The Great Poem Series: David Wagner’s “On Being Asked to Discuss Poetic Theory”

Mr. Wagner’s stellar poem, On Being Asked to Discuss Poetic Theory, featured in the 2003 edition of BAP, philosophical-izes the idea of poetic theory, and what it means to poets and readers. Wagner never clearly answers the question the title poses, but he gives a clear, strong perspective on how, and just why he writes the way he does.

As Wagner resides in my home state of Washington, I am struck by the naturalistic qualities he gives to the poem, inspired by the great beauty of the Pacific Northwest outdoors. He teaches at University of Washington, and has been a long standing editor of Poetry Northwest, one of the region’s top literary magazines. This flavor of raw environment translates itself into many of Wagner’s pieces, and we can see it almost as the whole subject matter in this specific one.

As he states himself, “I know for a fact snow falls in the mountains. I’ve stood there while it fell”. The certainty Wagner feels towards the progression of snow dripping down into rain is the same one he exemplifies in his writing style. His stanzas are all broken into three parts, with the main part of the sentence at the top and the other two parts underneath, tabbed further each time. The message that “the same snow is falling” parallels perfectly with this repetitive Line Break style, giving an overall sense of consistency to the nature, idea, and writing of the poem.

As some define poetic theory to be the theory of literary form and literary discourse, Wagner’s certainty in the snow “falling into the broken baffles” gives a new name to the widely accepted interpretation. He sees poetic theory as something individual to himself, maybe even individual to his poem. He turns what most think is a synopsis of an entire literary group into what the plot and concept of each and every piece of work in the contained literary group happens to be. He acknowledges that there are “confused [beginnings] of spillways”, “misdirected channels”, and “aimless pools”. But despite these nonspecific and variable waterways, he is certain that the snow still ends up falling, as many are certain that the reason for poetry and poems is still there, and still contained within each individual’s words.

Wagner’s extraordinary message is surely delivered in his piece, but what makes the poem great is the delivery itself. As many poets like to read in a monotone way to let the words take hold on their own, just the written receipt of this piece shows how strong and thriving it really is. With each three part stanza, Wagner builds on his past journey with detail after detail, each line adding something to the picture the entire piece paints, bringing together “bare stones” with “granite, hovering over the edge” and “steeper and steeper miles” onto “crouching shrubs, to the last of the tendrils”. You read this poem as a zigzagging trail up Mount Rainier, time lapsed with fast waterfalls and rushing rivers, up to large snow banks and vast glaciers, all looked on through a panorama that contains the entire view that you can only see from the summit, or in this case, the end of the verse.

To achieve this sense of awe, Wagner had to surrender power to the vision, letting it shape and direct the flow of his poem. The format is quick and continual, like a rushing river, and would not be that way if not for the words he placed there. As we “[follow] the water down” there is no time and “no need to remember where i was or what i was”. This poem thinks for you; it is fast, developed, and like a speech from a great politician, you find yourself believing in it the longer it gets and before you know it, the conclusion has you in tears and clapping.

Wagner’s hyper vigilant focus and detail on the subject matter of the poem gives the progression clout, having readers on the edge of their chairs to read the next line and put the pieces together. After just the first few lines, it seems as if the poem could go on forever, getting more powerful and louder with each sentence. The attention that he paid to the writing of this piece translates and multiplies in the attention that readers will now pay back to his work. Even his style of writing, that i touched on before, gives drama to the piece through the line breaks; emphasizing specific words and breaking up sentences by power of words and phrases.

From the subject of the poem to the delivery and style, Wagner has crafted a dense masterpiece that would strike any reader as “great”. Any poem that i can imagine accompanying a heartbreaking movie scene, explaining the success of month long hiking trip, or convincing someone to change their lives is one that deserves recognition. Wagner does anything and everything in his prose. He takes you all over as your eyes follow the hummingbird that is his words, doing flips and turns in the sky until you see that in his wake he has written the word “finished” with the clouds. Each painstakingly picked word is a part of the tower of blocks that “On Being Asked to Discuss Poetic Theory” is made of, but just like a magician, he has you focusing on the little distractions so that he can make the rabbit appear, or just make “the same snow [fall]” in his case.

Although he fails to give a concrete answer on what he thinks “Poetic Theory” is, Wagner delivers instead a perfect metaphor as to how he himself, theorizes his own poetry. When asked about the message of the poem, he states that “whenever a categorical statement about poetry has come out of my mouth, a voice in my mind’s has muttered, “the opposite is just as true”…instead of abstractions, i could use an analogy. So far, that voice hasn’t been able to figure out what the opposite is”. Just as Wagner’s indecisive mind says, his poem exemplifies the many differences and opposites that the poetry community has to offer. They say write what you know, and Wagner’s correlation to personal poetic foundation and reason shows that he knows himself to a T.

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