Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What Can We Learn about Poetry Collections from Rock Operas?

On Easter Sunday, I watched Jesus Christ, Superstar twice, once for the plot, and once with the Commentary on. Now I have the music in my brain.

Because of the music in my head, I've noticed some things about that rock opera, which has led me to remember some things I already thought about book length poetry collections. What I noticed about Jesus Christ, Superstar probably holds true for many other longer length musical compositions, but let me focus on that one primarily.

I notice how often the songs repeat the same music, and often very similar lyrics. Those songs weave in and out of the opera, and thus cement themselves firmly in our minds. They provide a kind of touchstone for us as we watch and listen.

Sometimes the song is exactly the same, but the context is different. When Judas sang, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," I sucked in my breath in delighted surprise.

Often the music is the same, but the lyrics are completely different. Again, the audience gets a touchstone. It's similar to what I used to teach Composition students about transition: remind us of what you've told us as you provide the next major point (i.e., "Not only did I like x about this movie, I also liked y").

When I first started writing, I thought that every poem I wrote should be completely different from any other that I had ever written. I got distressed when I realized I was using similar images and returning to my favorite themes.

Now, it doesn't bother me as much. In fact, as I compile larger collections, I think that poems with similar images should weave themselves through the book, thus providing a touchstone for readers. I'm a trained literary critic, so having poems that address one theme delights me--and it seems like an obvious requirement for a book. Gone are the days when the poet's first book was assembled around the theme of including everything ever written by the time the poet was 24 years old (or whatever age the poet got the book contract). Some have decried the loss of that first book that's so clearly destined to be labeled juvenalia if a poet is lucky enough to live and write and publish into old age. But if you go back and look at some of those first books published in the 60's and 70's, I'm not sure we lose much from an aesthetic point of view. Many of those poems are hardly worth reading when you look at the poet's later work (although the literary critic in me does understand the thrill of understanding the artistic trajectory).

Some of my poems are re-worked versions of older poems, often so re-worked that I'm the only one who can see the connections. Once, I would have put the older version into my juvenalia file, meaning it would never be seen again. Now, I often use them to book-end a section or a book-length manuscript. And rock operas, like Jesus Christ, Superstar, show the power of that strategy. If someone reads my book of poems and finds themselves thinking about it days later, because the woven together poems have worked their way into the willing brain, then my work is complete.

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