Autobiography and Poetry
We're here to talk about the enormous topic of autobiography in contemporary poetry, as part of Slate's "Memoir Week." So I'll start with a confession (alas, not a juicy one). Recently, I've been thinking a lot about what makes a poem seem autobiographical to readers because my first book of poems is coming out in April, and I find myself worrying that people will read sections of the book (for example, a long poem that is a kind of fantasia about sisters and doubleness) in strictly autobiographical terms. What do I mean by "autobiographical"? Specifically, that a reader or a reviewer might presume that a line about a "father" had a one-to-one correlation with my own "first-order experiences," to borrow a term you use in your new book about these very issues, One Kind of Everything: Poem and Person in Contemporary America. I've been having visions of aunts and uncles reading such a review and calling my mother to say, "I didn't know Meghan … !" And sure enough, just last week one early review referred to two "autobiographical sequences" at the heart of the book. What interests me is that I would have thought that, for at least one of the two, it would be difficult to judge its relationship to my life unless you know me or had asked me point-blank whether it has any factual basis.
All this raises a number of questions in my mind, the first of which might simply be, What do we mean when we say autobiographical? In what circumstances do readers of a first-person poem assume it is drawn from "what really happened"? What arethe signifiers that convey to us that a poem is or is not autobiographical? And why does this window onto a text even matter to readers (and writers)? There are many answers to these questions—and to get into them we'll probably have to touch on the legacy of Confessionalism and language poetry, among other things. But to start, I'd have to say, on one basic level, that I may have invited an autobiographical reading, consciously or unconsciously, by structuring my book as a quasi-coming-of-age story full of first-person poems that strive for a certain intimacy with the reader. This quality of intimacy—often couched as a quality of urgency—is, I think, one of the elements that distinguishes a lyric poem from any other form of writing. And I guess I can see how that intimate tone—when coupled with specific references to places and names—instills in some readers the presumption that the speaker's utterances are based on "real life."
But why, in the first place, did autobiography seem to me to be such a dirty word? One reason is what you could call aesthetic squeamishness: For a long time, I associated "autobiographical" poetry with little more than sincerity. So many "this happened to me" poems find their authority in their factuality rather than in their inventiveness. And this obsession with the "real" seemed to me to short-circuit the transcendent or even just delightfully slippery possibilities of poetry. You touch on this larger issue in the introduction to One Kind of Everything. Part of your argument is that American literature has always had an allergy to—or just a suspicion of—autobiography: "Starting from Emerson, then," you write, "we can see that autobiography is simultaneously an occasion for the imagination and a symptom of its failure, both a highly troped moment and one somehow outside the sphere of literary figuration." At first I thought this sounded a little like you were eating your cake and having it, too.
But your point, I realize, is that when it comes to 20th-century poetry, autobiography is "unusually difficult to define." And, we can add, even to detect. What may look like blatant memoir may sometimes be a metaphorical exploration, and vice versa; Eliot's impersonality is a form of autobiography, just as Robert Lowell's "confessionalism" is a metaphoric reflection of his preoccupations with American history, etc. When he writes about his Brahmin family, he writes about them as representative of class and history. Autobiography, in other words, needn't be only a form of sincerity or testimony to the authority of surviving. It can be quite indirect—as it often is in Sylvia Plath's work. It can be coded, as when Elizabeth Bishop writes about other things—man-moths, Robinson Crusoe—as a way of writing about herself. Clearly, though, such coded references are not what most critics or readers mean when they pull out the A-word.
So I'm eager to bat around some questions with you. First of all, at this moment in literary history, do we think about the place of autobiography in poetry in an overly schematic way? Confessional poets staked their authority on writing from experience, roughly as language poets began to challenge the very notion of the "self." This is a stark juxtaposition, and I think for years it led me to hold a somewhat rigid understanding of the role autobiography can play in a poem. So is autobiographical even a useful word when it comes to describing poetry, given how difficult it can be to establish whether what seems autobiographical actually is autobiographical?
Does Sappho's famous love poem ("He seems to me equal to the gods that man") trade on having been "true"? Does knowing whether Wordsworth's "Lucy Gray" corresponds to a real story affect how we feel about the poem? I tend to think not; that, when we read poetry, we are responding, in large part, to the fact that in writing the poem the poet has experienced the dilemma or emotion being staged. After Coleridge read one of Wordsworth's "Lucy" poems, he wrote in a letter, "Some months ago Wordsworth transmitted to me a most sublime Epitaph ... whether it had any reality, I cannot say.—Most probably, in some gloomier moment he had fancied the moment in which his Sister might die." Would he have cared about ascertaining its "reality" more if he lived today?
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.