OR, WHY I
At root in all the
that swirl perennially about the lyric "I"
and its particular
in so-called confessional verse
is this inevitable gap
what we as readers typically want ÷
including honesty, truth,
reality ÷ and what a poem can provide,
which is at best some
version of such things. It is not merely
who fudges or forgets the difference
between map and
witness the many reviews of Ted Hughes's
Birthday Letters that
not on assessing the poems but on reviewing
the life, frequently
great moral approval or disapproval upon
its author for matters
strictly speaking, lay entirely outside the book proper.
surprised to realize that I have been writing self-portrait poems, with
varying degrees of obsession, for about twenty years. Easy
I suppose, to resort to Thoreau's quip on the first page of Walden:
"Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by narrowness of my
Even more to the point, however, may be his stringent remark on that
page regarding his liberal use of the pronoun "I," which in the context
of early nineteenth-century literary proprieties, required at least a pro
In most books the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it
be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference.
We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always
the first person speaking.
A great deal of misguided
of confessional poetry could begin to be cleared up, I feel, by
closely to the truth, even the truism, of what Thoreau is saying
For personas, third person, and various dramatic devices are no warrant
against egotism and self-enclosure; nor is the first person invariably
a limiting or solipsistic option. As I will suggest, also, I tend
to think of "the self" as something akin to a persona.
Thoreau immediately proceeds to muddy the waters when he calls for a
to offer "a simple and sincere account of his own life," as if such a
were possible. The romantic extravagance of this call to
certainly dates the passage nicely, grounding it in a typically
strain of Romanticism. Yet before we condescend to Thoreau and
idealistic writers of his era, we should attend to the complexities,
the contradictions present in their works. Certainly I would be
to apply either adjective ÷ simple or sincere
to Thoreau's book. Its simplicity is belied by numerous kinds of
stylization and literary artifice, including the usual omissions and
common to every memoir; its sincerity is questioned on nearly every
by Thoreau's habitual irony, hyperbole, and wordplay. But we
have to go so far to undercut this famous call to simple
Let me complete the sentence I quoted selectively from a moment ago,
take it to its ironic conclusion:
Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last,
a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely
what he has heard of other men's lives; some such account as he
would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived
sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.
My own reading of this
is that it does more than suggest that sincerity is a rare commodity,
that Thoreau himself lives among particular hypocrites. It
a huge and inevitable gap between what we ask of a writer and what any
given writer can accomplish. (I would not exempt Thoreau himself
from this generalization, and doubt if he would have claimed absolute
for himself, either, though there are certainly passages in Walden
that could be taken to do so.)
in all the controversies that swirl perennially about the lyric "I" and
its particular embodiment in so-called confessional verse is this
gap between what we as readers typically want ÷ including
and reality ÷ and what a poem can provide, which is at best some
version of such things. It is not merely the unsophisticated
reader who fudges or forgets the difference between map and territory,
either; witness the many reviews of Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters
that concentrated not on assessing the poems but on reviewing the life,
frequently bestowing great moral approval or disapproval upon its
for matters that, strictly speaking, lay entirely outside the book
poets, I suppose, I began writing with a certain innocence, attempting
to capture the uncapturable flux of experience, often enough taking as
subject my own paltry experience and rendering it
To this extent, I guess that many of us begin in a raw confessional
Long before I had read Robert Herrick, or even Anne Sexton, Top 40
had provided me with a fairly clear understanding of the lyric mission
÷ and not an entirely naïve sense of things, either, for
start, I instinctively grasped the fictive nature of the
I knew quite well that the tuneful lovesick groans of the pop singer
for a certain emotion; they didn't mean that the singer was actually
in the recording studio.
decades ago, having outgrown, or so I hoped, my adolescent
I conceived of a poetic experiment, an open-ended series of
As far as I can sort out my motives at this remove, I think my impulses
were not very confessional. In fact, they were rather aggresively
the reverse. My immediate inspiration was not my own life, but a
book that collected Rembrandt's lifelong series of self-portraits,
struck me as a fascinating project. During his working life,
painted, etched or drew his own likeness as main subject nearly one
times. We can watch his image pass through a rich variety of
and postures. He takes palpable pleasure in trying on an array of
often sumptuous costumes, including swords, gold chains, velvet gloves,
furred capes, and an amazing collection of hats. He scowls,
laughs, holds up a dead pheasant, and lifts a beer in toast. And
while some of the later paintings in particular are haunting in their
fearless in documenting the effects of age on the artist's body, quite
a few would have to be called frivolous. Paging through the book,
my first impression was that this was an elaborate game of dress-up.
the essential Rembrandt? Is it the deep-eyed old burgher calmly
at us from some of the late paintings, or is it the impish young man
facial expressions like a boy at the mirror ÷ joy, surprise,
so on ÷ in a series of tiny etchings? How do we reconcile
even the spirituality of the 1659 portrait in the National Gallery in
D.C., with the foppish figure in The Hague's 1634 painting, with
his glittering ear ring, feather-plumed silk hat, and not quite
expression of courtly charm?
it is obvious that we reconcile such moods and attitudes according to
timeless brag ÷ for Rembrandt, too, is large, and contains
including a capacious taste in hats. So do we all. I was
both to the experimental nature of Rembrandt's project ÷ its
style, stance, and medium ÷ and also to its
open-endedness. So I
embarked on my own poetic version, aiming to try on as many metaphoric
hats as possible, and with no plans to cease until the poetry itself
If, along the way, I successfully document elements of my own changing
body and soul, that certainly will be a personal inducement, if not
reason for persisting. If one motive remains inescapable
÷ and if in a sense I remain a boy in front of his mirror trying
expressions ÷ the technical challenge of theme-and-variations
the start engaged me just as deeply. My subject has been readily
at hand, just as Thoreau suggests. What better way to focus on
of poetic craft than holding up the mirror repeatedly to one's most
realities? In a very real sense, I see my self-portraits as among
the least revealing poems I have done, not simply because they are all
as posed and static as a wedding photo, but also because my goal in
them has been to explore aesthetic more than personal issues.
course no one believes this. And I confess I only half-believe it
myself. No one believed it when John Berryman claimed not to be
either, but I did; or, at least, I half-believed it. It is that
ambiguity that has often felt like the animating spark of my
in which I conceal by selectively revealing, and vice versa. Few
would care to sort out these paradoxes even if they could, and it's
that the details of my actual or poetic lives are seldom rich with the
sensational. If any of my self-portraits have succeeded as poems,
I believe it must be because they have managed the dramatic sleight of
hand that has always been at the heart of the lyric, which engages the
personal and the local in order to illuminate and animate something
My poems are little dramas, stylized and shaped as best I can; they are
also full of intimate explorations. In them, I literally confess
that I am no confessional poet. Good luck sorting out the
here; I can barely do so myself.
one of my earliest self-portraits that was conceived as such.
I was christened from a telephone directory,
because my parents wanted a name no one had,
at least in this family. My first word was "bug."
Left in my playpen to drool and chatter
I posed stuffed animals for imaginary photos.
Soon I was singing songs invented
according to traffic signs. I loved
"yield," "go stop slow," and "squeeze left,"
all of which were possible in the back seat.
Down by the railroad tracks I churned hot gravel
fist to fist, awaiting the five-car freight.
In stores downtown I said "Charge it"
and my father's name. My school grades
were printed in the daily newspaper.
Mom kept her old address book a secret,
hidden under her voluminous underwear
in a dark oak dresser. Of course I peeked,
I was meant to, but I do not think
I was supposed to fall in love
with the brown-gray photos of that college girl,
strange as late night movies. I was young
but her truth was younger. And Dad
kept his secrets some place I never found,
though it's possible I didn't look hard,
as I turned away my eyes each time
he rose dripping from the bathtub.
And if I memorized sex manuals,
and if I caressed pillows and
practiced kissing mirrors, I can't remember.
What I remember are the dogs,
Eager, Loyal, and Foolish÷teaching them
to worship the hoops they leaped through.
When I look at this poem
years after composing it, I recognize some details lifted directly from
my own life, some recomposed from family stories, some made up from
cloth, and some I'm not entirely sure about. No one but me and
my immediate family will recognize one of my nieces masquerading as me
in this poem, and me masquerading as a beloved family friend in an
from his own childhood. As near as I can recall, the poem's
spoofing of Freudian readings of childhood was grafted onto some
of my own that were perhaps too precious for me to deal with in
but an ironic stance. And as the title's echo of Grant Wood's
strange painting was meant to indicate, the whole performance is
of itself as performance, even as it hoped to create something iconic
of the raw materials of my own small-town childhood.
this was the poem that my college magazine chose to represent my book Magic
Shows when it appeared; and unfortunately they reprinted it under
headline "Oedipus at Home." This occasioned a mock-angry phone
from my mother, after she had endured some fierce ribbing from family
friends, some of which was no doubt occasioned by the magazine's focus
on the Oedipal aspect, but much of which was fastened on my sonorous
in the phrase "voluminous underwear." Of course, I chose the word
for its sound as much as for its meaning, but this was no defense, nor
should it be. My attempt to justify it in terms of point of view
fared little better. Much as I protested that I was simply
a boy's sense that everything about his parents, including
underwear, is of mythic size, I was only half-convincing. My
of this particular dirty laundry was and was not forgiven, as it was
was not serious in the first place, as my mother was and was not mad at
me. I do not claim that this is a great poem, a complex one, or
one of my best, but it strikes me as a fitting case study about the
of sorting out the strands of reality and sincerity in what is called
mixtures of fact and fiction occur in most of my self-portraits,
Looking over the poems now, I note that the degree to which they are
my life varies considerably. In "Self-Portrait with Stage
for instance, I reveal almost nothing of my intimate life, and the poem
relates only tangentially to my actual experience.
Self-Portrait with Stage Fright
This isn't my real personality
standing up half casually
to talk about myself. Usually
shy as water through
my own fingers÷
just ask my mother,
if you can find her; that's her
hunched in the back row
or two steps from the door.
Usually dew glazes my lip
when everyone's looking,
sleet thrums my stomach,
a regular hailstorm
in my knees.
What can I give you
but dark inklings
you already know
or a twinge or two
out of history? What is
my stammering hello
but a code for farewell?
Wouldn't you rather watch
buzzards circle their roosting tree?
Without past, without regard
they swirl as black snowflakes
in one of those bubble villages
that live on coffee tables.
Shake them and they perform.
Shake me and I'm gone.
Like every teacher,
or other public performer, I occasionally experience nervous feelings
I stand in front of an audience, but in truth, I have never suffered
true stage fright; for if the term means anything, it must refer to
extraordinary, a nearly paralyzing resistance to performance. In
any documentary sense, then, this self-portrait is a blatant fib.
This is true even though there are, as usual, some details drawn from
life. My shy mother, for example, often does prefer to sit near
exit at a concert or lecture, in case she is overwhelmed by the desire
to flee. She rarely is, but that is probably because she is
comfortably near an exit. In any case, at the time I wrote this
she had never heard me give a poetry reading.
up a case of stage fright, I suppose, in part because it seemed a
metaphor for the strangeness of self portraiture, the complicated dance
of revelation and concealment involved in writing an an
vein, and then, of course, presenting such a dance in public. I
experience stage fright, exactly, but I do feel the absurdity and
inherent in the practice of the poetry reading, along with the usual
about the quality of both work and performance.
have read this poem publicly ÷ and I also wrote it, in part,
to read aloud to audiences ÷ listeners have tended to assume
that it is
a piece of confession, or at least that I used to suffer from
fright. I alow them to think so, even though it seems to me that
the poem tries to ironize the pose of sincerity so common at poetry
as the poet with genial and often self-deprecating humor presents what
we are meant to understand as lyrical profundities. It seems to
that the confessional impulse itself is an odd blend of vulnerability
brazenness. This poem conducts its ironic commentary in the form
of that most comfortable ritual of the contemporary poetry reading: the
between-poems banter in which the poet attempts to charm the audience
deflect any impression of undue egotism or self-absorption that the
themselves may justifiably have created.
a recent poem that began in the self-mocking vein of "American Gothic"
with some writerly whining, but arrived, much to my surprise, at a
Self-Portrait as Runner Up
I've never been a shoe-in. I'm always flappable,
and when I make a joke it's like fumbling
for change. My motto is Yes, But.
I'm everyone's third choice, and rightly so,
because I couldn't blaze a trail
in butter. Most of my twenties
I spent paging through catalogs,
my thirties struggling with a stuck zipper.
Now, in my cruise-control forties,
I seem to watch the weather channel
in my sleep. I've never gone
without saying. Believe me, I need
plenty of introduction. When the comet
everyone's mad about appears
in the northern sky, I see lint,
a dim and vaguely luminous idea,
celestial smudge on my glasses.
Still, more and more mornings I wake
and let the cracks and cobwebs
on the ceiling swim for a moment
in my blurred, dread-stirred eyes.
Then rise with a relish past fame
to tend a fire as common as it seems rare.
case, my sincerity was accidental. I simply intended to write a
poem about being so frequently an also-ran, an honorable mention, or a
semi-finalist ÷ an experience I find that most contemporary
poets are apt
to jest self-consciously about. And yes, it did occur to me that
this might also be a fun poem to present at poetry readings. But
in the process of writing, improvising on my theme, I more or less
out the final stanza, thus ruining the joke and veering away from any
of a punch line. It didn't take me long to recognize that I had
veered into honesty, though it was an honesty that probably could not
emerged from intention. I let it stand. Although the poem
from a desire to charm, I find that whether it is touching, funny, or
successful to anyone else doesn't matter much to me now. Of
no one will ever believe this. Nevertheless, the poem does seem
a gift to me. I imagine that Rembrandt, too, in the process of
on all those silly hats, might have occasionally had a similar
© by David Graham