Do We Limit Ourselves with Labels?

We’ve talked about poets each having a signature style, such that their work is recognizable. I would love to know what my poetic signature is, that is what makes my work distinct. At the same time, I do not consider my writing to be fully developed. Upon entering college, my poetry has changed drastically. This change is even apparent from semester to semester. Therefore, this poetic signature that I am longing for might not even be established yet.

Do established poets feel the need to keep writing a certain style to appease their fans? Similarly, when music artists transition from one genre to another, they often receive quite cynical feedback, is the same true with poets? Do poets have an obligation to stick to one style? Are poets allowed to jump from one style to another and have both types be considered good?

On the other hand, when does this much-coveted poetic signature indicate stagnance. In other words, can one overdo a particular theme or tone? How can a poet keep pushing outside their comfort zone while maintaining a unique quality?

I would love to know what other people think about this topic. I know some of my peers have distinguishable poems and was wondering if they feel pressure to continue writing these namesake poems or if they desire to branch away. Does venturing away from your style prove to be nerve-wrecking?

2 Replies to “Do We Limit Ourselves with Labels?”

  1. Rachel,

    In my opinion, “style” can present itself in many ways. Some poets distinguish their work by sticking to a certain form whether it be the haiku, the sestina, or the limerick. Some do it through structural aspects of the poem like font or spacing. If you look at the work of poet George Abraham, its aesthetic is unique and unorthodox, making it easily identifiable. For instance, his poem “arab/queer vs. Imaginary,” visually, is so distinct that Abraham’s influence is apparent, even from a distance.

    Then there are other poets who, arguably, do exactly as their peers do in terms of structure. For instance, a poem like “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” doesn’t look that different from Rebecca Hazelton’s “Lonely Planet.” And yet, we know somehow that the pieces couldn’t have been written by the same author. Why? Federico Garcia Lorca offers one possibility in the form of his theory of “duende” — a state of emotion, turmoil, authenticity. Loosely translated, in literature, “duende” is the author’s essence translated into written word.

    Ultimately, this expression of the self is the most durable of all. I mean, anyone can write an elegy or a pastoral. Most styles can be co-opted and appropriated. But what makes yours different? If this is the case, I don’t think structural consistency means as much as we might think it means. Personally, I feel that stylistic evolution is an extension of poetic growth — it happens organically.

    You also mention a sense of obligation. I don’t think we can put too much stock in the opinions of others. If we’re always writing for someone else, we, inevitably, begin writing poems that do not, can not belong to us.

    You don’t have to write for anyone.

    None of us do. At times, the kind of freedom writing affords us can prove itself to be a burden. It’s easier to be given a set of rules and harder to write them yourself. Ultimately, I want to encourage you to put being “distinct” on the backburner — ignore the world and what it thinks. For now, focus first on your work and how it makes you feel.

    Best of luck!

    Jasmine Cui

  2. Rachel,

    I definitely think we limit ourselves with labels, both inside and outside of the realm of poetry. For me, I find myself constantly struggling with the differences between “artist” and “poet” and whether or not I identify more strongly with one or the other.

    In some of my poems I think I’m more of an artist, and in others I think that I’m more of a poet. This internal monologue has very much shaped how I view my work, for better or for worse.

    In general, though, I think it’s valuable to distance yourself from labels, as they can definitely restrict your work. Forcing yourself to fit within the parameters of a given style can definitely stop you from pushing boundaries.

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