Docupoetics & the Art of Lyrical Research

Last spring I taught a graduate seminar on Doupoetics and a take-away from that class was that the act of learning can be the engine that drives a poem. In my own graduate school years my early attempts at poems rooted in research often fell flat in readings by my workshop groups. My readers observed that the poems lacked tension, because wonder as a central emotion on the page was boring, like happiness. Though harsh and a bit discouraging at the time, this was a really helpful critique that led me to notice that in many successful works of docupoetics the speaker is presented as someone who is being transformed through research. When the tension in a poem is rooted in the act of learning, the experience of the human mind working on the page can be very exciting and full of perilous flirtations with revelation and the abyss. To this day I find myself asking my drafts if they are capturing the inner struggles and reckonings that can be such an important part of the experience of wondering.

Yesterday I picked up new poetry collections from Monica Sok and Rick Barot. These books treat research as a lyric act and they are teaching me new ways of undertaking radical transformation through field and archival research. Maybe this latest wave of researched poetry has you curious about the docupoetic lineage? I’ll share here a little overview of the evolution of the docupoetics, which I gave as a lecture on the first day of the seminar, followed by a reading list from the course. Soon (Tomorrow? Next week?) I’ll post some of the writing exercises my students and I undertook throughout the semester.

A Brief History of Docupoetics

There is a long history of poetry that combines investigative reporting with the rhetorical tools of lyrical writing. In his recent collection of essays on poetics forms, A Short Book on Form, Robert Hass proposes that the trend in contemporary poetry that has come to be called Docupoetics is deeply rooted in the mode known as Georgics, that traces back to at least the Greeks. The Georgic is a didactic or instructive poem intended to give information on a skill or an art. Because there was once a time when there was no skill or art that was not derived from nature and “nature” was not a concept that could be conceived any more than a fish could conceive of water or any of us could try to describe air before the Industrial Revolution turned a good portion of ours into a polluted fog, the term “Georgic” and the term “Pastoral” are often confused. But the Pastoral, unlike the Georgic, is traditionally a poem of longing for a past time, traditionally sung by urban poets adopting the persona of shepherds. 

I was once an urban poet imagining myself a shepherd, until I read Virgil’s Georgics, which includes among its how-to guides a book of instructions for beekeepers. Once I realized the scientific method was as much a form as an ode it, that the data charts on honey bee populations and the use of neonictinoid pesticides is as much a form as a sonnet, I never lacked for a subject or a longing to write.

O Virgil, my colony of bees collapsed. Perhaps because of the bi-planes spraying pesticides on the soybean fields on the farm to the north and the one to the south of my weedy acres. I’m dying to be a shepherd, but I try not to be all feelings about it. A bee is not a metaphor. It is itself, huge and furred and clinging to my sweater lethargic like it doesn’t belong in this autumn. I shook it and shook it and then peeled the black furred legs of that bumble bigger than my thumb onto a blade of ornamental tall grass in my neighbor’s yard. A praying mantis did the same to my grocery cart this morning, riding with us through all the aisles, now on the potatoes, now on the olive oil, then rode the brown bag of coffee across the check-out line.

Of course georgics, by their nature, endeavor to tell us how to live. Not just how to be beekeepers, but how to live as beekeepers, how to live in the company of whales, of apple trees, of those fair few cocoons you might encounter beneath, teeming with something gelatinous and half-made. Georgics tell us how to live as what we are, as beings as heavy on the earth as a mountain of concrete and rebar can be. They tell us how to live without pretty pastoral metaphors about a past that never was designed to make it all feel alright.  Georgics in the present day must account for neuroscience, for sociology. They must understand the temptation to pretend their prairies are going to be all right, even as they know most of the prairies that are left are ditches lining the highways between one field of soybeans and the next. For this reason, Docupoetics sometimes feels like a more accurately descriptive word for what poets like Sok and Barot achieve in their work. Learning through feeling and feeling through learning is a poetic impulse that goes back to the beginning of poetry.

A Docupoetics Reading List

I’ve offered here a history of Docupoetics as an updating of the Georgic tradition. But there are other ways critics have described the development of this poetic mode. Some excellent critical introductions to Docupoetics include:

Philip Metres, “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy”

Tarfia Faizullah, “Against Explanation”

 Joseph Harrington, “Docupoetry and Archive Desire”

This review-essay, “The Poetry in Footnotes, Endnotes, & Bibliographies,” on recent collections by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Marwa Helal, and Chaun Webster I wrote for Ploughshares.

To suggest that there is such a thing as a canon sends me into what Derrida called archive fever over what to let in and what to leave out — Joseph Harrington discusses the phenomenon brilliantly in the essay above. Though I must check my temperature to do it, I offer this fragmented list of canonical Docupoetic texts from my revised and updated syllabus for Docupoetics & Other Forms of Lyric Research, a graduate seminar:

Virgil’s Georgics — A how to-guide for gardening, viticulture, animal husbandry, and beekeeping, with forays into the nature of the gods and the cause of civil unrest.

Christopher Smart’s The Hop Garden — Hops farming & beer making! With a side of political allegory

Vita Sackville-West’s The Land — A celebration of the English countryside through the seasons written by an accomplished landscape gardener, dear friend and lover of Virginia Woolf, and noted critic of heteronormative marriages.

William Carlos Williams’s Paterson — An epic recounting of the industrial and cultural history of Paterson, New Jersey.

Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead — An account of the devastating effects of a silica mine in West Virginia that draws on court records, affidavits, and medical findings.

Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage” — A history of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade that focuses most closely on the uprising on the slave ship Amistad.

And the most incomplete list of all, a sampler of contemporary poetry collections that make extensive use of docupoetic methods or powerfully evoke the docupoetic tradition:

Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s M Archive — A novel-in-verse in conversation with past and future archives that include the work of Audre Lorde and M. Jacqui Alexander.

Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary — Accounts of devastating mining disasters that draw heavily from archived testimonies and oral histories, as well as photographic evidence.

Sun Yung Shin’s Unbearble Splendor — Explorations of identity through engaged research into cyborgs, mythical hybrids, and adoption.

Philip Metres’s Sand Opera — Through erasures of army manuals, abu ghraib arias, and other lyric interventions, Metres critiques the U. S. engagement in a racist, imperialist war in Iraq, as well as the racism directed at people in the US on the basis of Anti-Arab bigotries.

Susan Howe’s Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives — Reveries on reading the archives of New England writers like Jonathan Edwards, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and others. Poems are interwoven with evocative photographs and facsimiles of pages from these archives.

Craig Santos Perez series From Unincorporated Territory — An extraordinary triptych of poetry collections that tell the cultural, historical, political, indigenous, and ecological stories of Guåhan (Guam).

Layli Long Soldier, Whereas — In lyrics, prose poems, erasures, translations, and resolutions Layli Long Soldier challenges and reinvents the language of treaties and death warrants from an indigenous perspective, imagining new ways to be a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and the United States, and inviting readers to reconsider the myriad meanings and responsibilities of their own citizenships.

Published by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of three collections of poetry – Rue is forthcoming from BOA in 2020. The End of Pink (BOA 2016) won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (The Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Waxwing.

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