Don’t ask Carol Ann Davis to define poetry. When her new students arrive at the College of Charleston, where she teaches and heads up the creative writing department, she asks them to define poetry just so she can tell all of them that they’re wrong. She’s not trying to cruelly fail freshmen; she’s simply showing them that any definition is inadequate. “In that way I start to broaden their ideas of what’s possible in a poem,” Davis says. “Don’t let your own expectations of what something should be limit what it is.”
Davis’ second collection of poetry, Atlas Hour, is proof that poems don’t have to adhere to any set of rules. In the book, she explores two main channels — artwork and her children — in poem-maps, which use spacing in place of punctuation. “I thought, what if I don’t rely on punctuation, I rely on the clarity of the language,” she says. “Is it possible for people to get closer? I was really concerned with intimacy.” She achieves this feeling by showing us what she sees when she examines things closely, from Johannes Vermeer’s painting “Little Street” to her son on his way to school.
Davis, who is originally from Florida, studied poetry at Vassar College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has been seriously writing for the last 20 years. Her first book, Psalm, came out in 2008 and told a story of Davis’ life from the time her father died until her first child was born. Atlas Hour, she explains, is a very different book, both thematically and stylistically. “The structure here is less narrative, but in a way more graspable because the contents are a little more accepted, which is that there really are riches everywhere.”
One similarity between the books, however, is the use of religious references. Davis finds it interesting that religion found its way into her poems. She’s not a particularly religious person, despite the fact that she was brought up Southern Baptist and once lived in a churchyard surrounded by religious iconography. “I was joking with a student, saying maybe I’m not a poet, I’m a mystic or a religious thinker. It’s sort of going in that direction.” Either way, her new book is earning praise from even the most ruthless critics. “My mother said, ‘Either I’m getting more educated or you’re getting better.’ But for me, the poems are more experimental but perhaps the themes are more relatable.”
Davis didn’t originally set out to explore the wonders of masterpieces or her own children. “It was never that I set out to write about anything. It was that I had this experiment going where I tried to make my mind as blank as possible and let whatever was coming come. And then once it did, I didn’t think, ‘Oh I’m writing about this.’ I would let it shift and move, and that’s why the poems do a lot of that.”
As for why she often found herself writing about art, Davis says, “I came to the conclusion I did because I was sort of lonely and artists are sort of … I feel like I’m their contemporary, there’s sort of this brotherhood.”
Her favorite poem is the second one in the book, “Easter Unexplained,” about her son hunting for Easter eggs, unaware of what Easter itself signifies. “I just love that about poetry,” she says. “It can be big and important and metaphysical and also almost part of how you live your life.”
Davis plans to start working on another book next summer, but you can read some of her most recent poems in the September issue of The American Poetry Review.