by Gerry LaFemina
A recent collection of essays, After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography, raises some issues about confessionalism, autobiography, and the role of the lyric I. Confessionalism, that moniker lodged against Lowell by M.L. Rosenthal that was then owned by an entire school of poetry, has of course led to numerous classroom discussions in which students declared that anything they wrote in lines that expressed their feelings was poetry: I’m just confessing how I feel. The more melodramatic, the better.
Of course, that’s where many of us start, and I want to say that most of my poetry still “expresses my feelings,” insofar as my obsessions–emotional, spiritual, psychological—are my obsessions. These are my truths, and they are the cornerstone for the lyric I of my poems. I am less bound to the notion of fact: adherence to details for the sake of documenting what happened is the place for journals or diaries. The poem is about the reader as much as the writer, it’s an exchange in the marketplace of the line, in which the poem has to have relevance for both. The sordid details that we’ve played over and over again in our heads may offer a cheap thrill (though in this age of Facebook posts and selfies, of Instagram photos and Yelp reviews, I think not). The fact is, we’re already bombarded with the tabloid details of people’s lives on a regular basis: what does poetry offer as a place of confession? As a place for autobiography?
In my college yearbook, I have a quote from Simic: “I can imagine many lives in which I could be perfectly happy or perfectly miserable.” It was my understanding of being an artist, something akin to what Kinnell says in “Poetry, Personality, and Death”: “We move toward a poetry in which the poet seeks an inner liberation by going so deeply within himself… that he suddenly finds he is everyone.” What must we be liberated from if not the ego that begs for the facts of our lives to be told beyond the small cadre of confidants we would normally share those facts with.
Fact is, I’m less concerned with my life stories. I’ve told them. They hold no secret for me to get something more. When I tell a story about my son’s birth or my father, and someone says to me (as happens regularly), “You should write a poem about that,” my reaction is always the same: “No!” A good anecdote does not necessarily make a good poem, in part because so many poets tend to write the poem as if the anecdote were more important than the poetry.
My mother tells a story about giving a group of cousins one of my books because in the poem “The Barely Visible” my great aunt Sophie appears in factual glory, she who “survived/ two husbands, a daughter/a granddaughter and a great grandson.’ As a matter of fact, another person who appears in the poem, a boy I knew in grammar school, appears in hyperbolized detail. And the historical figure Amos Stiles, a shipwreck survivor whom I read about in the shipwreck museum on Lake Superior also appears in the poem. Though they appear, the poem is about none of them, but rather about an obsession of mine then: how our species survives adversity and tragedy.
More to the point, though, a couple of these cousins called my mother asking about the “facts” of some of the book’s other poems. And my mother told them what she’d come to understand: the poem’s facts are the facts of some alternate reality, one that looks a lot like ours but isn’t ours.
Actually, my saying that’s what my mother said is me making up another detail to support the truth of this essay, my current obsession, while simultaneously being disinterested in the facts. Rather, my mother said something like “Gerry isn’t writing an autobiography.”
That’s not to say there aren’t autobiographical details in my poems, there are, but more often than not they are diving boards from which I leap into an imagined life. As I said some twenty years ago when interviewed by a student newspaper, “The guy speaking in my poems is everything I hope I am and everything I’m glad I’m not. We’ve shared a lot of the same experiences, but the ‘I’ of my poems isn’t me exactly.” I’m imagining those lives that Simic mentioned. My goal is not to tell my stories, but to enter an experience of discovery, one that I hope generates a feeling (and, I hope, empathy) when the poem is read.
In my poem “After Reading Rexroth I Step Outside,” the speaker recounts finding the bones of a dead child while morel mushroom hunting. The poem’s title is counterfactual: I had not been reading Rexroth, nor have I ever found the bones of any creature. The point of autobiography that I led to the poem was seeing mushrooms in the grass at work:
Low moon tonight & nearly full.
See how it illuminates the alien bodies of mushrooms
colonizing the weedy lawn. They’re a surprise after six weeks
of near drought, delivered, no doubt,
by the drizzle that followed—
their fibrous necks lifting up their heads so they seem to look
Everything else is imagined not to trick the reader about my life experience, but rather to engage the reader in the same experience of discovery I had in writing the poem. In this way I’m expressing what Adrienne Rich called “our desire [for] a poetry in which the ‘I’ has become all of us, not simply a specific suffering personality, and not an abstraction which is also an evasion of the poet’s own specificities.” That said, once, after a reading, a woman came up to me and asked, “What happened with the dead child?” I said I didn’t know because the poem ended: I wasn’t interested in a moment beyond the lyric experience explored in the poem. She was very upset and felt that she had been manipulated.
My argument—both with her and in this essay—is that I’m an imaginative writer. If I wanted to write my autobiographical experience, I’d be writing memoir (and we know there have been numerous debates about the license some memoirists take with fact). I write poems because their lyric intensity and compression, their language and structure, allow for a more powerful affect. I write poems because my favorite poems had such an effect on me: reading them led me to imagining those lives detailed in them.
Even in my love poems (and I’ve written a number of love poems), the poem is an attempt to metaphorize and understand the feeling. Love, at its best, is one of the most transcendental of feelings: we become part of the other. As Kinnell notes, “As with poetry, so with love: it is necessary to go through the personality to reach beyond it.” The details about the relationship, about the beloved, are secondary to the poem’s attempt to capture the insights and feelings of being “in love.”
Of course, this is my way of thinking about the poem. This is not meant as a complaint against those whose lyric selves are closer to their personal biographies. Many of my favorite writers write a much more autobiographical poem. It’s a large table, and we all can sit at it. And whether we metaphorize our lives or explore them in their autobiographical details, the importance of mediating those experiences via poetry—those aspects of craft that the art form offers–is key. In its discussion of confessionalism, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics notes that it “should be considered not as a prescriptive formula held by one group but as a general permission felt by most poets…to treat personal experience in its most intimate and painful aspects,” and dare I say its most pleasurable and joyous aspects, too. Although I’m sure the quote is using “treat” for its third American Heritage definition, “to deal with in writing or speech,” I prefer to think it actually is using the sixth definition, “To subject to a process, action, or change, especially to a chemical or physical process or application.” Writing a poem about experience ought to change the event(s) in question; it must find its truths if it is going to not just entertain our readers, but engross them, make them participants in the poem itself—in its language and breath and imagining; the discoveries in it become part of their experiences.