Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Material of a Life, or, The Little Boy Who cried Epiphany

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-worming
in 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.
All's misalliance.
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.


At 1/06/2012 9:23 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...


This post seems to be part of the larger conversation we've been having about resisting labels. To give us another binary, the knee-jerk reaction to Confessionalism (which I am admittedly severely deficient when it comes to reading)is to either self-aggrandize or to try and avoid it altogether. The former entraps the reader in a pretty uncomfortable (for me) place. "If I felt it or experienced it, it must be true. Also, significant, and of interest to others." The latter, on the other hand, turns it into a taboo, and biographical becomes a dirty word.

As always, I'm for the middle of the road. Autobiography is always there, but I find it manifests differently for me. Sometimes it's in the background, the stuff not on the page, but represented by some set of objects or circumstances (objective correlative?). Other times it's foregrounded in the language in the form of names, quotations, etc., but divorced from the real life context.

At any rate, I hope that long poem of yours turns into something that works for you. I find techniques don't get stale, but ways of working with them can, and sometimes doing the thing you don't (or can't) leads to what you want.

At 1/06/2012 11:49 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Autobiography isn't necessarily narcissistic or sensationalistic. The bold self-disclosures of the Beats, and Ginsberg in particular, were an important reaction to the circa-WWII persona narrator and the dominant paradigm of the 50s. They continue to help people reclaim the dignity of their experience. Schuyler's "point and snap" diaristic poems, which are often about the day they were written, are almost poetic equivalents of Fairfield Porter paintings. They don't express ideas; they depict things as they are. And Charles Wright includes autobiography in his journal poems to suggest the immanence of the Beyond in the quotidian. Autobiography isn't always "I hate myself and want to die." Some criticism of autobiographical poetry is, like political correctness, puritanism in a contemporary guise. You know: "Enough of this boring self-absorption; you sound like Casey Anthony's video diary. Why don't you decry genocide in Darfur or something? Give us an edifying message."

Still, I often suspect that I reveal my experience more candidly by going where the language leads than by recounting the fact that this morning I took the dog for a run on the beach, etc. (In other words, autobiography "is in the background," as Fuzz says.) Reminds me of James Dickey saying he abandoned rhyme because it led him around what he wanted to say. Fine for him, but I'm not so intent on direct revelation of my experience that I'll resist the pull of language in another direction. You'll show for what you are.

At 1/06/2012 7:19 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Robert Lowell is where it all went wrong. He was the pill we took which said we could admire poetry that had nothing about it that was excellent. He taught at Iowa, and was part of that whole pandora's box where 'we could all be poets' but poetry didn't have to be good (look at Robert Lowell's poetry for hell's sake---it never rises above mediocrity and the man was as dumb as a sack of nails). He was a manic drunk who worshiped at the altar of the new critics (fakes who were at the ground floor of the creative writing industry) and how ironic that the new critic's boy became the 'confessional' boy---doesn't make sense, unless you take a hard un-romantic view of the whole sorry enterprise of mid-20th century poetry and culture...

At 1/07/2012 5:26 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Lowell's sense of language was Janus-faceless, akimbo, and Doukhoborian.

At 1/07/2012 5:59 AM, Blogger Michael Schiavo said...

Along with My Life and much more Ammons, I'd add Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter's Day.

At 1/07/2012 6:06 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

"hardly passionate Marlborough street"


we don't care what color your daughter's pajamas are!

At 1/07/2012 12:33 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 1/07/2012 12:34 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

Stephen Burt on contemporary approaches to the Conf******al:

Did I miss an announcement about the end of anonymous postings?

If I have to post as "I" don't the confessionalists win? I feel naked.


At 1/08/2012 4:29 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

A poem can be obscene with the naked I.

At 1/09/2012 11:56 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


You're funny.


I'm very glad to see you here. I thought about you when I changed the setting. I had some criticism that anon posters were being mean and setting fires, and felt that the time had come. "Underbelly." nice! Now off to read the Burt.


A poem can be obscene in many and various ways, indeed.

At 1/09/2012 6:29 PM, Blogger WCSchutt said...

Once again Lowell gets short shrift on this site, and unfounded criticisms are leveled at his work by the peanut gallery.

"Hardly passionate Marlborough street", besides being a poetically rich earful (to this ear, at least), with its luxurious assonance that lampoons the easy life (of, ahem, teacher-writers, long before it was de rigueur) and the haugh-haugh-haughty accents of the upper crust, is self-mocking (not self-indulgent) in such a way as to brace the reader for the poem's final self-condemnation and self-reflection; despite the fact that he's a murderer, Lepke is as plain-looking and cut off as a "bookworm". That's a lot to cram into a single line. But Tom's ingenious "WTF?" does a lot of cramming too, so maybe compression isn't such a good standard by which to judge literature.

"flame-flamingo infants' wear" -- well, if you don't like that, you're tone deaf and cynical.

"Memories..." interrogates the whole idea of human connection. It is not merely some cut up of diaristic drivel.

John, you say you're not blaming the aftereffects of Confessionalism on Lowell, Plath, etc., yet I don't see how you're reckoning with the poems themselves (something I've read you criticize other blurb-artists and critics for doing). Tacking on a belittling title and pasting in a bunch of funny pics + your own autobiographical vignette about your school days doesn't seem to add much to the conversation. It sounds like apparatus to me (if I understand your use of that word correctly).

And who said Lowell is out, besides you? Over & over again. Echo chamber say what! Oh, I know, Ashbery called him a bore. But to paraphrase Richard Hugo, read enough of a poet's work and you're bound to fall asleep before too long. And Ashbery has put out enough books to make the most enthusiastic small press intern yawn. Not that he's a bad poet. He's a very good one, actually. But still...

Lowell tired of the term Confessionalism too. And his best poetry is more subtle than the label allows for. He also possessed a largely overlooked, sly sense of humor. Overlooked probably because he didn't use it as a crutch.

It seems to me that what people today most object to in Lowell's work is the dramatic rendering of maladies, woe, heartache. The self-aggrandizing quality you touch on. Yet at the same time Lowell's brand of drama harkens back to Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, and is a deliberate attempt to heighten the quotidian experience, or else bring the major drama down to human scale (a la "Memories").

Displaying a rare, or rarely spoken of, candid humor, Lowell once said something to the effect of "If you're a really good poet you become an immortal poet, like Horace. But immortality doesn't do Horace any good. He's not around to collect the royalty checks."

Shit, I forgot, the word "immortal" is out today too. Well, I can second that. I certainly take issue with some of the ways Lowell & his contemporaries viewed the establishment, talked about the profession, competed, treated friends, etc. But that issue relates to the poet, not the poems, and it's my understanding that kind of criticism is not your cup of mud.

-- Will (first timer)

At 1/09/2012 6:51 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi Will, and welcome,

Perhaps I didn't do it well, but I was trying to defend Lowell against the easy target he's become to the sorts of criticism (such as what Tom does here) thrown at him. When I wrote:

"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!"

I was trying for something like what you say here as well. I think the rap he gets is an over reaction, and the over use of the pseudo-autobiographical by the next generation.

I would be pleased if he wasn't "out" because I'd be quite happy to talk about his work, but very few people ever want to mention him if I ring him up. Maybe I'm just talking to the wrong people, but the people I'm talking to could find something in his work of interest, I believe.

At 1/10/2012 5:25 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

I've always like Lowell, though I prefer the early stuff--the dense, Browning-like couplets with lots of enjambment and buried rhymes--to Life Studies and what followed. And Plath has always been a favorite of mine--for her brilliant metaphors, imagery, and sound patterns, not for her Confessionalism, which I can take or leave. But I confess that her story--like those of Thomas James (Letters to a Stranger), Mayakovsky, Chatterton, Carlos Casagemas, Charlotte Mew, Ian Curtis, et al.--exerts a lurid attraction on me.

Talking about yourself a lot can be a way of hiding yourself. I believe Nietzsche said that in Beyond Good and Evil.

At 1/10/2012 8:58 AM, Blogger David said...

The Abortion
by Anne Sexton

Somebody who should have been born
is gone.

Just as the earth puckered its mouth,
each bud puffing out from its knot,
I changed my shoes, and then drove south.

Up past the Blue Mountains, where
Pennsylvania humps on endlessly,
wearing, like a crayoned cat, its green hair,

its roads sunken in like a gray washboard;
where, in truth, the ground cracks evilly,
a dark socket from which the coal has poured.

Somebody who should have been born
is gone.

The grass as bristly and stout as chives,
and me wondering when the ground would break,
and me wondering how anything fragile survives;

up in Pennsylvania, I met a little man,
not Rumpelstiltskin, at all, at all...
he took the fullness that love began.

Returning north, even the sky grew thin
like a high window looking nowhere.
The road was as flat as a sheet of tin.

Somebody who should have been born
is gone.

Yes, woman, such logic will lead
to loss without death. Or say what you meant,
you coward...this baby that I bleed.


Anne Sexton attempted late in life to confess her sins to a Catholic priest. The priest (no doubt a Jesuit) shooed her away and said "Go find God in your typewriter." Ah, the twists and turns of the Confessionalist movement ...

At 1/10/2012 9:01 AM, Blogger David said...

I am, by the way, an admirer of Anne Sexton's poetry.

At 1/10/2012 9:17 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

"You must get home, Madame Bovary; drink a little tea, that will strengthen you, or else a glass of fresh water with a little moist sugar."

At 1/10/2012 11:22 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Indeed, we are poor parsing facts.

At 1/11/2012 6:48 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Robert Lowell, rich from Victorian sleep, blinks, rises to gossip, and by mid-sentence,
sighs, rubs his eyes, and proffers “poetry” instead.
If you’re lucky, Engle will let you ponder him in rolling Iowa.

At 1/11/2012 7:57 AM, Blogger David said...

Sonnet XXI: In that time when it seemed the simple weight
By Paul Engle

In that time when it seemed the simple weight
Of delicate daylight crushed her living eye,
She knew that, night or noon, early or late,
We would be there to hear her smallest cry.
That knowledge of our nearness, strength against strain,
Held firm when fever carried her too far,
And in the falling darkness of her pain
That power rose in her like an evening star.

So we gained faith and health from her grim sickness,
And she grew stronger as she lost her strength,
Refusing, with her whole body, resignation.
And when at last mind, hand won their old quickness,
She held her arm toward us all its thin length,
Lifting her love against annihilation.

At 1/11/2012 9:10 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Nice one, David!

Didn't know that one by Engle...

At 1/11/2012 10:46 AM, Blogger David said...

It's from American Child: A Sonnet Sequence (1945). Unfortunately the book is out of print. Poetry Foundation has posted two of the sonnets, including the one copied above. Here is the other:

Sonnet XXII: Her thin cheeks narrowed by November cold

These poems bear comparison to Lowell's flame-flamingo epiphany.

At 1/12/2012 5:47 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

I knew Paul at Iowa when he ran the International Writing Program. His reputation tanked, probably because he was not always nice; I remember him making fun of Don Justice. He was also a formalist, because he quoted to me with a great conviction, once, Yeats' poetic belief: "If it doesn't sing, it doesn't talk!" So I think Paul was on the outs with all the free-versers of the Iowa Poetry workshop at the end; I think there was disenchantment, a falling-out between Paul and the people that took over his program. He was very extroverted and head-strong; he probably rubbed people the wrong way. As influential as he was, no one reads is poetry now.


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