As a Poet, I Have Some Questions: A Guest Post by Marilyn McCabe

I have been thinking again, as I often do, about poetry as an inquiry.

book of poetry

I was staring at my blank page, so this was, in that moment, an incitement: What am I wondering about? I don’t mean literally a question that could be answered by research. I mean an opening of some sort, an uncertainty that can barely be articulated, a yearning or a bafflement that is deeply rooted in my experience of living.

In that moment, I idly thought and ended up scribbling “I wonder why against the dim light and gray sky the tree across the street seems to burn even brighter.” Yes, I could probably answer that question with some research into the effects of light and color and optics, but the possibility that some things can seem more clear in unclear situations opened something. I did feel like I could muddle around in the space created there. Between image and question, I could ease into a creative space.

Trying to feel my way into my own questions is also a useful exercise as I grapple with a collection of newer poems struggling to work together. Can I discern in my recent poem attempts what are my questions, where is the focus of my concern? I ask myself that because if I can better understand my questions, I hope to better hone my poems in the revision process. I suspect that from a far enough vantage point, a common concern will emerge from a large number of those poems. And if I can catch that whiff of inquiry, a path will be cleared to create a collection that coheres not around obvious theme but rather around a deep question.

By asking myself to define my question, I may risk writing poems that are ghastly earnest and stiff with self-conscious thought. To be too aware of where my head is at can block the whole process entirely, creation and revision (as revision itself is a creative process). ┬áIt’s almost like I have to pose a question and then hum loudly over my own thoughts, distract myself by doing the dishes or mopping the floor, let any response drift in and fade off, leaving sticky things behind: a bit of spider web, a crumb of chocolate. From those bits, I can work.

Do all poems have to have an inquiry behind them? I suppose this is arguable. But deep down inside, I think so. Sometimes though you have to dive deep beneath the veils of your own work, behind the imagery, the humor, the distractions, the voice, the masks, the showing off, to catch yourself peering out, to read your eyes. What do you fear? What do you hope? How do you live?