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  • Jan Carroll

Questions on Framing and Relevance in Poetry Writing and Reading


If this picture was a poem, what kind of poem would it be? Bucolic? Pastoral? There’s a peace and a beauty inside this dwelling, though because the flowers are in a vase, this beauty has been brought in from outside. What does that tell us about the outer world, about the connection between the inner and outer world? How would it be different if there was a tree, for example, growing up through the floor instead? What would that tell us about this particular inner world? There’s a window, but nothing is seen through it. Why? How does that omission color the overall message? Is a poem that is metaphorically representative of a vase of flowers by a window relevant? Political? Meaningful? Can it be comforting, healing, a refuge, a depiction of a place to return to when centering? Or is it too innocent, too “don’t worry, be happy”? What about that little bit of distortion of the stems at the surface of the water? Have you ever read a poem that had something like that in it? Did you like it?

What if we added a snowman outside that can be seen through the window. I could have added a happy snowman, and even that would have altered the message: it’s warm enough inside for flowers but cold enough outside for snow, and someone has seemingly made the best of both worlds here. But I chose instead to add this melting snowman, tilted, arms outstretched as if either alarmed about something or bracing for an impending fall, looking in a way like it’s trying to run away. What about the expression on its face? And is that some kind of crown of thorns on its head? What’s THAT about? How does this snowman change the poem that it might represent? Can the person looking out see themself in the snowman outside? What does it indicate about the view of the outer world? This is a whole different poem now, isn’t it? Do you still like this poem? Is it more relevant? Political? Meaningful? Does it still have the potential to heal you in how you recognize something about yourself in it? About others? About the world? About life? Note: the flowers are still there. But their role has changed. They’ve become more dimensional. More complex. Do you like poems like this, poems that raise these kinds of questions, or do you find them too difficult, too much work (to read or to write)?

What if we changed the snowman to a cheetah chasing a gazelle? Everybody’s got to eat, right? We cozy up to Nature when it’s pretty and soft and nonthreatening, but what about when we’re confronted with our common hunger? The dog-eat-dog world? Is the window we’re behind now a protective device through which we check to make sure nothing like this is going on before we venture outside? But, ah, isn’t there beauty, still, in both the cheetah and the gazelle? Aren’t we, if this was a poem, forced to consider both of them, in some form, inside of each of us? Would you still like this poem, find it worthwhile, ponder it? What if I’d chosen to show the cheetah already having caught the gazelle and ripping it open, devouring it? Would you turn away from that poem? Would it be more political? More relevant? More meaningful? Could that poem still heal you somehow? What if, in the poem, you could see dozens of gazelles that got away? Would that make it less personal? What if, in the poem, you could see the cheetah’s cubs hidden in the bushes, waiting for their mother to return with food and feed them? Have you ever read a poem that even did some of that? Did it offend you? Challenge you? Did it inspire you to make some change in the world, or to at least try to?



OK, here’s a curve ball—the cheetah and gazelle removed and a Saturn-like planet added. Not like it would look from Earth, so where are we? Do you find it comforting that wherever this poem would take place, there are still flowers in vases somehow? Are we on a spaceship? A newly colonized planet? Why? What happened to Earth, our home? Is everything there still OK or has it become uninhabitable? Would you rather be back there, even if instead of cheery winter scenes, creepy snowmen “greeted” you or cheetahs hunted down gazelles right outside your window? Would a poem like this be relevant to us now even though we don’t yet possess the necessary technology to make it reality? What is reality, anyway? What would the politics of this poem be? Would it be meaningful? Can you still see yourself (or your descendant) in it? What other questions would a poem like this picture raise? Do you invite where it takes you? Is there anything in it that comforts you, that helps you as a person?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the choices we make as writers, as poets, but also as human beings too, in the ways we frame things, in seeking relevance. What kind of art are we willing to create? What kind of art are we willing to take in and allow it to affect us? Do we sometimes need just a simple vase of flowers, even while we realize that’s not the whole of life, that there’s so much more to reflect on, to consider, to live with and go through? Can a poem or a poet’s body of work or an individual life be made up of all of this? Even if some readers only choose to read parts of it? Do all these questions make your head hurt, or do they stir up your creative juices?


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