In his workshop at Wake Forest University, Philip Levine warned us “not [to] compete with the movies.  The poet is limited to words. [The poet] should not try to tell too much.”  Poets have no monopoly on the presentation of accurate and complete detail (although certainly one may be the only eye-witness to a given event) nor to the response of the reader (viewer) that follows the presentation.  In an age where disclosure is trendy, modern technology has created a nightmare for the self.  Nothing is private.  The video camera events records events with startling completeness and lack of regard for privacy, and viewers express strong opinions toward the material and analysis that they see.

It seems to me that Alberta Turner has explored a slightly different aspect of this same concept (as expressed by Levine) in her essay, “Not Your Flat Tire, My Flat Tire: Transcending the Self in Contemporary Poetry.”  She uses the term “selective seeing” (Field Guide, p.166) as she demonstrates (through examples of poems that are both successful and unsuccessful) the use of the poet’s private experience to evoke a universal response in the reader.  She challenges contemporary poets to use more descriptive detail and less interpretation in their poems.  Perhaps she is on to something here.

We’ve all heard the saying: “Confession is good for the soul.”  Although I agree with this statement, at least in given contexts, I wonder if confession (and often explanation and interpretation are just that) constitutes adequate material to write a poem with universal appeal?  I am presuming, of course, that modern poets want to write poems that truly transcend the personal and lead their readers toward realization that their own experiences are similar to those of the poet.  The poems that will live on after their writers have died possess such qualities.

Craft is enough if one merely wants the title: published poet.  The accurate recording of somewhat unique, but understandable details written in accepted modern poetic forms will allow one to get by in an age of mediocrity.  But such poetry cannot be accurately described as universal for the poet is too much the subject of his/her own poetry.

Alberta Turner writes that poets (even known talents) often fail to write universal poems because they “fail to perceive deeply enough in the first place” (p.168).  How often do we begin to record our perceptions before we have fully comprehended the situation at hand: before we have envisioned the universal in the specific?  Poets are often impatient (although not uniquely so), foolishly fearing the lost of precious detail.  Thus, we often begin to write too soon.  Detail, especially the wrong detail, does not immortalize either the poem or the poet..  Will one more fact (or just the right word) make the reader understand?  Understand what?  Will the reader understand what the poet has failed to know because he/she is not willing to experience the deep?

People are often afraid of the deep for it is a dangerous place where we cannot be sure that we will like what we see, especially those things that involve our own character weaknesses. Entering the deep, we relinquish self-control, a trait that is highly valued by our society.   We want to use our minds alone to draw our conclusions concerning our experiences, rather than to seek the truth of a given situation through a wider range of intelligences, including the imagination, intuition, and keen sensual perception.

Perhaps both Philip Levine and Alberta Turner have verbalized something that we would rather not hear (and certainly rather not admit or deal with): hours of revision cannot replace vision.  A poet must see before he or she can show: one must look in, out, and around.  One who wishes to write the universal must not shy away from the deep, but he/she must dare to immerse him/herself in experience even though there will be criticism and misunderstanding as he/she does so.  It takes time to prepare the self show what one learns because sometimes the world does not want that which is evident only beyond the finite limits of reason.  If one interprets a situation correctly (by looking deeply enough), one is more able to select details that will allow the reader to envision his/her own experience as similar to that which the poet has described. 

Words that evoke a universal response reveal more truth than a poet can possibly know without looking beyond the self.  Truth is like that.  Truth is bigger than any one individual.  A poet dares not begin with mere description and certainly not with analysis.  First, a poet must go where he/she has not yet gone.  Upon return, he/she will know something that was previously unknown.  Only then can the poet begin to select the appropriate detail to write a poem of universal appeal.  After the ecstatic (in vision and revision), one can seek to recall the proper details and the best words to immortalize the experience, one can hope that the experience went deep enough beyond the self to recognize universal truth.  If so, a poet can begin to write a poem that will, after much work, sing a cappella.