So today I did a class presentation in my modern poetry class with Professor Wheeler on a poem titled “Spring” by Anna Jackson. The poet, Anna Jackson, tells the story of how she wrote the poem in under three minutes as a result of e-mail correspondence with a friend, and the poem made it into the anthologized collections produced by Bill Manhire.
For me, this raises the question as to whether a poem’s background story can subtract from the poem’s legitimacy. If we know that a poem was written in a hurry, is it fair to discount the substance and craftsmanship if we have an admission from the author that the poem did not receive much disciplined effort? The history of poetry is filled with variations of this story—whether it be writing a poem about a cat from an insane asylum or writing “Kubla Khan” in the aftermath of an opium-inspired vision—we regularly encounter anecdotes that suggest that a poem was not written under the influence of sedulous thought.
Obviously, some poets put on an act and lie to their readership to bolster their own ego—William F. Buckley often bragged that he wrote most of his New York Times editorials in ten minutes (as opposed to his National Review editorials that he claimed to spend forty-five minutes working on), and this was all a part of his “Look at how brilliant I am, I can do this without effort” schtick. Most likely, WFB spent more than ten minutes writing his editorial columns, but he liked to create the myth to enhance his own reputation for erudite brilliance.
Should we assume that these anecdotes about poetry written in sub-optimal conditions are true? If so, does this add or take away anything from our interpretation of the poem? Or should we let the content stand for itself? If Bill Manhire was sitting next to Anna Jackson and saw her write “Spring” in under three minutes, would he then include it in his anthology? We like to think of poetry as something that can’t be bogged down by context like that—once it’s written, it ceases to be the author’s—but I wonder if it is foolish to discuss literary devices as if the author deliberately crafted them when they happen to be a happy coincidence of quick or impaired thinking.
Follow the link so you can read Anna Jackson’s poem and make your own call