I feel a little self-conscious after I bandied about the word "project" in relation to my last get-together with Opal and Meryl. There's this essay by Dorothea Lasky, a poet many of my contemporaries and former MFA peers have a fondness for, particularly after she was a finalist for the tenure-track position that opened up in our program, called Poetry is Not a Project, available in PDF form, that keeps dancing around in my head. I hadn't read it, didn't even know that it was an essay and not a collection of poems, but after that word was used a zillion times, I figured I owed it to myself and my friends' work to read it through and see if it changed my own vocabulary.
I don't think, after reading it, I will stop using the word project, because I'm not sure I have a better word for what I mean when I use it: extended trigger? fascination with poetic replication? obsession, perhaps? But I do agree, when the word is used as a concept, as opposed to the entity itself, the word becomes problematic, and is perhaps reason why there are contemporary poets I can appreciate in concept or in project, but certainly have no affection for the actual work. In other words, the discussion of the work becomes far more satisfying than the work itself. (And I won't name names, since these are living poets, and sometimes, especially since people I adore wind up adoring those poets, I think I might be missing something, so why turn anyone else off if I'm wrong?)
I copied down a handful of quotes from the essay that resonated with me, though, since the essay is free on the web, I'd recommend reading it in whole, enjoying the illustrations, and thinking what you might think of the word project:
"Nowadays critics and scholars often refer to an entire body of work by one poet as a 'project,' but I don't think poems work that way. I think poems come from the earth and work through the mind from the ground up. I think poems are living things that grow from the earth and into the brain, rather than things that are planted within the earth by the brain. I think a poet intuits a poem and scientists conduct a 'project.'"
"I don't think Emily Dickinson gave a damn about a project. The word constricts the immense body of work she has left us."
"Because sometimes when I hear a poet talking about his so-called projects, I see him flying high above his poems."
"After the reading, people talked to him about his project and in general, most people liked the ideas behind it, as did I. No one talked to him about his poems. His poems were not important to his project. His project was important to his project. Everything that mattered was in the idea."
"The problem I am pointing out, I guess, when I tell you that poetry is not a project, is the problem that a good deal of my own poetry writing idols use projects as generative forces in their poems. But the poems were the most important parts of the whole thing."
"What differentiates a great poet and a not-great one is the capacity to exist in that uncertain space, where the grand external world (which means anything and everything) folds into the intense internal world of the individual."
"When people talk about poetry as a project, they suggest the road through a poem is a single line."