK." In this mock ars poetica, "whatever" becomes both
everything and nothing—and the wisdom to know the difference. Kay Ryan has seconded this motion by pressing "the importance
to the poet of avoiding or ignoring Kodak moments." In an essay that celebrates the habitual or "novelty-free life," Ryan lauds the
least entropic state of being: "Your memory will be deep, quiet, undifferentiated as a pool. Change will enter and twist like a drop
of ink, the tiniest bit of new per old."
Perhaps it is precisely that near-invisible shimmer in the old that draws me to certain poets rather than others. I admit that I'm
often thrilled by the poets of no experience: no experience at all, if experience is defined in the popular, unexamined way. For
people immune to literature, Emily Dickinson "didn't have a life." After a year at Mount Holyoke, she embarked on what can only
be called, experience-wise, an early retirement in her twenties. As for Wallace Stevens, how boring can it be to walk to your job at
an accident and indemnity company (in Hartford, no less), year in and year out? From this perspective, both were writing books—
or fascicles—on "nothing," much as Flaubert sought to do when he began to incubate the book that would become Madame
Bovary. Yet we don't fault these poets for their lack of experience, for their humdrum and muted lives, for not having lived enough
in the world (wherever we think that may be). For me, a certain contemporary parallel is found in the marvelous work of Charles
Wright, which reads as a paean to the limited-experience life. If read collectively, his selected Negative Blue paints a portrait of
someone who has done little more—experientially—than sit alone in his own backyard for decades.
Still, experience has long provided a dubious litmus test for poetry, and not just in the American tradition. When Rilke's friend
Ellen Key told him that his work "smacked of the writing desk," she clearly meant that it reflected too little actual experience. The
poet's aversion to sustained relationships is well-known, as is his avoidance of service during the First World War. Isn't it funny,
then, that Rilke's poetry has been popularly seen—even prescribed—as the poetry of experience: the poetry of weddings, funerals,
and, according to Rilke scholar Judith Ryan, German soldiers' comfort at the front during both the First and Second World Wars?
So the poetry that, for some, lacks experience can be embraced as the quintessential poetry of experience by others. And the poetry
forged in what we might consider to be genuinely hefty experience—manual labor, for example—can also easily become its own
template or formula: something just as repeatable as the oft-lamented "academic" poem. If Wright has repeated himself—much as
Dickinson repeated herself—the same could be said of a poet like Philip Levine, who is often looked to as a quintessential
contemporary poet of experience. Clearly, then, having "experience" doesn't void the risk of repetition in poems. Poetry that is
"novelty-free," in Kay Ryan's terms, may be a function of self-actualization in the work, regardless of how much recognizable
experience that work does or does not reflect.
The longer I look, the more the category of "experience" dissolves before my eyes. I'm happy to see that dissolution, since it's a
fitting prelude to another intimately related argument: one for the viability of reading as a version of, or a substitute for, "lived
experience." Calvino's If On A Winter's Night a Traveler provides a good model for what I'm talking about. There, the allegorical
Writer and Reader are two separate people: the first male, the second female. Lately I've envied this Reader her fly-by-night
quality, her ability to lose herself so irresponsibly in books. But if I superimpose the one allegorical figure upon the other, I end up
with a viscerally viable, albeit cartoonish, prescription for who the writer is—or should be, or could be. Might it be that what is
missing in the work of some younger poets is not "experience" at all, but reading that is deep enough to effect changes in the self?
Here is where the university, the proverbial elephant in the room, comes in. Many believe universities fail poets, particularly
younger poets, by depriving them of experience. This is said categorically of the MFA and other graduate degrees, as well as of
academic positions that now support many poets as teachers and writers. Academia becomes, in this model, a sort of double
Procrustean bed. We're told repeatedly that graduate programs in creative writing produce poets who crank out the same,
experience-challenged, cookie-cutter verse. But do education and "lived experience" have to be so ineluctably incompatible? That
question is almost never asked. And few, if any, seem to wonder whether universities are failing poets by not educating
them enough, or widely enough—or later, by requiring them to teach only in the workshop model. What if experience were not the
missing ingredient after all?
I've thought a lot about this question because, though I'm hardly leading the escapist life of Calvino's Reader, I too am a Reader of
sorts: Reader for this magazine. As such, I see an enormous quantity of work by poets who are hoping for publication. Ironically, it
often seems that it's an inability to get past one's own experience that causes many of these poems to founder. For the beginner,
it's the rather narcissistic belief that, to switch Ashbery a bit, "whatever melodramatic happens to you/Is OK." But even in certain,
yes, more experienced poets, there can be an impulse around the anecdotal—around travel, around the family, around "events"—
that, if not reworked in what Veronica Forrest-Thomson called the "internal expansion" of the poem, burns as the steady flame of
What's missing in much of the work I see is an ability to distinguish experience from occasion: what I'll define here as the prime
mover of the poem, be it based in the poet's empirical life, in imagination, in the jurr of language, in literary texts. Yes, it can even
be anecdotal, as in the infamous "I placed a jar in Tennessee." It's the opening, the antechamber of the poem that invites us into
the occasion that will, we hope, master us as readers. Consider these openings—how they happen, and how little you can resist
them: "I heard a fly buzz—when I died"; "Again last night I dreamed the dream called Laundry"; "My black face fades"; "Yes, it's a
joke—in the florist's dictionary"; "flower is becoming the graph." Infinite, the snares of occasion. And polyglot. One of them is
even taken from the book whose well-intentioned but ultimately misguided blurb I quoted at the outset of this essay.
Though the term may seem old-fashioned to some, occasion manages to crash the party of even the least referential of poetic
schools. The best way I know to get a feel for this—what others might call integrity or bloom or motor—is not necessarily to go out
and have an exciting life that you can write about in your work. Instead, I think, it's the ability to read widely enough to know
which poetic occasions stir you: be they empirical, imaginative, aleatory, linguistic, discursive—and how various and
transhistorical are poems' means to stir. So to argue against the litmus test of experience is not necessarily to argue, as did Eliot,
for the extinction of the personality. It's also not to claim that I wouldn't drive the red Ferrari, if I had a license. Instead, it's to note
that poetic occasion may not always be the result of "lived experience" per se. Understanding this will open the door to the younger
poet who, like Mark Yakich, "divides his time between the bedroom and the kitchen." At the risk of coining yet another new
universalism, maybe this is precisely the sort of experience we should all want to have.
Originally Published: October 30, 2005