Rachel Zolf, Contemporary Poetry

Contemporary poetry is often misunderstood by the general public because it doesn’t necessarily follow the same forms and patterns of more established poetic traditions, such as the sonnet or the haiku. For many readers, contemporary poetry doesn’t even seem to be real poetry because they cannot find the sense of meter, alliteration, rhyme, or any of the other elements that were discussed in their English books as being important to an understanding of this kind of writing. Rather than focusing on depicting the world as it is, contemporary poetry attempts to find a means of alerting the public to dangers and calling for action. Many poets choose to focus upon the negative emotions they have been feeling in an increasingly busy and disconnected world. Contemporary poets look more into the experience of the confusing and chaotic multiple viewpoints of the postmodern society for inspiration and organization of their poems in ways that are not always immediately understood by the reading public. To help analyze how these poets effectively deal with the issues of the day, it is helpful to take a closer look at a contemporary poet such as Rachel Zolf for insight as to how printed words on a page might help to make the modern world more understandable.

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One example of how a poet might attempt to demonstrate that there is more than one viewpoint feeding into an idea at a time can be found in a poem from Masque. In this poem, it can be seen that there are several speakers at once. This is made clear by the notes in the left-hand margin that designates ‘the critic’, ‘the father’, ‘the philosopher’, ‘the daughter’, ‘the censor’ and ‘the whisper’. Of these characters, only one does not have a specific role. The whisper causes the reader to wonder whose viewpoint this voice is representing even as the poem begins to break down in meaning thanks to the black bars of the censor. Through the first portion of the poem, it is possible to trace the father’s words as they are different from the words of the others because they are set in italics, demonstrating the “witty and hip” and the “unpredictable and rough-edged” mentioned by the critic, yet the daughter is interrupted by the philosopher who is so censored that any clear idea of meaning becomes somewhat lost and the female voice becomes hidden in the whisper of desperation to be heard. Of the work, Zolf says, “Masque explores the secret – asking what’s wrong with exposing ourselves and our dirty laundry, who has access to the public gaze, and what faces do we choose to wear in what situations, revealing and concealing. The sensor itself is an obvious figure of silencing, and there are a number of voices in that book that are being silenced, mostly female ones” (193). This supports a reading of this poem as indicating the loss of the daughter’s voice in the noise of the other characters who are given more official capacities.

This same sense of a breakdown in meaning and communication is expressed in “A Priori” in The Neighbor Procedure. Within this poem, Zolf provides a list of ‘ifs’ that may or may not be considered a part of modern life. For instance, she places the line “if the Sabbath is a form of constraint” just above the line “if jihad is the first word we learn to spell.” In doing this, she first illustrates the common idea that church and worship are not considered a form of comfort and release as much as it is considered a means of forcing the individual into a specific conception defined by outside forces yet not so well defined that it can be discerned and adapted to everyone’s satisfaction. This idea is made clear because of its placement directly over the next line in which children just learning how to spell are becoming familiar with the concepts of a holy war. “These propositions, which by their nature are meant to be givens, still, of course, ironically, contain the conditional ‘if’ statement so abhorred by plain-language practitioners and others. By putting all these different propositions in contrast and in opposition with one another, and making them all stay quivering beside each other on the same page, their validity as a priori propositions is called into question” (189). Thus, instead of receiving the clear concepts suggested by the term ‘a priori’, which is supposed to refer to knowledge that one has independent of experience, Zolf throws doubt on everything as she introduces the requirement of experience to attain the knowledge.

Throughout all of Zolf’s poems, there is a constant exploration as she attempts to find a sense of primal meaning. By this, I mean a sense that there is meaning somewhere in the world that does not depend on subjective language to define it, specific experience to discover it, and that give its recipient a clear, unambiguous idea of what is expected. However, at the same time, she continuously underscores the concept that this kind of meaning does not exist – everything depends upon the unique subjective interaction between the speaker and her entire background of experience, the language and its limitations and ambiguities, and the reader again bringing a unique structure of understanding based on background experience and understanding. This recognition of simultaneous paradox existing in the same place at the same time thanks to a multi-voiced experience is the reason why so many general readers have such a difficult time understanding contemporary poetry but it is worth the effort to make the attempt.

Works Cited

Zolf, Rachel.

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