Today I want to introduce a wonderful poet, Cullen Bailey Burns. Cullen and I go way back. We met in the MFA program at Western Michigan University. Since then Cullen has published two gorgeous poetry collections. Her most recent is Slip, out just this year.
by Guest Blogger Cullen Bailey Burns
Most of us hate the feeling of confusion; I know I do. In fact, confusion often causes a feeling of panic in me. In reading poetry, however, I have learned to look forward to and embrace confusion. The first moments when a poem resists me as I read it bring me to life and into curiosity in ways I find hard to explain. Take for example the wonderful Mary Szybist’s “The Troubadours, Etc.”
The title catches me off-guard at the start. Isn’t there some rule about not using “etc.” in titles, that throwaway word? Then the first line, “Just for this evening, let’s not mock them.” I don’t know who the speaker is; I am not certain who the “them” is and I don’t know why we would be mocking to begin with. I am also confused by my complicity implied with the casual “let’s.” My confusion eases a bit in the next lines, when it becomes clear they are the troubadours, but arises again in the one-line stanza “At least they had ideas about love.”
Again, the implication here is that someone (the reader? the couple we meet in the next lines?) does not have ideas about love. As the poem becomes more personal, I understand the situation: a couple is driving west, the speaker meditating on distance, time, the meaning (possibility?) of love. In a series of moves that keep me off balance, the poem addresses a wide range of subjects, some visible to the speaker as she travels and some pulled from memory.
Toward the end of the poem, the speaker asks a series of questions, beginning with “At what point is something gone completely?” The “something” could be many things: passenger pigeons. Troubadours. Pilgrims. Love. Because the poet has so skillfully filled the poem with possibilities, the question can be about each of her subjects/all of her subjects at once.
And that’s the thing about confusion. Our minds’ desire to pin meaning down hard and fast is a desire for simplicity: this + that = something beautiful and smart. Isn’t that formula of many poems? But the best poems require us to linger in the space of not completely understanding, where we find many bolder, harder options. A poem could be about love (most poems are) but also about what passes, what we destroy, what we are unsatisfied with. This poem ends: “Then try, try to come closer–/my wonderful and less than.” In its unfinished comparison, this line refuses to explain itself, and mimics the distant horizon the couple travels toward, unreachable. As are the answers to our hardest questions about love and belief.
Ok, so that’s all well and good, you say, but what about writing? How does confusion help us write better? I would say this: we need to leave space. What’s brave about Szybist’s poem is that it trusts the reader will follow its twists and leaps, without a particular end in sight. Often when I write, I am so very tempted to tie everything up at the end in a lovely bow. “See, reader, what I’m doing here? See what this means?” How many years it has taken me to step back, let the poem be, trust that while my images and language must be as clear and tight as possible, meaning will be made in the reader.
Don’t mistake me. I am not arguing that a bunch of random images can mean just anything or that the writer should not understand or carefully construct the poem’s movement. I am not suggesting that a poem means anything a reader wants it to. But surprise, a temporary loss of our footing on the slope of a first reading, that’s good stuff. And a reader only gets that thrill if the writer leaves space for it.