V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




Balancing the potential feelings of those we write about 
and degrees of disguise, against our own reasons for and comfort level 
with making private lives public, comprises one ethical arena. 
Another is our contract with the reader with respect to literal truth.

My mother, in her own mixed-message way, once gave me permission to write about our family.  I was visiting over the holidays, and we were having one of our customary late night heart-to-hearts: "Write about us all you want," she said, "but make sure you write with love."  Years later, her statement still rattles my nerves, and yet if I think of someone else writing about me, I might be tempted to ask for similar consideration.  For who cherishes public humiliation or blame?  Who among us wishes to have some part of our life sensationalized at the whim of a fellow artist? 
     Robert Lowell's exposure and alteration of Elizabeth Hardwick's personal letters to him in The Dolphin, his book of sonnets detailing the demise of their marriage and his affair with Lady Caroline Blackwood, provides a provocative case.  Many would agree that his friend, Elizabeth Bishop, was right to hold Lowell accountable, as she did in her correspondence with him, for what she called a "cruel" artistic decision.  In "Rereading Confessional Poetry," Susan Rosenbaum cites the following note from Bishop to Lowell as illustration of the murky moral waters into which Bishop felt Lowell had plunged: "One can use one's life as material ÷ one does, anyway ÷ but these letters ÷ aren't you violating a trust?  IF you were given permission ÷ IF you hadn't changed them. . . .  But art just isn't worth that much."  Clouding the waters further, for Bishop, was her belief that Lowell's use or misuse of Hardwick's letters, in addition to violating a private trust with his wife, had violated a public trust with his readers.  Rosenbaum, again, cites the following as illustration: "The letters, as you have written them, present fearful problems: what's true, what isn't; how one can bear to witness such suffering and yet not know how much of it one needn't suffer with, how much has been 'made up,' and so on."
     As the tide of autobiographical writing continues to flood the world, issues of responsibility toward the people about whom we write poems, as well as our contract with the reader, naturally arise.  Many books of contemporary poems contain almost exclusively first-person lyrics, and a growing number of poets have adopted the narrative structure of memoirs or novels in verse.  One recent example is Jane Shore's Music Minus One, which moves through each successive stage of the poet's life as she comes of age and matures ÷ from childhood and adolescence to motherhood and the loss of her own parents.  Sharon Olds's The Father, which chronicles, in graphic detail, her father's dying from the onset of cancer to reflection in the years after his death, is another example.  And the subtitle of Andrew Hudgins's The Glass Hammer: A Southern Childhood speaks for itself.  In addition, Carolyn Forché's 1993 anthology Against Forgetting has popularized the notion of a poetry of witness: poems that address the self in relation to history, particularly to crimes against humanity and other political extremities; the term is also used in relation to more purely private experiences of sexual violence, illness, abuse, and suffering.  Such poems of witness or testimony constitute an important subset of autobiographical lyrics, including works as distinct as Forché's own The Country Between Us, Czeslaw Milosz's Rescue, Sharon Doubiago's South America Mi Hija, Linda McCarriston's Eva-Mary, and Alicia Ostriker's "The Matectomy Poems" from The Crack in Everything.
     Of course, not all poems written in first person are necessarily autobiographical.  They may be written in persona, or they may be a collage of personal, observed, and imagined experience.  The boundaries between fact and fiction are as fascinating and complex in poetry as they are in prose, and deliberations about the truth, lies, and consequences of the lyric "I" can be as intellectually subtle as they are emotionally charged.  Consider Philip Levine's statement from an April 1999 Atlantic Monthly interview: "Sisters walk in and out of my poems, but I don't have any sisters. . . .  Why be yourself if you can be somebody interesting?  Imagine a life.  Imagine being something other than what you are."  Or this from Larry Levis as remembered by Harriet Levin, a former student: "The more I lie, the closer I get to the emotional truth."  Or this from David Yezzi in "Confessional Poetry & the Artifice of Honesty": "All poets use their lives for poetry, but not all lives are used similarly."  Still, the question remains: to what extent do we need permission when we reveal family secrets or use as subject matter the personal lives of our relatives and friends, and to what extent do we own the material once we transform it into poetry?
     In "Nonconsensual Nonfiction: Writing About Those Who Don't Want To Be Written About," Robin Hemley raises issues equally relevant for poets:

          Intention seems to be crucial in what one divulges about others. 
          Are you willing first of all to divulge as much about yourself as 
          you are about others?  Are you able to realistically examine your 
          motives?  Are you trying to be the hero or are you trying to educate 
          yourself? . . . .  I often think the true nonconsensual participant 
          in one's writing is some part of oneself that resists being revealed, 
          like some secret inner personality.

In my more forgiving moments, I tell myself these insights about intention and self-discovery are what my mother was asking me to consider ÷ certainly a task with more integrity than prompting me to paint a "beautiful" picture.  "Make us look pretty as a picture," the mother of a poet-friend of mine once said to her. 
     I must confess, however, I often succumb to my own desire to create a beautiful surface.  I am also aware of how such a surface can mask emotional turbulence underneath, especially when I write about my family.  The following poem, whose external landscape is beautiful, is the first in a sequence of ten poems that addresses the fractured inner landscape of growing up as a stepdaughter in a time period when divorce was neither as common nor as openly discussed as it is today: 

          The afternoon we go rowing 
          swans bring us no closer 
          to perfection.  Nor do reeds 
          bowing their heads downwind.

               My parents argue which stroke 
               will turn our borrowed boat around, 
               which method reverse this drifting 
               into the Long Island wake 

          of another daughter's story, 
          her whole family capsizing 
          as storm clouds break 
          over the site of their future cottage. 

               What are we doing here with them 
               in the middle of this pond? 
               Say the swans brought us 
               or the reeds bowing their heads. 

          Last summer my stepfather
          brushed a bee from his mother's hair 
          without her knowing.  What is it, she asked, 
          touching where his hand had been. 

             It's nothing, he said.  It's nothing.
               Like the sound the oars will make 
               dipping in and out of the water 
               when this argument is over÷ 

          my sister on the dock 
          among the white glide of birds 
          and green bend of grass 
          motioning us toward her.

     Later in the sequence it becomes clear that the sister in the last stanza and the speaker are half-sisters, and the family that drowns is a projection of the speaker's original family that split apart when she was a young child: her mother, her blood father, and herself.  It was written with love for the lost family that becomes idealized, just as the sister in the last stanza becomes idealized because she, unlike the speaker/stepdaughter, is the offspring of both parents in the poem.  The sister also becomes a projection of the speaker herself who remains forever in mourning for, and separated from, her birth family. 
     In any event, to write with love or with beauty means something different to poets than it does to moms.  Love of the poetic idea, the image, the line, the surprise and permutations of individual words, music and lyrical structure ÷ all of these figure into a poem taking on a life, a truth, and a beauty of its own, beyond the people who inhabit it or who provide the narrative impetus.  Furthermore, because emotional truth is subjective, many would qualify my mother's requirement of love to include emotional honesty, a potential source of conflict for both parties.  In "Degrees of Fidelity," Stephen Dunn asks, "Is a poem ever worth the discomfort or embarrassment of, say, the family member it alludes to or discusses?"  His answer:

          Certainly many poets have thought so, especially since the advent 
          of so-called confessional poetry in the late fifties.  My loosely held 
          rule for myself is that if my poem has found ways to discover and 
          explore its subject, if it has on balance become more of a fictive than 
          a confessional act, then ÷ regardless of its connotations ÷ I will 
          not be discomforted or embarrassed by it. 

     Despite the extent to which we may delve into the subject in unexpected ways ÷ the day I went rowing with my parents, my sister was not even there with us ÷ or alter certain details for the sake of musicality ÷ the "bee" in my poem was actually a tick ÷ the emotional truth remains and can elicit, in both the poet and the reader, a feeling of actual confession.  Was my mother wearing a pink or white nightgown the night we spoke about writing with love?  Was my father sound asleep next to her or wearing headphones and watching TV?  Was it Christmas, spring, or summer break?  These facts seem trivial compared to the dead weight of my mother's words that, when I remember them, make the room go cold and my mind draw a blank even though I know she was asking me to be fair, which seems a fair enough request.  If I were writing this scene into a memoir, my contract with the reader would oblige me to tell you that I cannot remember what happened next.  Perhaps I left the room, feigning sleepiness, or changed the subject entirely.  If I were writing a short story, I would feel free to pick a fight with her but challenged to make it feel true.  If I were writing a poem, say a pantoum, I would feel equally inspired to be true to the form.  The calling of truth, the necessity of invention, or the responsibility of love, however we interpret our role when writing about others, remains a central concern for poets as well as for fiction and nonfiction writers. 
     I think of a friend who, when making final revisions before her first book was published, agonized over a phrase in a poem about her dead uncle in order to spare her still living aunt's feelings.  We shared an office and, as I bent over her shoulder to look at the computer screen she asked, "What do you think of my calling him a 'boogey' man instead of a 'drinking' man?"  I felt as  divided as she, as divided as I know many of us feel when we make public our own and others' personal lives.  "'Boogey' is a great word," I said, trying to be supportive.  And so she changed it.  Recently, when speaking to a creative writing class she asserted, "There was already enough drinking in the book."  Ultimately, each of us has to make a decision we think we can live with, both personally and aesthetically.  For poets, the sounds and connotations of individual words or phrases are often the currency with which we weigh such decisions. 
     Balancing the potential feelings of those we write about and degrees of disguise, against our own reasons for and comfort level with making private lives public, comprises one ethical arena.  Another is our contract with the reader with respect to literal truth.  Should readers feel cheated if Sharon Olds, for example, had fabricated abusive parents or a dying father, or had done what Ted Kooser condemns, in his essay of the same title, as "lying for the sake of making poems"?  While his position that poets not "exploit the trust a reader has in the truth of lyric poetry in order to gather undeserved sympathy to one's self" is an important and provocative one, it reflects the increasing blur between author and speaker.  It also presumes that poets can control the reader's response and that readers can ascertain the poet's motive.  The issue here is subject matter: when are we obliged to make clear the distinction between poet and speaker, fact and invention?  Why does the poet Ai sometimes use the disclaimer "a fiction" directly beneath the titles of her newer persona poems, and sometimes not?
     Say we write from the perspective of a rape victim but have never experienced rape.  Perhaps we have a sister or close friend who has been raped but we choose not to reveal her identity, or perhaps we simply feel compelled as writers or as women to explore the subject matter.  Are we morally bound to make clear the poem is written in persona?  Kooser would say yes, and many who seek wisdom from fellow survivors in dealing with traumatic events through poetry might agree; for them, and for other readers, the politics of such identity shape-shifting may well be an issue.  But don't poets have a long and healthy tradition of lying in order to tell the truth, just like fiction writers?  Isn't our primary obligation to the poem itself, to make it ring true, no matter  how factual or fictional?  For if a poet elicits the reader's genuine sympathy or empathy, this usually attests to the imaginative force of the poem, part of the craft of which may be the artist's choice not to call attention to the "I" as a persona but to speak to the reader directly and intimately.  A significant tradition of the dramatic monologue exists, but where and how do we draw the line, especially given that poets often discover their persona poems contain as much, if not more of themselves than do their poems that originate from experience, since wearing the mask can be so liberating. 
     Although she did not pair them in the same breath to make this point, Carol Frost, at an Associated Writing Programs panel in Albany in 1999, offered two intriguing examples that help illustrate the complexity of the issue.  About Hilda Raz's powerful collection of breast cancer poems Divine Honors (which, it's interesting to note, includes an invented daughter), Frost admitted she would feel deceived if the poet did not actually have cancer.  Yet about her own memorable poem, "To Kill a Deer," in which the speaker tracks, kills, and guts a deer, Frost remarked, "Am I really a hunter?  None of your damn business!"  One thing seems clear: the rise of the poetry of witness, confession, and autobiography has made more complicated the negotiation between poetic license and the contract with the reader, between invention and interpretation, between the mother of the poet and the poet herself.

© by Kate Sontag


Contributor's note
Next page
Table of contents
VPR home page