What’s wrong with didacticism?
I have a thing for truisms.
As I’ve grown as a poet, I’ve come to realize certain things about my aesthetic, from a purely linguistic standpoint: I prefer simple sentences. If I write a sentence made of several clauses, I keep it as short as possible. For this same reason, I love a short line. There’s something about terseness and brevity that appeals to me, and I think this is because my poems are largely interested in big ideas. To pair these big ideas with tight language creates a kind of balance.
I think my use of truisms stems from these same impulses. If I can present a big idea clearly and concisely, particularly when the rest of my poem is highly figurative or imagistic, I feel as though I’ve grounded it for the reader somehow.
This post was inspired by a conversation I had with a good friend and fellow poet, with whom I have writing dates every week or so. At a recent writing date, I wrote a poem that included the following sentence: “Pain is a temptation, something we / must test before we can believe.” When we exchanged the drafts we’d written, she pointed to these lines as a particularly strong moment in the poem. She said she admired when my poems took a didactic turn.
“It’s funny,” I told her, “I’m never sure about didactic moments like this.” I write them all the time, I said, but when I go to revise a poem, these are often the lines I cut, or at least think about cutting.
Lately, rather than cut these moments, I’ve accepted them as part of my aesthetic, for the reasons I noted above. But I still feel the impulse to cut them.
I started wondering why I resist my use of truisms in poems. In the moment of revision, my rationale would be to cut these sentences because they “tell,” rather than “show.” I teach my students all the time about the importance of showing rather than telling, so I should listen to my own advice, right? But ultimately, the whole poem shows, or attempts to show, what the truism tells.
Earlier in this same writing date, my friend and I had talked about gendered language in poems, and particularly the gendering of the lyric speaker. We’d talked about coyness, and different ways of understanding what that means—from talking indirectly about a subject, which seems rather neutral, to a more literal understanding of “coy” as “flirtatious,” which is clearly more gendered. We wondered whether male poets wrote coy poems (of either variety, or any shade in between), or if they were criticized for doing so. My friend had received such a warning before: Don’t be coy. We’d tried to puzzle out which form of coyness she was supposed to avoid.
Then it dawned on me. My resistance to didacticism and the use of truisms began to seem less about not “showing,” and more about the authority inherent in “telling.” Do I really have the authority to make such claims about the world or human nature? Who am I to say so? I mentioned this to my friend, who said, “Do you think a male poet would ask these questions?”
Of course, it’s possible—even probable—that a male poet would be concerned with questions of authority. Yet it still felt gendered to me: in the same way that I feel it’s my job to keep my apartment clean, I feel an impulse to be implicit or suggestive, rather than direct and didactic, in my poetry. Sure, you might say that there’s little in common with cleaning and writing, or that men feel these same gendered pulls in their lives. Let’s not forget, too, those who are genderqueer and may feel these pulls much more intensely and more problematically. I’m certainly not discounting these issues. This was just a moment of discovery about my own personal experience as a woman who writes poems. I’d never thought about how my gender may affect the way I write my lyric speakers. I’d thought, in the 21st Century, I didn’t need to worry about it.
And, ultimately, I don’t. (Or, at least, I try not to). As I said, I’ve overcome my resistance to didacticism, in part because it tends to be a single, short moment in the poem that I think is necessary to bring balance. And, in some poems, the speaker questions or undermines her own authority, so when paired together in a book, these levels of authority play off each other in interesting and, I hope, fruitful ways.
But it was a huge realization to me that my own self-criticisms could be read as gendered.
I feel like those moments of didacticism are essential keys that help your readers weave through the images of the rest of the poem. They put the figurative side of the poem in relief and give you chance to recognize the layers of work that your sparer lines are doing. I have been thinking a lot about social constructions of speech as it relates to gender (since I have been both praised for and accused of talking “like a man,” which usually means speaking directly) and would love to talk more about it. Keep on showing and telling. You’re good at both.