Investigative Poetry: Are Poets the New Reporters?

1 December 2014

It’s not unusual to come across, within a poem, a metaphor for the writing of poetry. For a reader, such a discovery is satisfying and delightful, and ever-so-slightly unnerving, a blurred window on the inner workings of a made thing. You see it, and then you don’t. And then, by focusing just so, you see it again. Poets do create such – metaphors deliberately, but not necessarily every time they occur. A metaphor may have an intended meaning beneath which some clue to Ars Poetica lurks. Recognising it – it might have the nature of a slip-up, letting out a secret of the trade, or it might carry a whiff of manifesto – a reader may have the sense that it snuck there without the poet catching on, at least not right away. This is poetry’s magic, how layers of meaning congregate in well-constructed lines, lines in which the poet has invested herself, which is sort of how things worked out for Kevin Costner’s character in the 1989 film Field of Dreams: build it, and they will come.

True to ‘form,’ many instances of poetry-making metaphor crept into the finest Canadian poems published in print and online in 2013, 50 of which were chosen with care and discernment by guest editor Sonnet L’Abbé, to appear in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2014 (Tightrope Books). One of my favourite instances lies within ‘Hotel,’ by Marilyn Bowering, a conversational poem in which the narrator looks back to a reckless time in her life. When she writes ‘… But this was the year of hotel rooms / When I looked into corners nobody swept and felt / their pull …’ it’s as if she’s pinpointed the birth of the poet. Who else feels drawn to such places, unkempt nowheres the rest of us hurry past, or busily erase with our brooms? This reading especially resonates when you move back up in the poem and see, tucked in between the salesman and miniskirt, the protest, ‘but my home was the library.’ Here may be a new, fairly reliable equation: Library Lurker + Dusty Corner Investigator = Poet. The library alone is mere preparation; it’s down in the dust where notions fuse into poems. Instinct draws poets to such crannies, for in them, often enough, things that matter, forgotten or overlooked or pushed roughly aside or tucked neatly away, wait to be found. A poet’s job is to not merely see, but to notice those things – including whatever associations, implications or questions they may raise – and report back to the rest of us.

I’m struck by how much that sounds like the job description of a reporter. Notice something, especially something that others are unaware of or are unwilling to acknowledge. Learn what you can about it, then pass that info on. In his essay ‘The Persistence of Poetry and the Destruction of the World,’ one collected among thirteen illuminating talks in The Tree of Meaning, esteemed poet and linguist Robert Bringhurst asks what a poet, ‘when he sees his own people destroying the world,’ should say? ‘Stop? Or, more politely, Please stop, please?’ Bringhurst answers his own question with a definition of the role of the poet – and, I would argue (his delineation of possible forms aside), the journalist:

‘All the poets of all times can only say one thing. They can say that what-is is. When he sees his people destroying the world, the poet can say, ‘we’re destroying the world.’ He can say it in narrative or lyric or dramatic or meditative form, tragic or ironic form, short form or long form, in verse or prose. But he cannot lie, as a poet, and offer himself as the savior. . . He cannot finally say anything more than the world has told him.’

The poet, like the journalist, is a conduit. And, like the journalist, the poet must stick to the truth. We are not, like fiction writers, necessarily making up plots. We are not, like essayists, necessarily arguing points or drawing conclusions. We are, like journalists, fact gatherers and posers of questions. We look, we ask, and we listen. We hunt down data of all kinds, from the intense emotional variety on down, or we simply await its approach: we take note, absorb, distill. We give it all back, rearranged in a way that, we hope, lets it speak clearly. We can mean different things when we speak of journalistic truth as opposed to poetic truth, but the basic realities upon which verse and metaphor are built are those that even poets, with their famously freewheeling ways, may not disregard. For a poet to exhort a reader to see, say, the unswept corner of a room in a new light, the poet cannot ignore the fundamental truths about such a place – indeed the poet must know these truths intimately, and the poet must understand, or at least sense, why he or she is compelled to call attention to them. When the poet directs our eye to the dust-ridden corner, and points behind that scene, or to an idea gathered within it, the poet is sharing important information with us, gleaned through rigorous research.

I don’t expect the world to start seeing the poet as a newfangled brand of journalist. Nor would I recommend that poets ever be hampered by journalism’s constraints, among them deadlines, word counts and the need to be ‘timely’ (and let’s not forget those famously cranky editors). My interest in poet-journalist parallels stems from the fact that I’ve practiced both arts myself. But I do think it’s worthwhile noticing the common ground between the two disciplines; my comparison is not an idle one. It’s no secret that amid global political and economic volatility, and in consequence of the vast breadth and reach of free digital media, the very fundamentals of the fourth estate, the tenets of free speech and the ideal of the journalist as society’s truth-teller are faltering. The work of actual journalists has somehow been left out of the budgetary models erecting around the new media. We are making do, more and more, with what I think of as sort-of journalism, almost journalism: sloppy and incomplete and inexperienced reporting, poor writing, rushed editing.

At the same time, counter-intuitively, something exciting is going on. The popular satire of comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert – even the homegrown satire in YouTube videos – provides many viewers with the double-whammy of current affairs embedded within their underlying absurdities and hypocrisies. Many people now chiefly get their news from such shows, or from strings of Twitter feeds, where events are filtered through tweeters’ reactions, which can be, often as not, linguistically creative and layered with meaning. This speaks to a growing sophistication in how a population living in a media-saturated culture learns to process information: lightening quick, able to synthesise, critique and reconstitute, all at once. We can glean the essence of a fact or whole political scandal through the black joke into which it’s already been transformed. What’s more, we like processing information this way, the extra challenge it poses, and the reward it offers. It’s mentally, and sometimes emotionally and politically, galvanising.

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