V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




At root in all the controversies that swirl perennially about the lyric "I" 
and its particular embodiment in so-called confessional verse 
is this inevitable gap between what we as readers typically want ÷ 
including honesty, truth, and reality ÷ and what a poem can provide, 
which is at best some stylized version of such things.  It is not merely 
the unsophisticated common 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 author for matters that, strictly speaking, lay entirely outside the book proper.

I am somewhat surprised to realize that I have been writing self-portrait poems, with varying degrees of obsession, for about twenty years.  Easy enough, 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 experience."  Even more to the point, however, may be his stringent remark on that same page regarding his liberal use of the pronoun "I," which in the context of early nineteenth-century literary proprieties, required at least a pro forma apology: 

          In most books the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will 
          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 discussion of confessional poetry could begin to be cleared up, I feel, by attending closely to the truth, even the truism, of what Thoreau is saying here.  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. 
     Of course, Thoreau immediately proceeds to muddy the waters when he calls for a writer to offer "a simple and sincere account of his own life," as if such a thing were possible.  The romantic extravagance of this call to sincerity certainly dates the passage nicely, grounding it in a typically American strain of Romanticism.  Yet before we condescend to Thoreau and other idealistic writers of his era, we should attend to the complexities, even the contradictions present in their works.  Certainly I would be reluctant to apply either adjective ÷ simple or sincere ÷ unreservedly to Thoreau's book.  Its simplicity is belied by numerous kinds of stylization and literary artifice, including the usual omissions and shadings common to every memoir; its sincerity is questioned on nearly every page by Thoreau's habitual irony, hyperbole, and wordplay.  But we don't have to go so far to undercut this famous call to simple sincerity.  Let me complete the sentence I quoted selectively from a moment ago, and 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 famous jab is that it does more than suggest that sincerity is a rare commodity, or that Thoreau himself lives among particular hypocrites.  It implies 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 sincerity for himself, either, though there are certainly passages in Walden that could be taken to do so.)
     At root in all the controversies that swirl perennially about the lyric "I" and its particular embodiment in so-called confessional verse is this inevitable gap between what we as readers typically want ÷ including honesty, truth, and reality ÷ and what a poem can provide, which is at best some stylized version of such things.  It is not merely the unsophisticated common 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 author for matters that, strictly speaking, lay entirely outside the book proper.
     Like most 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 melodramatically.  To this extent, I guess that many of us begin in a raw confessional vein.  Long before I had read Robert Herrick, or even Anne Sexton, Top 40 radio had provided me with a fairly clear understanding of the lyric mission ÷ and not an entirely naïve sense of things, either, for from the start, I instinctively grasped the fictive nature of the enterprise.  I knew quite well that the tuneful lovesick groans of the pop singer stood for a certain emotion; they didn't mean that the singer was actually weeping in the recording studio. 
     Some two decades ago, having outgrown, or so I hoped, my adolescent self-absorptions, I conceived of a poetic experiment, an open-ended series of self-portraits.  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, which struck me as a fascinating project.  During his working life, Rembrandt painted, etched or drew his own likeness as main subject nearly one hundred times.  We can watch his image pass through a rich variety of moods 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, preens, 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 portraiture, 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.
    For which is the essential Rembrandt?  Is it the deep-eyed old burgher calmly looking at us from some of the late paintings, or is it the impish young man practicing facial expressions like a boy at the mirror ÷ joy, surprise, anger, and so on ÷ in a series of tiny etchings?  How do we reconcile the severity, even the spirituality of the 1659 portrait in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., with the foppish figure in The Hague's 1634  painting, with his glittering ear ring, feather-plumed silk hat, and not quite convincing expression of courtly charm?
     I hope it is obvious that we reconcile such moods and attitudes according to Whitman's timeless brag ÷ for Rembrandt, too, is large, and contains multitudes, including a capacious taste in hats.  So do we all.  I was attracted both to the experimental nature of Rembrandt's project ÷ its variety of 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 does.  If, along the way, I successfully document elements of my own changing body and soul, that certainly will be a personal inducement, if not sufficient reason for persisting.  If one motive remains inescapable self-regard ÷ and if in a sense I remain a boy in front of his mirror trying on different expressions ÷ the technical challenge of theme-and-variations has from the start engaged me just as deeply.  My subject has been readily at hand, just as Thoreau suggests.  What better way to focus on elements of poetic craft than holding up the mirror repeatedly to one's most familiar 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 writing them has been to explore aesthetic more than personal issues.
     Well, of 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 Henry, either, but I did; or, at least, I half-believed it.  It is that very ambiguity that has often felt like the animating spark of my self-portraits, 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 true 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 larger.  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 tensions here; I can barely do so myself.
     Here is one of my earliest self-portraits that was conceived as such.

       American Gothic

          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 now, twenty years after composing it, I recognize some details lifted directly from my own life, some recomposed from family stories, some made up from whole cloth, and some I'm not entirely sure about.  No one but me and perhaps 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 episode from his own childhood.  As near as I can recall, the poem's gentle spoofing of Freudian readings of childhood was grafted onto some memories of my own that were perhaps too precious for me to deal with in anything but an ironic stance.  And as the title's echo of Grant Wood's deeply strange painting was meant to indicate, the whole performance is conscious of itself as performance, even as it hoped to create something iconic out of the raw materials of my own small-town childhood.
     Naturally, this was the poem that my college magazine chose to represent my book Magic Shows when it appeared; and unfortunately they reprinted it under the headline "Oedipus at Home."  This occasioned a mock-angry phone call from my mother, after she had endured some fierce ribbing from family and 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 adjective 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 dramatizing a boy's sense that everything about his parents, including Mom's underwear, is of mythic size, I was only half-convincing.  My airing of this particular dirty laundry was and was not forgiven, as it was and 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 even one of my best, but it strikes me as a fitting case study about the difficulties of sorting out the strands of reality and sincerity in what is called confessional.
     Similar mixtures of fact and fiction occur in most of my self-portraits, naturally.  Looking over the poems now, I note that the degree to which they are even about my life varies considerably.  In "Self-Portrait with Stage Fright," 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 
          I'm sparrow-skittery, 
          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, poetry reader, or other public performer, I occasionally experience nervous feelings when I stand in front of an audience, but in truth, I have never suffered from true stage fright; for if the term means anything, it must refer to something 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 my life.  My shy mother, for example, often does prefer to sit near the 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 sitting comfortably near an exit.  In any case, at the time I wrote this poem, she had never heard me give a poetry reading.
     I made up a case of stage fright, I suppose, in part because it seemed a convenient metaphor for the strangeness of self portraiture, the complicated dance of revelation and concealment involved in writing an an autobiographical vein, and then, of course, presenting such a dance in public.  I don't experience stage fright, exactly, but I do feel the absurdity and self-promotion inherent in the practice of the poetry reading, along with the usual self-doubt about the quality of both work and performance. 
     When I have read this poem publicly ÷ and I also wrote it, in part, precisely 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 stage 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 readings, as the poet with genial and often self-deprecating humor presents what we are meant to understand as lyrical profundities.  It seems to me that the confessional impulse itself is an odd blend of vulnerability and 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 and deflect any impression of undue egotism or self-absorption that the poems themselves may justifiably have created. 
     And finally, 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 wholly different tone:

         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.

     In this case, my sincerity was accidental.  I simply intended to write a jokey 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 blurted out the final stanza, thus ruining the joke and veering away from any sort of a punch line.  It didn't take me long to recognize that I had inadvertently veered into honesty, though it was an honesty that probably could not have emerged from intention.  I let it stand.  Although the poem originated from a desire to charm, I find that whether it is touching, funny, or even successful to anyone else doesn't matter much to me now.  Of course, no one will ever believe this.  Nevertheless, the poem does seem like a gift to me.  I imagine that Rembrandt, too, in the process of trying on all those silly hats, might have occasionally had a similar experience.

© by David Graham


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