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Poetic Thinking 2016 | March 30, 2020

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Coetzee, Reilly

Coetzee, Reilly
  • On March 3, 2016

After our discussion of Elizabeth Costello last Wednesday, I continued to think about the relationship between writer and his/her work. Maybe things like the author’s intention are of no importance, but maybe a consideration of the author’s intention could help to build trust, which may function to invite the reader into a space of poetic thinking. I keep thinking about the concept of space in our seminar, and how poetic thinking requires a lot of it. Especially today, when criticism is such a knee-jerk response–in academia and outside of it, especially online–it requires something extra to approach a work from a generous place. And I feel that this sort of process-oriented poetic thinking works better in a place where you feel you can trust the writer (although not, necessarily, the narrator). So, while I don’t necessarily need to know if Coetzee really is an animal rights activist or not, I do trust his work overall because they have (to me) a difficult-to-articulate care and attention to his characters. I trust that he loves them (sounds weird to say but I think there’s truth to it), that he is generous with them. I don’t know why I have this sense, but maybe it comes from a line like:

The applause starts hesitantly, then swells. His mother takes off her glasses, smiles. It is an engaging smile: she seems to be relishing the moment. Actors are allowed to bathe in applause, ill deserved or well deserved–actors, singers, violinists. Why should his mother not have her moment of glory too? (20)

In thinking about this concept, I was reminded especially of a book of prose poems I’m reading, Rebecca Reilly’s Repetition (I think I referenced it in another post). Her work is largely exploring grief at the loss of her father, and the patience she takes with herself even as she explores the underbelly of herself feels compassionate for herself and for others, by extension. This quote seems to capture both that compassion for others as well as a meditation on the writer’s voice vs. the writer:

It’s not really fair to love the part of a person you see
in a poem. Poems are just a performance of the self–a
highly selective one at that, as one moves between
confession and deflection. But you are the most honest
poet I know. (82)


  1. Vivian Lam

    Thank you for this, Audrey. Your intuition about the relation of the author to their characters to their audience is incredible–I can see how the passages you show here have a quality of compassion, of something you can trust. I wonder what qualities give their writing a sense of trustworthiness or openness–something personal, something forgiving? A sense of warmth and forgiveness? Would a work that doesn’t give space for poetic thinking because of a lack of trust be like some of Jonathan Harris’ work discussed in class? A kind of heavyhanded moralizing (narrowness)?

    An interesting dynamic that I will try to be more attuned to in the future!

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