In the midst of dust, boxes, dogs, cats, kids, and not knowing where the outlets are, I’ve had a bit of time to think about things. Not having Internet, TV, and a landline also helped.
I’m thinking a lot this week about how artists use the facts of life, autobiography, real names, etc., in their art. Whenever I think of this, my thinking turns to the confessional poets and how I feel, as important as their individual achievements might be, the conversations around big C confessional poetry did a lot to damage, or pervert, the way poets think of autobiography in their art.
I don’t blame Lowell and Plath and Berryman and Sexton, etc, for this, but instead, the way that after them, poets tended to think of the heightened application of their autobiographies, or pseudo-autobiographies, so that, after Lowell’s “I myself am Hell,” many poets felt they had a lot to live up to, a level of disclosure or proportion or epiphany that is unsustainable.
Things didn’t have to go this way with our common lives. Think of William Carlos Williams’s use or autobiography, or Frank O’Hara’s, or Lyn Hejinian’s, or A.R. Ammons’s.
I’m thinking about this because I recently finished a very long poem in 70 sections that I composed as an excursion into the alien territory of extreme non-fiction. After writing the thing, which was one thing, I now have to sit with it and wonder what it is. This has taken me back to previous uses of non-fiction in poetry and how it’s been wandering in and out of style and favor for a long time (think Wordsworth, for example).
Things seemed to have been doing fine with non-fiction in poetry until thinking about it went all haywire in the 60s. At least this is my tentative thought. After the 70s and 80s, when a version of heightened autobiography became the norm, and then in the 90s and 2000s when, though still the most common poetry, there was a substantial backlash against it, where are we now?
WCW and O’Hara aren’t talked about as much as they were a decade or two ago, and Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery are talked about more than they have been in (it seems to me). Lowell is now out, and though Plath is holding on, her place seems to be greatly diminished from what it was twenty years ago. Does anyone talk about Ammons anymore? How is Elizabeth Bishop doing?
So, anyway, today I’m wanting to forget the conversation we’ve been having about autobiography in poetry since the 1960s, and to erase the term “confessional” from the canon. In my new conversation I’m imagining, instead of Life Studies and Ariel as the first things one thinks of when thinking of “autobiographical” works of poetry, it would be Ammons’s Tape for the Turn of the Year and Lyn Hejinian’s My Life. Granted that Hejinian’s My Life is difficult to teach, and resists quotability, and Ammons’s Tape is, well, long and just as resistant to quoting from and teaching, both twist the autobiographical in ways that I see as correctives to the overblown, self-aggrandizing way that misreads the best parts of Lowell and Plath. Really, there needn’t be an instead about this. There’s easily room for all four texts on the syllabus, and more. Maybe O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency, for example.
A lot of it, the problem I think “confessional” brings to the conversation of autobiography in poetry, is in how we are introduced to these poets, what the book jackets and classes and Wikipedia entries say about them. I was lucky in my introduction to Plath and Lowell back in the mid-80s. It was a creative writing class conducted by Miles Wilson, a rather direct, no-nonsense literature and creative writing teacher who didn’t go in for all the myth of the writer business. So I read Life Studies and Ariel with little apparatus. I’ve been rather against apparatus ever since.
I read Life Studies less as the heightened “poet as house of history” going back and forth with mental illness, and more the “Memories of West Street and Lepke,” where the focus isn’t the heightened personal, but how the personal—near quotidian—is placed in a context of memory and association where a relationship to time is demonstrated.
But that’s not where we usually go when thinking of Lowell:
Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-wormingin pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston’s
“hardly passionate Marlborough Street,”
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is “a young Republican.”
I have a nine months' daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear.
I hear the perfect ear of his line. His restructuring of form from within form. And his autobiographical material isn’t there to wear itself as a badge, but rather to work with what actually happens in the act of perception and memory. Since then, though, even in much of Lowell’s work, when the self becomes the subject matter, poets try to universalize by generalizing, making themselves the emblematic human, or, worse, by heightening some sentimental object—a button on their mother’s coat or something—and then forcing it into a resonant, forced epiphany. We all live! We all die!
Life is mostly not epiphanies of mutability, and leaning on that, making that the primary conversation of the autobiographical impulse and subject matter, makes for an art that starts to take on something of the position of the little boy who cried wolf.
There are many ways non-fiction, and/ or autobiography can go wrong.
I’ll give the last word to Robert Lowell:
Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter's vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun's illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.