When we understand, we are at the centre of the circle, and there we sit while Yes and No chase each other around the circumference (Chuang-tzu.)
In an article in the New York Times, David Orr recounts the following anecdote which got me thinking:
In a half-filled auditorium, a poet was reading a poem about the death of a child. Autumn leaves fell, night descended, the hours became slow and cold and endless; it was pretty sad stuff. Afterward, an audience member came up to say how much he’d enjoyed the reading and how sorry he was for the poet’s loss. “I appreciate that,” the poet responded, “but the thing is, I’ve never had any kids. That was just a poem.” – Soldier Boy, New York Times
This got me thinking: Why is it that we automatically assume that poetry is autobiographical? I know I do. I do. I shouldn't. I know that everything I write is certainly not autobiographical nor does it always even reflect my personal opinion on a particular subject. And yet when I read anyone else's poetry that is the first thing that jumps to my mind.
I, the ninth letter of the alphabet, the personal pronoun. I have no way of proving this but I bet more poems are written in the first person singular than are prose works. In prose it's easier to write in the third person and in the past tense. Not so with poems. Poetry is the perfect medium for capturing the ego. I even wrote a poem once – twice actually – called 'I:-Ego'; there was a Part II too:
I:-EGO (Part II)
(who are so much like me),
if I love you,
am I narcissistic?
3 March 1979
I'd put up Part I but it's long, very long and exceedingly egocentric.
Now, here's a thought: have you even seen a haiku containing the personal pronoun? I've never even written a proper haiku until very recently but back in 1986 when I was playing around with the haiku format, I came up with this little gem:
I found the bath empty:
someone must have committed
17 October 1986
And, what do you know? It contains an I. Here's a much better example (with 3 I's) by Stella Carter:
I don't dare write you
because... I just don't, okay?
believe me, I know
In her essay Exploring the Zen Tradition of Haiku Through the Work of Eric Amann, Kathrin Walsch makes this observation about the difference between Eastern and Western approaches to poetry:
Suchness—Haiku poetry strives to create an image for what it really is leaving the interpretation and further association to the reader. However, in the western tradition poets insist on composing egocentric works. Rather than seeing a flower for its own beauty western poets generally use objects as a mode to express their own intellectual sentiments using a variety of poetic devices such as similes, metaphors, personification, and symbolism. This is in opposition to the Zen principal that objects should be objects and not distorted for our own exploitation as also seen in haiku poetry – Italics mine
Just because poetry focuses on the individual doesn't necessarily mean that that poetry is the poetry of self-satisfaction and congratulation. Indeed I would suggest that most self-examinational poetry has a tendency to explore character flaws rather than say what a great guy the author is. Of course self-contemplation can sink into self-absorption ("self-involution" as Coleridge called it when talking about Wordsworth) and from there it's a slippery slide towards the poetry of self-pity if one is not careful. It can also head the other way, towards self-assertion.
All poetry is a form of self-expression irrespective of its topic, it comes out of us and an individual shapes it on the page. For me a lot of the time my poetry is that of self-definition. Or rather than definition perhaps refinement. It's not simply autobiography; although I look back on my poetry as a kind of diary, the focus is towards understanding what I've been experiencing. But it's not a diary and the events are not always tackled chronologically. It was several years after my mother's death that I found the words to write about her even though I wrote two poems about my father the day after he died. Or it might have been the same day. (Shades of L'Etranger there, eh?)
I can't say I aim towards anything like universality when I write. That other people can apply what I've written to their own experiences just shows how what we go through is not that unique. I've written about love, lost love, grief, loneliness and ill health and these are things we all experience to a greater or lesser extent.
Of all the schools of poetry the Romantics were without a doubt the most self-conscious and Wordsworth was probably president of that club but, on the whole, they were more interested in recording experiences, things the self saw and did. We have to move on a few years before we get to truly confessional poets like W. D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath who worked with a striking directness with such subjects as family, sex, alcoholism and mental illness.
In John Ciardi’s Mid-Century American Poets (1950), Richard Wilbur stated that:
…some writers think of art as a window, and some think of it as a door. If art is a window, then the poem is something intermediate in character, limited, synecdochic, a partial vision of a part of the world. . . . If art is conceived to be a door . . . the artist no longer perceives a wall between him and the world; the world becomes an extension of himself, and is deprived of its reality.
This is a metaphor I've used myself but to a slightly different end:
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE POEM II
I am a door.
I open – words and ideas slip through me –
I close and I have no control over what
happens to them.
A few wind up in poems.
I heard a shitload of them moved away and
tried to make a go of it as a novel.
I think about them sometimes.
I wish that I
was a window, a dirty great sheet of glass,
so people could look out at the world through me
and not see me.
But I am not a window.
I am a door.
Thursday, 26 August 2004
So what am I on about here? Actually it's me bemoaning the fact that I can't write confessional poetry without revealing more of myself than I'd like. It's the same with the novels – and the short stories although they don't get a mention – I find I'm inhibited about what I write. The idea of writing a poem with the title 'The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator' just makes me squirm and yet Anne Sexton did exactly that. It's not a short poem so here's a single stanza:
I break out of my body this way,
an annoying miracle. Could I
put the dream market on display?
I am spread out. I crucify.
My little plum is what you said.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.
and, at the end of every stanza, she repeats that final sad line. That's the thing about so much of my own poetry, it's sanitised, soft-core confession where I ever veer in that general direction. I'm not sure I like the idea of being watched. This stanza from 'Tulips' by Sylvia Plath is very striking:
Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.
The tulips embody how Plath believes she is viewed from the apparently conspiratorial outside world; constantly watched and judged, and she has a concurrent fear of being criticised.
As I've said, I don't like being watched, being the centre of attention, but – typical poet – I do like to watch. Statistics says that 99 out of a hundred poets admit to being a voyeur … and the other one's a liar. (Old joke twisted to my own nefarious ends).
This next poem is an odd piece. It's about transference. A confessee needs a confessor:
The existential voyeur watched me undress –
it was a spiritual thing, an act of blind faith.
I don't know what he wanted to see,
not me, he wasn't really looking at me,
but there was something reflected in his eyes.
I shuddered, and he asked if I was cold,
but we both knew that wasn't it.
11 May, 1996
On the surface it's a poem about sex but it's really not about sex at all. The whole poem is a metaphor for the writer-reader relationship.
So I have to wonder, just how much of the exhibitionist there is in being a poet? It's nothing I would tar myself with and yet I write and make what I write available for others to look at. Okay, maybe I'm only baring my soul a bit at a time. Does that make me a tease?
The reality is that most of the time our consciousness bounces around from one aspect of ourselves to the next, from less aware to more aware and back again. The sense of this flow of consciousness is expressed simply and effectively in Pablo Neruda's poem 'We Are Many':
Of the many men who I am, who we are,
I can’t find a single one;
they disappear among my clothes,
they’ve left for another city.
When everything seems to be set
to show me off as intelligent,
the fool I always keep hidden
takes over all that I say....
What can I do?
What can I do to distinguish myself?
How can I pull myself together?
So really it's only going to be by reading an awful lot of my writing that people are going to get a picture of … I hesitate to say the "real" me because there are aspects to my personality that rarely show their face in my writing. Simply put, there are things I write about and things I don't. Art is a good example. I am a huge fan of the visual arts but the only time I write about it – in Living with the Truth – I actually poke fun at it. I've never written a poem about a work of art though there is a fragment in some notebook about wandering around a gallery from about fifteen years ago.
I would rather people took more interest in the aspect of the mind that I'm exploring in my poems than in the person who wrote it. You'll have your job cut out reconstructing me from the pieces. Stop trying to understand me. That's not the purpose of my poetry as far as you are concerned.
Do not analyze
They will not conform
Neither stare into
and expect your image
to give up
any truths or secrets.
8 December 1979
Sometimes of course that is their purpose as far as I am concerned but that's a different thing completely.
Poetry is not therapy, not for me. It has a therapeutic quality and I can see why mental health practitioners get people to write poems. Here's a word from Art Durkee:
The act of writing a personal therapy poem, for myself, can be very satisfying, and can be a bit of writing I come back to later to see if I have changed since I last went to that place. I do re-read back in my old journals, albeit not very often; occasionally you do discover something that could be re-made into a poem; an old dream; a passing moment, observed. But I also recognize, as a critical poet looking back over his own work, that a lot of what I wrote in the heat of anger, despair, and depression, just isn't very good as poetry, so I tend to not inflict it on anyone. I neither present it nor publish it, at least not without considerable revision. It can stay in the journal, where it began and where it belongs. – Notes towards an egoless poetry 9: Mental Illness & Poetry
Write stuff like that if you want/need/have to but if it's not a good poem outside that process then why the hell are you sending it away for editors to read?
The bottom line is that I think the term "egocentric poetry" used as a disparaging term is unfair. Of course there are people who take things to the extreme – there always will be – but that doesn't mean that there is not a lot of good to be done for the author and to the reader. I've quoted C. S. Lewis a few times over the past year – "We read to know we are not alone." – and I have no doubt I'll quote him again because when I read about the personal experiences of others I'm putting myself in their place, I'm trying them on for size. If he (the guy on the page) makes sense then I must. If he's having a hard time then I shouldn't feel so bad about having a hard time too.
When the Beat-generation cult of the ego began its decline, writers such as Robert Bly, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti stepped up as "political" poets whose conventional expressivist poetics took controversial issues such as feminism, the Vietnam War, or U.S. intervention in Central America, and gave them a "human face." There was a place for them. And now there are poets writing about real world issues, the Iraq War, 9/11, AIDS but I found this comment by Shane Neilson of real interest:
As co-poetry editor of The Danforth Review, I sift through about a hundred submissions every four months. A third of these could be considered political poems. An informal survey of other poetry editors showed a similar experience to my own. In the months after 9/11, this ratio was predictably weighted much in favour of the political spectrum. Yet in my few years as editor, I have never published a political poem despite the fact that a good proportion of the submissions possess political content.
The usual mistake is – alas – grammatical error. Half fail for this reason, and they are the blessedly bad poets whom are easy for an editor to recognize and reject. The remainder display a reasonable appreciation of the language in their poems but unfortunately give the game away when they substitute profundity with forceful judgment. Their poems bully the mind, offering the reader no alternative but assent. All agree that bad things are, by definition, bad things. But this is the extent of the moral inquiry – a mere declaration. Better political poets ask questions in their poems, and though they do not arrive at answers, they create a dimension of evil as absurd as it is abhorrent. – Political Poetry and the Canadian Tradition
I had never imagined so many people were writing about these kinds of issues. So, does this suggest the demise of egocentric poetry? Nah, there are only so many things people can write about and there is nothing more interesting to write about than people. Even political poetry is still about people ultimately.
But that's perhaps a subject for another day.