Fragmentation, Distillation, Transformation: How much context do we need?

In Gerry LaFemina’s article in the Writer’s Chronicle he writes about how writers of lyric poetry can use fragmentation to portray a feeling, often of grief. Lyric poetry he says is “noted for its brevity, its intensity ,its focus solely on a moment” and of course it is narrative. Toward the end of his article he speaks about poems that are focused on the experience and or feeling over the narrative details. He uses examples such as a Charles Wright poem, adding that Wright often “will establish narrative context in the title alone, and then let landscape and meditation do the work.” He then backs himself up with more poets who also use landscape and other actions and mediations to do the work of the poem.

Since we’ve been so focused on context this semester I was wondering how you all felt about this? I personally feel that there are poems that are exploring a feeling and that by demanding certain setting and or narrative details the reader may be focusing on not the wrong things, but could be refusing to see how the poem is doing a lot of the work already. LaFemina uses this poem by Christine Garren, “February Snow,” as an example because it uses winter snow falling, the ringing of a cell phone, and birds sleeping to drive its mood and narrative.


The roofs were snow covered, the powders blown across

the tree-limbs’ cross hatch.

In the parking lot below a person’s cell phone rings, clearly

like the bells of a church.

Sometimes it is beautiful, in some of the minutes

then ordinary again—

white dust on the tree-limbs and power lines—and on the attics.

The birds sleep.

In every room I walk the snow falls beyond the black glass—

isn’t that how it was in the beginning, throughout the rooms,

that feeling

of air in the midst of burial.

I feel that sometimes we forget that the pure emotion behind words can help drive a story and that being engaged in a poem can replace some, not all, context details. Obviously there are extremely nuanced things going on in this poem, mimicking the ideas of grief and the feeling of it. I feel that LaFemina ends his article on an excellent note with this quote by Jack Hitt;  “to every [poem] we bring unconscious scripts; as any given sentence [or line] unspools, we readjust the schema to make better sense of what we are hearing [or reading].” Thoughts?

One Reply to “Fragmentation, Distillation, Transformation: How much context do we need?”

  1. Gabi,
    I’m with you. While I do sometimes feel that a poem that presents itself as a kind of narrative requires some context, I don’t think that a poem’s context should dominate the conversation about that poem. I would much rather hear from the poem about the events and feelings it is representative of, because I feel that the poem itself is the authority on the feelings and reactions it is trying to evoke.

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