Autobiography and Poetry

The Weirdest Episode in the History of Hermeneutics
The stories we tell about ourselves.
March 27 2007 2:22 PM

Autobiography and Poetry


Dear Meghan,

While we're being autobiographical about autobiography, here's a story of my own: There's a poem called "Coda" in my first book of poems—not a great poem, not one I would write the same way again—that is set in an unnamed restaurant on 13th Street in New York. The poem describes a late-night meal (lamb, wine—more wine, come to think of it, than lamb). A year or so after that poem appeared, I got a letter with a return address in New York, asking me if I meant Restaurant X, the writer's favorite place, and if so could he present the poem to the place's manager! In fact, I had no specific restaurant in mind, though I've had some tasty meals on 13th Street; I'm ashamed to say I never responded. But I did think to myself: "Here must be one of the weirdest episodes in the history of hermeneutics."


Partly this is an old drive, one readers succumb to and are right to succumb to. A friend of mine says she can't read Russian novels because they are so "cold"; is she wrong to experience those frozen landscapes as freezing? Is the "reality assumption" just a byproduct of effective writing? When I moved to Boston, the first thing I did was go see the Shaw Monument on the Boston Common—for one reason and one reason only, namely because it had been described so beautifully in a poem ("For The Union Dead") by Robert Lowell. Which is why I was flattered by the note about my made-up restaurant, and why you should feel pretty good about the review of your made-up life.

But what about when writers play to the readerly preference for facts? Here we are on riskier grounds. "This actually happened!" writes Allen Ginsberg at the end of "Howl," of a story so fantastical—a man jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge and walks away unharmed—that we might otherwise categorize it as "surreal." But if we DID categorize it that way, it would be just another one of the marvelous, incandescent, surreal details in "Howl"—nice but forgettable. Because Ginsberg underwrites it with this remarkable assertion—"this actually happened"—(and because, importantly, he says that only ONCE in the whole poem) the bridge-jumping episode becomes, for me, the most powerful thing in the poem. It's as though the curtain parted and the "real" Ginsberg, suddenly playing by the ordinary rules of "factual" depiction, addressed the "real" reader.

This move—let's call it the "reality guarantee"—needn't be so explicit as saying, "This actually happened." There are other ways to cue a documentary response in readers, other terms of the documentary contract. The visually ingenious detail, so real it feels like a snapshot (the doilies, for example, in Elizabeth Bishop's "Filling Station") or the affective detail so open and attractive as to feel "artless" (as when Frank O'Hara says "fun" in the first line of "Having a Coke with You"). And there are acts of strong intimacy, like Hopkins when he tells God, "I am gall, I am heartburn," or like Herbert's when (in "The Flower") he exclaims, "Who would have thought my shriveled heart/ Could have recovered greenness." Or take it further back: you mention Sappho. When Sappho describes turning "greener than grass" at the sight of her beloved in the presence of a man, or when the anonymous poets of the Greek Anthology proclaim across the millennia, "I press my lips to yours." These moments read as "real," no matter what cultural or historical distance intervenes, and I must say, these moments are more or less what I look for in poems.

There's a little bit of slippage in my above remarks, since what I began by describing was an effect of documentary verifiability ("Go ask somebody," Ginsberg might have said. "It's true that Solomon jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and lived."), while I ended up describing something very close to "intimacy." And here is where I want to begin to pass the baton to you, Meghan. While "intimacy" can be, and has been, created at times (by Lowell, for example) by acts of factual confession—artless and therefore "sincere"—it has just as often been forged by denials of fact. "Come live with me and be my love," goes the old invitation. The "strong enchantment" (Marianne Moore's phrase) that poems propose often has to do with banishing the world of fact—you and I together banishing it, for the time being, while the beautiful counter-reality of art takes us over.

It does seem, however, that for a few years in the '50s and '60s and in a few sets of extraordinarily gifted hands, "fact" and "intimacy" became bound up. This is what we call "Confessional poetry." And yet, even as I say so, I know from my own experiences of the Confessionals (it's very unfashionable to say so, but they represent, for me, one of the pinnacles of American poetry) that confession can seem to be nearly anti-intimate: as in Plath's "Lady Lazarus" where the act of confessing gets linked with cheap theater or even "striptease." I wonder, what relationships do you draw between intimacy and confession (in your own work and in the work of poets you love)? And DO those effects depend on truth-telling? They would, wouldn't they, in a memoir? Why do WE get to play by different rules? What if we found out that Ginsberg's assertion was a lie (the thing about verifiable facts is nobody ever bothers to verify them!)?

Truthfully Yours,


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



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