Autobiography and Poetry

On Bad Poetry and Boring Family Stories
The stories we tell about ourselves.
March 28 2007 12:54 PM

Autobiography and Poetry

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Dear Meghan,

True about Anne Sexton's grandmother—but to extend Auden's cantankerous question, "Who cares about thrushes?" (Thomas Hardy did, and now I do.) "Who cares about daffodils?" (Wordsworth did, and therefore so do I.) Auden's is the kind of response (nauseatingly gendered, I would add) that greets the Confessional impulse so often. As it happens, I almost never like Sexton and almost always like Auden—but that's a point for another discussion. What Auden was really saying, it seems to me, is, "Who cares about bad poetry? No quantity of grandmothers will make up for bad writing about them." I DO care about grandmothers if they are Hart Crane's in "My Grandmother's Love Letters," his best poem, or William Carlos Williams' "Last Words of My English Grandmother," among his best.

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True what you say about my communion with the Shaw Monument. If the great poem that it inspired were simply reducible to what anybody might see there, then I wouldn't have cared about the poem in the first place. Col. Shaw is described in Lowell's poem as being "as lean as a compass needle"—a bold and suggestive figural description that says more about Lowell's state of mind than about the Colonel's waistline. In both of my "green" examples, as you point out, a marked act of figuration "transforms" fact just as the person speaking claims he/she is transformed. (Needless to say, Sappho wasn't green, nor was Herbert's heart.) But particularly in Herbert and particularly in that poem, the thrill is how free and reckless Herbert is within his own figures—the poem is called "The Flower," but this talking flower doesn't bother to remember that flowers don't have hearts; and so in the lines we've been quoting, figuration fails even as it seems to be succeeding. The end result is, to me, an effect that feels a lot like Confessional candor.

This play of fact and figure is crucial to my understanding of Confessional poems. I think one thing that marks the Confessional gesture is the attempted substitution of facts or the atmosphere of facts for figure and the atmosphere of figuration. This happens in ways that do not exclude, mind you, brilliant inventiveness. Sappho's poem about jealousy got rewritten in a marvelous way by Confessional poet John Berryman, whose fourth "Dream Song" begins, "Filling her compact and delicious body with chicken paprika" and proceeds, detail by detail, to revise Sappho's ancient triangle of jealousy in pungent modern terms to which everybody can relate: The speaker sees a girl across a crowded restaurant and simply cannot believe what a loser she's with!! I would argue that details like "chicken paprika" signify, to the reader, not only "our world" but "real world," and the joy of the poem is in its straddling of documentary fact and complex literary thinking. Berryman knows his Sappho, but he also thinks the girl across the restaurant is very "delicious" indeed.

Reading poetry chronologically, the way we do when we read forward in an anthology, for example, is like encountering a series of surprises: Suddenly somebody is talking about his cat in this extraordinary way! Oh my goodness, did she just compare Death to a chauffeur? Wow, I have just experienced what it must be like to be raped by a bird! Etc., etc. But you can't surprise a smart reader twice, and so the marvelous surprise of Confessional poetry benefited exclusively those who GOT TO IT FIRST! Those surprises became almost immediately impossible to provide, but poets still went on talking about their dead fathers in slightly inappropriate tones or about their crushes on their daughters or what have you. "Yawn" was the near-comic response to all these saucer-eyed incest plots. As in the larger memoir culture, the feeling with Olds is of mass-produced individuality—not "personal" but precisely "personalized," like those coffee mugs you can buy in airports, with the names "Dan" or "Meghan" emblazoned on them. (I don't like Olds' work.)

The feeling of mass-produced surprises doesn't apply only to autobiographical poems, by the way. You mentioned the Language School. To me (despite the attempts of excellent critics—Marjorie Perloff, Stephen Burt—to convince me otherwise), Language poets are all alike and always boring. They demonstrate the same already-granted points about linguistic indeterminacy over and over; like Rube Goldberg machines but without the wit, they set an enormous mechanism in place to move a marble several inches.

But now, as you say, there seem to be a few—perhaps only a few—new surprises possible within the model of "autobiography." In the work of poets our age, inside their dense fabric of words, words, words, in the midst of all this hall-of-mirrors sophistication, indeterminacy piled upon indeterminacy, suddenly we find—sincerity! Autobiography! Even Confessionality! And that's because of great poets like Ashbery who "changed the game," as Robert Lowell once said he, Lowell, had (and he had). And these neo-confessionals, let us hope, aren't just changing the game BACK or wearing, for the sake of nostalgia, the old uniforms.

I'm glad you mention Ashbery. Weirdly, Ashbery, who would appear at first to have zero interest in autobiography, turns out to be pretty central to our topic. To the examples you give, I'll add another. His volume from a few years back was titled Your Name Here. Immediately you think: death of the author, jouissance, indeterminacy, etc., etc.—and you would be partly right: The poems are brilliantly playful in conceding authorial gravity to the reader (whomever he or she happens to be at a given moment). But turn the title page and you find that the book is dedicated to Ashbery's former lover Pierre Martory, then recently deceased. The meaning of Your Name Here then changes permanently—the poems become elegies, even wrenching elegies. Almost every reference to "you" in the book can be read doubly, beautifully doubly, as referring to nobody at all and as referring only to one person, Pierre Martory. (Martory also turns up in Ashbery's famous poem "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror"—another poem that makes brilliant work of "autobiography" and its meanings.)

We've barely touched on the meanings of "true" as that word pertains to poetry, and we haven't mentioned the ancient critique of poetry as essentially a lie. Scratch this topic a little and you can view practically the whole of lyric poetry in the West. "Tell the truth but tell it slant," writes Dickinson. That will have to do for now.

It's been fun discussing this with you, Meghan—if it was indeed you and not some fictional persona. As for me, I'll be the one carrying on over lamb and wine downtown this evening! If you can find the place, readers, the drinks are on me.

Dan

Dan Chiasson's poems appear in The New Yorker, Paris Review, Threepenny Review, and elsewhere.

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