The Documentary Poetry We Need Now

By Lynnell Edwards, Associate Programs Director, Spalding’s School of Creative and Professional Writing

On good days, mere chaos seems to swirl around us like smoke; on bad days it feels like we are staring down the apocalypse. Everywhere: the body oppressed and rent by violence, the body sickened (by virus, by fire, by flood) the body “distanced” or “essential.” Literature and the arts have always been part of healing in troubled and transitional times, but documentary poetry, with its arc beyond the interiority of the lyric and toward the external realities of the material world, has an especial urgency in these difficult days.

Readers of contemporary poetry have had a wealth of documentary poetry in the 21st century as poets recognize how past historical moments can be re-seen to address our current urgencies. Works such as Buffalo Dance, The Journey of York (Frank X. Walker, 2004); Blood Dazzler (Patricia Smith, 2008); Native Guard and Thrall (Natasha Trethewey, 2007, 2015); The Myth of Water (Jeanie Thompson, 2016); The Venus Hottentot (Elizabeth Alexander, 2004); and M A C N O L I A (A. Van Jordan, 2005), among many others, depend heavily on the persona poem, which simultaneously reveals an inner state and advances the narrative.

Persona poems in part embody the desires and material realities of the poets even as they offer a plausible facsimile of the historical person. In each of Walker’s poems we hear an authentic person, albeit one Walker bends to his own interpretation through his choices about where York’s eye/I lands as he surveys the vast landscape and how he describes the intimate group of explorers with whom he travels/travails. Smith’s many personas in Blood Dazzler sound a chorus of injustice and needless suffering. The question of race and the essential worker, climate change and the natural disaster. Here is the history we need now. Again.

These writers have done the necessary work in archives, libraries, landscapes, media, interviews, and textbooks to construct fluid, authentic personas alive in their world. But engagement with the documents of history can also mean including written artifacts themselves as poetic texts. So that while the persona poem offers one mode for documenting history, the inclusion of extra-poetic texts disrupts and expands the already open system of documentary poetry, arcing as it does toward creative entropy. Writing for the Poetry Foundation about the contemporary documentary poem, Philip Metres argues, “The documentary poem opposes… [the] idea of a closed system, inviting ‘the real life outside the poem’ into it while also offering readers a journey into the poem.” The documentary poem is ultimately outward-looking, documenting a historical moment that may or may not be contemporaneous with the poet, but nevertheless speaks to the now.

In his essay, Metres considers works from the 20th century, such as the poetry of Charles Reznikoff, Carolyn Forché, Denise Levertov, and Allen Ginsberg, as well as William Carlos Williams’ epic in four books, Paterson (published in separate books from 1946 until a full edition in 1963). The work proposes to be “a long poem upon the resemblance between the mind of modern man and a city” (from the author’s “Statement”). Paterson incorporates letters (including one from Allen Ginsberg), histories of Paterson, New Jersey, and the Passaic River, newspaper accounts, city council notes, and transcripts of interviews (for instance: “Mike Wallace asks William Carlos Williams ‘Is Poetry Dead?’” in the New York Post, 1957) as well as numerous other texts excerpted or included verbatim as disruptions to the free verse narrative explicating his central premise.

More recent works that engage with extra-poetic material include Mitchell L. H. Douglas’s \blak\ \al-fe bet\. Mitchell includes copies of his grandparents’ birth certificates in a profound saying of their names and fundamental affirming of their existence. The birth certificates document the facts of their lives and their births into a particular history. These documents move the reader’s focus outside the text, rather than further into Douglas’s lyric “I,” and arguably into spaces the reader, rather than Douglas, controls. Nick Flynn (My Feelings, 2011) and Kiki Petrosino (White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia, 2020) both use erasures to suggest a shadow narrative within otherwise bureaucratic and generic documents. Flynn’s “seven testimonies (redacted)” amplifies the humanity and the horror in the testimonies of seven detainees at Abu Ghraib. Flynn includes the complete testimonies in his notes, and these too, standing as documents with their own integrity and stability outside Flynn’s “seven testimonies (redacted),” effectively direct the reader elsewhere—disrupting any closed system created by the poem sequence. Petrosino’s erasures in “What Your Results Mean” reveal an empowered shadow self within the otherwise benign, even generic, DNA test results typically written to affirm and/or titillate the genealogical voyeur intent on understanding an exotic ancestry.

In my own new work, This Great Green Valley (2020), I collaged fragments of letters from white settlers to their families in Virginia to document the hardships and despair, the violence, and their bleak prospects during the “hard winter” of 1780-81. In another, fragments similarly collaged in a solid, right- and left-justified block record General Benjamin Logan’s reports to the governors of Virginia on the frontier war against native tribes. The letters record progress from defensive movements to a campaign of complete obliteration of the native villages, a note attached to the record stating, “we skelp’t all we catch’d.” The form of both poems suggests the relentlessness of the circumstances while simultaneously flattening the escalating slaughter. I mean to “box in” readers among the chaos of the fragmented texts (which point to larger, external documents), recreating the oppressiveness of the particular historical moment. We are reminded of the bureaucratic nature of genocide, nature’s indifference to our suffering.

In a new manuscript I am compiling about mental illness and the family, I use redacted intake assessments to disrupt the intensely internal nature of a psychotic breakdown with the language of the clinical and the institutional. I intend to direct readers explicitly to the site of diagnosis (meaning) and their own powerlessness to respond.

One of the most necessary and innovative collections of recent documentary poetry is C.D. Wright’s One Big Self: An Investigation (2003), in which she documents the lives of inmates at four of Louisiana’s most notorious prisons. Wright collages numerous “found” documents—interviews, lists, letters, language from signage and posters—that are always at the edge of entropy, thrusting the readers outside their safe houses and into a wrenching narrative of loss, survival, and incarceration in our country.

In the prefatory essay “Stripe for Stripe,” she states what might well be a manifesto for a poetics of documentation: “Not to idealize, not to judge, not to exonerate, not to aestheticize immeasurable levels of pain. Not to demonize, not anathematize. What I wanted was to unequivocally lay out the real feel of hard time.” But more, “I wanted the banter, the idiom, the soft-spoken cadence of Louisiana speech to cut through the mass-media myopia. I wanted the heat, the humidity, the fecundity of Louisiana to travel right up the body.”

We need poetry for these histories, past and present. We need poetry that will travel right up the body.


Lynnell Edwards’s most recent collection of poetry is This Great Green Valley (Broadstone Books, 2020), a chapbook of documentary poetry based on revisionist narratives of Kentucky’s pioneer founding in the 18th century. Three additional full-length poetry collections, Covet, The Highwayman’s Wife, and The Farmer’s Daughter, were published by Red Hen Press. A chapbook, Kings of the Rock and Roll Hot Shop, chronicles the work and art of a glass-blowing studio. Her short fiction, book reviews, and essays have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, New Madrid, Connecticut Review, Cincinnati Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere.


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