What to do with your self in a poem: a confession

Published : Wednesday, October 26, 2011 | Label:

Poetry rises from the place where the self bleeds—often under the weight of grief or longing, or under the influence of one of the many species of love—into the Self; the personal becomes, in that place and in the poem that rises, the universal; the private becomes the profoundly human.

The poem one writes, no matter how much it seems to tell your own life, stands in for things the poet cannot say; it transfigures private concerns into instances of human suffering and delight, wisdom and madness, and being in the world.

These thoughts come to mind for me, as I come to terms with a couple of recent reviews of my poems, one by Brendan Ryan in ABR, and a second, much wiser, by Judy Beveridge in Island, both of which seemed to struggle with confessional elements in my writing, with alleged self-concern, and both of which seemed to me surer than they should be of some ideas about self-abnegation that run hard through Australian (and perhaps English) culture and poetry. Both reviewers felt that my poems lapsed precisely in areas where I feel I’m doing what too many poems I read lack the courage or technique or complexity of voice and vision to attempt.

I have things to learn, of course, about the making of poetry and the intimacy it invites. It is easy to overshare. In particular, I feel certain there is more to know about the art of witholding than I have mastered yet. Some of those things I’ve learned already over the past five years and embodied in the later poems of Fire Diary and in the poems I’ve written since; some of those poems appear in my chapbook The Lyrebird; one has just won the Newcastle Prize ("The Wombat Vedas").

But I also know that my poems break some taboos that, in my view, need breaking in Australian poetry—and which some other poets, who come in for the same kind of stick, have broken, too. In Australian letters, as in Australian life, we are ill at ease with our selves, with the first person personal pronoun, and with the confessional mode—in poetry and in essays. To a fault, we are modest, often falsely, defensively so. We are not generous with ourselves. We have been too reserved; we have made a virtue, almost a compulsion, of our embarrassment, our unease, with our inner lives. I know I disclose more of myself, more of my wounded self, in particular, than some critics find quite tasteful in a poem. I know this unsettles some people, just as I know it touches others, who seem to understand that the poet offers up moments of a life, somewhat like his own, as metaphors for what he’s really trying to say; his confessional poems are small gods, which keep his own secrets but seem to tell a reader hers.

So, I felt it timely to say a word or two about the place of the self in poetry. American poetics are far more at ease with the self, it seems to me, than Australian. And it also seems to me to produce a rich and personable poetry that we only sometimes manage.

Here are some thoughts on their way to an essay on the topic. I’d like us to talk about this some more. I don’t want poets to start gushing and emoting without restraint. Poetry may heal, but it is not the talking cure. I’m dead sure the old and deeply entrenched verities that keep us fearfully (but safely) distant from our emotional lives aren’t serving poetry or its readers especially well, though.

Each of us draws the line in a different place, I think, as to how much of our selves, especially our wounded selves, we share on paper, and I know I let more of it in than most Australian poets; this unsettles some readers and moves others, but neither response concerns me or guides me. I’m only ever trying to tell this poet’s truth, without shirking or pretending—or causing unnecessary embarrassment, of course. We have been too reserved, I think; we have made too much of a virtue of irony and humour and self-abnegation, which have often been means of not truly showing up on the page (though I hear my Methodist grandfather stirring uncomfortably in his grave, as I write that). The “I” is often misunderstood in Australia as, by definition, the hero of the narrative, when for me, at least (though no doubt I fool myself), the “I” is meant more as an instance, the way an essayist means her/him, as a kind of everyperson—as THIS person, sure, but only because this is the person to whose heart and mind the writer has the surest access. There’s modesty in the reference to self, not merely self-concern.

It is not a sophisticated reading of a poem to take the “I” of the poem as the “I” of the poet. The self offered up is not one’s biographical self. We know this, but we forget it, and we ought not. But however closely correlated to the life of the actual poet, the emotionally intelligent, the spiritually mature, confessional poet, like the essayist, writes FROM the self, not ABOUT him self. Or not merely.

In the examined life, as in a poem, one will always fail at detachment, especially from one’s self. But one can get close. And getting close is where much of the beauty and the spiritual force, even the honesty, of a poem lie. One fails; one fails again, better. Instead of dismissing self-reference as self-concern, we might examine in ourselves why the confessional poet’s self-examination so challenges us; we might examine in ourselves the reasons we think detachment from self is impossible, and why some speaking with loving disinterest of the country of one’s inner life, is distasteful. What have we given up on? And why? Try again. Fail again; fail better.

Here’s some of a new poem by the Canadian poet Jan Zwicky that beautifully articulates the enterprise of sitting with your self, from which I think good poems begin; the poem captures the spirit of the engagement with one’s self that the confessional poet is essaying. Try it some time. I quote from the first “fugue” of “The Art of Fugue” in Forge (Gaspereau, 2011).

A room, a table, four chairs…
West light, east light. And a scent
like cedar in the air. Here, the self
will sit down with the self.
Now it will say
what it has to say. It looks
into its own eyes. Listens.

You sense the discipline, the spareness, the objectivity, the love involved.

Now, I know that what reads as self-absorption to one person, sounds like self-possession to another; one person’s self-romanticisation is another person’s idea of some honest inner work—an instance of that sitting with one’s self and listening, the inner work, the soul-making, that is most of the work of art, especially of poetry. I’d like to challenge those who have no patience with self-reference in a poem to look more critically at their own (fixed) position, their attachment to self-denial, and to imagine that there may be something else going on in a confessional poem than they have so far imagined. Something they might try.

While it is easy to make a virtue of a poem that excludes self-reference, the exclusion of self is always something of a ruse, since the poet is always present doing the looking, the yearning, the laying down of the lines. It, too, carries with it the risk of self-romanticisation: look how modest I am, the poem whispers; look how I leave myself out. (This is not always the case, any more than self-absorption and heroism are always the case with a first person poem; and certainly, as elsewhere, I don’t have Judy Beveridge’s poetry in mind now. Her poetics, as I have written, model the very kind of selflessness and mindful attention to the world that all of us might aspire to.) There is a case to be made, though, and I’m making it, for the modesty and honesty and transparency of the lyric, confessional stance—a modesty and honesty, not guaranteed, by any means, but a transcendence of narrow self that perhaps a more detached and indirect poem may never achieve.

But I could easily be having myself on. “A man so easily distracted by himself...”

Sometimes, like all poets, I err. In judgment or, perhaps, in taste. I can hear it sometimes when I read back; there are some lines I’d change and may yet, from earlier poems. But not, to be honest, many, or much. Often, the very moments that seem to one reader gauche, seem to another courageous. Sometimes, I think, the self-deprecation and wistfulness I hear (and mean to be heard) in my writing don’t reach every reader, especially those not given to much inner work themselves, or less inclined, and not always for very noble reasons, to speak their pain or confess their love, or bleed. The risk that not everyone will hear the colours in your voice or understand with much subtlety, the first person personal pronoun and the universal pain and joy it confesses—this is a risk a poet always runs, and it’s a risk a poet, in my view, should run. Though in my case, I’m sure it’s a risk sometimes I could manage better with more craft.

I may sometimes impose too much on my reader, ask them in too deep, in too much detail. Many are happy to come, as I am with other poets, a little like me, whom I admire. And, of course, silence, would sometimes be the wiser, truer course—a thing I’m learning daily more about, on the page; a thing that grows easier, I must say, the easier one’s emotional life grows, as crisis eases. But I will keep showing up in my work, stepping out from behind my metaphors, for I believe that’s what poets are called to do. To write the Self, by writing one’s self.

The challenge for this “scop”, as for all poets, especially the confessional lyricists among us, is to keep telling all the truth, but to tell more of it slant. To tell the rage by writing the weather; to write the heartbreak by writing the mountain range; to speak the grief by painting the whitefaced heron.

But what is the right distance to stand back from your own life in a poem? How much and how often ought you mythologise yourself, to make a poem out of a biography? At what point does withholding become dissembling; at what point does the refusal to locate the emotion and lodge the fragments and clues in some actual life story become a tease? Just how slant can you tell your life’s truth before it becomes plain crooked, indecipherable, oblique?

Too much disclosure, and poetry becomes twitter; too little, and a poem baffles or dissembles. Somewhere in the middle the poet’s pain becomes the reader’s. The poet’s secrets (mostly, but not always kept) become the reader’s household gods.

There are poets I admire—Linda Gregg, Ray Carver, Anthony Lawrence, Robert Adamson, Jane Kenyon, William Stafford, for instance—who write, at least sometimes, poems like windows on a life. Poems like artfully edited and sung journal entries. The trick of elevating such writing into poetry is clarity of seeing and originality of telling. The trick is to witness freshly, not to psychologise or lapse into easy sentiment. Into plangency. The trick is to treat your self as one instance of what it is to be human; to welcome yourself neither as hero nor victim, but as a beautiful and difficult stranger; to deal with that life as if it weren’t merely your own—with loving detachment.

You might do that, of course, in a poem that has nothing directly to say about your self or your heart. You might write your grief by writing the kingfisher that sits in savage and hungry silence in the poplar outside your window. Or you might write a poem in which someone like yourself sees that kingfisher and envies it its silence. There are many ways to write a poem; any good poem sings the weather of a moment or two, but it may be a still life, a dramatic monologue, a rant, a philosophic sting, a frog in a pond. Or it may be a woman at a window watching rain and hearing the disorder in her soul and mentioning it.

Starting with yourself is risky, of course—in part because, in Australia, in particular, there are many readers who will misunderstand the enterprise. There are risks, though, no matter who’s reading—of bleating, of bleeding too long on the page, of oversharing, of writing from too close to the surface, so that the “I” of the poem can never become the reader’s “I”. But these are risks poetry should run and poets must not shy from: poetry is an intimate mode and it trades in deeply personal, deeply human questions; and poets must turn up, make themselves vulnerable, speak from a deep place, acknowledge wounds, albeit slant, or indirect.

But I must confess that the poems I like best (and they constitute a good part of the canon) often feature a woman or a man in some kind of beautiful trouble, looking at that and at the world, and making a poem like a deft confession or a prayer—a meditation in solitude. Anne Sexton is one poet who succeeds astonishingly well in that sort of space, for me. Charles Wright lives there, too. James Wright. Others. When such poems work, they work better and longer than any others, but only if the voice of the poet is laced with many things: humour, humility, a kind of ecological apprehension of the poet’s own troubles or joys, intelligence (of body, mind and spirit), curiosity, playfulness, musicality, detachment, passion, sensuality. And such poems work well only for readers who can hear all those colours in the frozen music, the sculpture of sound that is the poem.

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