Autobiography and Poetry

Of Shriveled Hearts and Old Flames
The stories we tell about ourselves.
March 28 2007 11:28 AM

Autobiography and Poetry

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Dear Dan,

You ask whether I think intimacy is tied to truth-telling. The question reminds me of the apocryphal story about W.H. Auden walking out of a reading by Anne Sexton muttering, "Who the hell cares about Anne Sexton's grandmother?" I care about some poets' grandmothers. But as you might guess, I don't think poems have to be fact-based to be intimate; as a reader, I'm generally for the slippage you yourself describe. You say you like "real" things—that you sought out Shaw's memorial when you first got to Boston because Lowell had described it. But of course what is striking about the lines you single out from Sappho and Herbert ("Greener than grass" and "Who would have thought my shriveled heart/ Could have recovered greenness") is that they are metaphors—figurative language for whatever palpable emotion is conveyed to the reader by the poet. When you drive to the Shaw Monument, what you are really after (if I may be so intimate) is some kind of imaginative connection. Right? You're seeking the metaphorical aura of what once was in the presence of what is—the wealth of intuition that can amplify the penury of the present moment. So, presumably that's what you mean when you describe a "slippage" from documentary verifiability to intangible intimacy. If I don't think that truth-telling is a necessary element of "intimacy," that's because as a reader what I'm always hoping for is the quality of being caught in the undertow of someone else's perceptions, allowed to glimpse something that I would not in ordinary conversation. I find it easier to experience that when I feel the speaker is not merely acting out a realization for the reader, but speaking to himself or herself. One has the sense of fathoming a secret; something that isn't consciously betrayed. (Note, by the way, that Herbert may be speaking of himself in the line you quote, but in the poem he is speaking to God—not to us. It leaves the reader room to be unobserved. At another juncture, we could argue about whether it was the disappearance of God, and the destruction of the triangle of poet, reader, divinity, that has helped make "autobiography" into a more historically fraught term than it was in 1798 when Wordsworth published Lyrical Ballads.) In short, what strikes me as "real" in a poem is hinted at in the word intimate itself: One can reveal oneself to an intimate (n.), but one can also intimate (v.) one's feelings to that listener—leaving room for the "unrealized," allowing the listener to grapple with these things for herself.

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What I like about One Kind of Everything is that it takes a hard-headed look at how differently "autobiography" can be used by poets, how much more Whitmanically multitudinous it is now than even a few decades ago. When I began reading and writing poetry, American poetry was still processing Lowell, Plath, and Sexton—and, for that matter, Oprah, Donahue, and Montel Williams—and it felt like there was a kind of war being waged between the forces of self-revelation and therapeutic recovery and the forces of indeterminacy and skepticism. To put it crudely, there was lots of talk of two poles, pro-autobiography and anti-autobiography, each limited in its way. In the pro- mode, of course, would be poems by writers like Sharon Olds—poems that work in a psychological vein and tend to open with a proposition that is built upon and expanded until it finds release and redemption (if sometimes an ironic one).

Take "Beyond Harm," about the death of her father, which begins, "A week after my father died/ suddenly I understood/ his fondness for me was safe—nothing/ could touch it." The poem recounts the speaker's fear that her father, before he dies, would tell her he didn't love her ("Right up to the last moment I could … offend him"). It concludes with a gesture fairly typical of Olds' work: "But then, a while after he died,/ I suddenly thought, with amazement, he will always/ love me now, and I laughed—he was dead, dead!" The tonal irony may complicate any strict "redemption," but what is notable is the discursive language of realization, the staging of insight; and also the fact that the poem doesn't arrive at a place terribly different from where it opened, in part because the poem is couched in such studiedly flat language. (To be fair, this isn't one of Olds' better poems.)

On the other side, one might cite poems by Michael Palmer, Claudia Rankine, or John Ashbery—poems that some readers would complain are frustratingly indeterminate. One example would be Ashbery's "Soonest Mended," which he has cheekily described as a "one-size-fits-all Confessional poem." It, too, opens with a proposition: "Barely tolerated, living on the margin/ In our technological society, we were always having to be rescued/ On the brink of destruction, like heroines in Orlando Furioso/ Before it was time to begin all over again." But the proposition is vague, pluralistic, open-ended; the speaker, who is addressing what it was like to be young in the 1950s (or thereabouts), addresses us on behalf of a "cohort"—presumably artists and outsiders who felt on the edge of Organization Man culture. Rather than deploy the idioms of self-actualization to describe what it felt like to be marginalized, the speaker uses allusions—to Ariosto's 16th-century epic poem, a parody of chivalric traditions, and later, to the comic figure Happy Hooligan—to depict his nagging sense that he has no permanent home in the world. The poem is a process of epistemological exploration—and a sendup of the didactic modes we use to tell stories about ourselves.

This is one of my favorite poems. But in poems that are more studiously opposed to self-revelation—even more elliptical—it can be difficult to discern the true crux of the poem. Which gets at the problem with the "poles" in the first place: One can care less about autobiography in a poem but care a great deal about whether a poem seems to convey something like "feelings" at all. And surely one can grant that language is indeterminate, and the self fundamentally unstable, but still care about making readers experience tangible emotions. In fact, today it seems that plenty of poets (a few I've recently been reading: you, Laura Kasischke, Noelle Kocot) are trying to write about "what happened" in a plethora of ways, many of them more openly than in the past. (Bring on the grandmothers and the old flames.)

So, have we in fact arrived at a point when "autobiographical" is no longer a particularly useful critical term? It purports to refer to the verifiable realm of "what happened." But usually it is just used  sloppily by readers who mean merely that a poem is engaged in a discourse that appears to us to be autobiographical. Don't we need a phrase for this? (It's the inverse of "reality-based" poetry—a poetry that appears autobiographical but is self-consciously telling a story about the self.) Say, poems of "autobiographic fallacy"?

On that note—to duck my own question—the mundane realities of my life are intruding, and I've run out of time. The baton goes back to you …

Sincerely (mostly),

Meghan

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.

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