by Ron Hayes
Recently I opened a poetry contest to celebrate a historical event’s bicentennial here in my town. Entrants were invited to address and/or interpret the contest’s theme as broadly as they wished. To fully understand, it’s helpful for you to know the following:
- the historical event took place on Lake Erie during the War of 1812
- the contest centered on the minor historical figure, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry
- Perry is best known for a pair of phrases he coined that remain as minor cultural touchstones: “Don’t Give Up The Ship” and “We have met the enemy and they are ours…”
I probably don’t have to tell you that the bulk of contest entries set their poems on Lake Erie. Interestingly, many chose to avoid 1812, however, choosing instead to place their poems in modern-day Erie, Lake Erie, or Put-In-Bay, Ohio (the closest landmark to where the actual Battle of Lake Erie took place). Clearly, these are natural choices that make sense for the contest’s theme.
Now, what’s fascinating to me, what’s most instructive, I think, is that the winning poem chose neither 1812 nor any Lake Erie-related locales. Instead, the poet who won chose the Orinoco River and 1819. Why? Because this was the setting for the end of Oliver Hazard Perry’s life. As such, it engendered in the poem a stately, somber, elegant tone that resonated a little differently, a little more poignantly than those that used the easy and obvious choice of 1812 Lake Erie. The choice of setting made all the difference in the success of that poem.
Poetry is a lot like alcohol—it is language distilled: pure, powerful and sometimes harsh. Within that process of literary distillation, many traditional components of writing are stripped away and left unused by the poet. Characterization, for example, and plot are two things that can easily be left out of a poem without detracting from the experience of reading that poem. Setting, the time and place in which the action of a narrative occurs, is another such example. Because setting doesn’t necessarily have a bearing on a poem’s success, it can become a very tricky thing for the poet to handle. It is at once limiting and liberating.
Of course, some of our best-known poems rely not at all on setting: Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” “This Is Just To Say,” by William Carlos Williams, virtually any of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the bulk of Dickinson’s work, Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse,” and on and on… Where we rage against the dying of the light, when we ate the icebox plums, or where and when the coastal shelf deepens is immaterial to the poem. Our enjoyment of or appreciation for these poems is lessened not at all. Conversely, setting is integral to countless other important poems, particularly epics such as “Paradise Lost,” “Beowulf,” and Pound’s Cantos. So the question becomes one of how, when, or why should poets consider implementing setting in a given poem.
The easy answer is intuition. What does your gut tell you? If you’re the type of poet who is blessed to have poems just “fall out” onto the page with almost no effort and in need of little revision, then you probably won’t need to spend all that much time worrying about whether or not you should think about setting. But if you’re the type who works and works at your poems, revising and reworking details small and large, then the harder answer is that setting might be the kind of thing hanging you up—and you may not even know it.
Because setting is indeed optional in poetry, it very frequently becomes the kind of thing we overlook or fail to consider when a poem just isn’t working. In your work, keep in mind that setting doesn’t have to be grand or specific or particularly inspiring. Maybe “now” and “in front of the icebox” will be enough for you like it was for Williams. Maybe your poem would benefit from being framed around the Battle of Orleans or set just seconds before the first major eruption of Kilauea. Or maybe you just haven’t considered that you’re working too hard to keep it at your nephew’s christening or within the first few months of the divorce. As poets, we are not “just” poets, but also writers. As such, I want to remind you that we have at our disposal the entire range of literary devices—do not be afraid to use them all before revising some of them out! Setting is indeed optional in a poem’s final revision, but that doesn’t mean it can’t help you get to that final revision.