Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 17 November 2008

Egocentrifugal poetry

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:


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
      my poems!
They will not conform
      for you.
Neither stare into
      any mirror
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.


Ani Smith said...

"Even political poetry is still about people ultimately."

Yes, I was going to disagree, too, with the difference between eastern and western poetry stated in the essay you quote towards the beginning. The description of an object 'for it's own sake' is still about the human experience of it. That is no less egocentric than a poem about mental health.

But even more intriguing (to me) is the title of your poem, I:-Ego. I haven't seen the colon/dash combo used very often (I even wrote a jokey line or two about it recently). Would you mind saying a bit about what prompted that choice?

Jim Murdoch said...

Ani, do you have any idea how long ago I wrote 'I:-Ego (Part II)'? It's not a kick in the pants off 30 years! So, that would make me 19 when I wrote it. Probably the answer you're looking for is nothing more complicated than rampant pretentiousness from what I can remember of me at that age.

One thing I should point out about these little essays of mine is that most of the time I'm exploring a subject rather than offering a definitive statement as if I actually know what I'm talking about. That's why I include so many quotes because I'm throwing these up in the air to see where they land.

As soon as anyone sets themselves up as an expert on anything there's always a bigger expert waiting in the wings to knock the stiffing out of them. That's why I often leave things open-ended. Political poetry … what do I know about that? I don't understand politics and that's not a good start, is it?

Anonymous said...

Once again, Jim, you've touched on a subject of great interest around the place. The other day I saw a book of poetry being lauded because it was written by two fellows who didn't 'sign' any of the poems so you didn't know who wrote which and they said this was to make the poetry 'ego-less' Haha, I said. It is impossible as you point out to take the ego out of the poetry completely (except in cutups and the horrible Flarf nonsense) but I think of it as a directional thing. A poet can either be looking at themselves or out at the world. The self is a kind of boring subject after a while (for the reader if not the poet).

Ani Smith said...

Ha. Sorry, yes I see the 1979 date on it now, which I must have missed earlier in the haze of my punctuation over excitement.

I don't think you give yourself enough credit, though. I realise you are asking questions, but as the last line shows, you did come to some sound conclusions. ;)

I just think we are all too worried about being perceived as egocentric navel-gazers, when it simply can't be helped. Paul's right in that it's a directional thing, but even when you're looking 'out at the world' it's still you doing the looking.

Rachel Fox said...

I liked these lines
'I heard a shitload of them moved away and
tried to make a go of it as a novel.' Clever, funny, painfully true - I liked that bit a lot.

I am aware that some poets complain about others poets for being too egocentric. I find it is the ones complaining who are often the most egocentric of all ('no, me, me, listen to me'!). Writers...who'd want to spend any time with any of them! Mind you if it's writers or editors...I'd pick writers every time!

Marion McCready said...

I love your 'Gone' haiku, made me chuckle all morning!

Great post as usual. I guess what I love about poetry is the fact that you can talk about the personal within a general and external framework. Ted Hughes said something along the lines that some subjects are too raw to be written about openly but need to be clothed in a kind of external framework.

My poem about the shipwreck, for example, is definitely about the shipwreck but it's also about a miscarriage I had a few years ago.

Jim Murdoch said...

Paul, I like the idea of a book by two poets where their individual poems weren't identified. I'm not sure I'd like to be in it mind. That said I did submit a poem to an anthology once where no one was identified at all, not even on the cover. As for cut-ups, I've only used proper cut-ups once but I'm not sure you'd call the poem egoless. It was simply me working with a limited palette.

Ani, I guess I just have a thing about not coming across as a kind of unapproachable smart-fart. As I've got older and got to know 'experts' in certain fields what I have learned is that most of us are faking it like crazy. I'm in my fiftieth year on this planet and for two thirds of that life I've been a writer. I should be able to deliver college courses by now but I still feel that I'd serve my readership better by taking a few.

Rachel, yes, that poem came from a short period where my poems got a bit potty-mouthed. My daughter was quite taken aback because I never swear. I just pointed out to her that poems have their own voices. Personally I'm interested in other people's egocentric poetry because they're not me. I'm a bit bored with me and it always surprises me that other people find me interesting. But that's the whole point of reading for me, to see the world – or to look in the mirror – through someone else's eyes.

And, Sorlil, I like the point Hughes makes and I think he is spot on. There are many truths about me in my poems but very few I'd like presented in a list: Jim is this, Jim is that and Jim is most certainly the other. No, I use the words in the poems like cotton wool to protect the raw truths so I can handle them. Hmmm… all of this feels like a poem to me.

Glad you liked 'Gone' by the way. I could write a whole blog on my relationship with spiders and baths … but I'm not going to.

NathanKP said...

An excellent post. I can relate to the opening anecdote about the poetry reading in that many people think that some of the poems I right are about myself.

Sometimes they are, but sometimes they are purely invented, or perhaps subconsciously I have not recognized them as my own yet.

Everything a writer can write is, in effect, a small piece of himself/herself. In this way writing must be egocentric, because you are a God or sorts, creating, destroying, sustaining. Everything you write is from you, though perhaps not about you.

Thank you for leaving that valuable poem critique on my blog.


Jim Murdoch said...

Of course, Nathan, and I suppose it puts the reader in an awkward position because most will approach a collection of poetry as being what the poet thinks - why would he write about something he doesn't think? - and yet we're happy enough to look at prose that way. I've written stories where the protagonist is a female for instance and I have no idea what it's like being a woman but I've been around enough.

NathanKP said...

That is a really good point, Jim. Writers write from the point of view of the opposite all the time, about 50% of the time, in fact.

Part of being a writer is not being afraid to open up and look at the world through a different person's eyes, the eyes of a person of a different sex, race, age.

That is what writing is all about and it is why I love it.


Art Durkee said...

The summation you quote about East vs. West attitudes seems particularly apt and accurate to me. Especially in this context you put it in.

You know how much flak I've taken for presenting the alternative, an alternative, any way, in the ongoing notes towards an egoless poetry. (Thanks for the mention and citation, BTW.) That this is both an unpopular and misunderstood idea comes as no surprise, since in the West we're addicted to psychological explanations for everything. I think one reason that people assume that poetry is autobiographical can indeed be laid directly at the feet of Lowell et al., the first generations of confessionals. The mannerism of self-representation has taken on its own life, even though as you say, and I agree, most narrators are unreliable. Of questionable veracity. (This gets at the root of your own blog's title too, ennit?)

The point I'm sideways making is that haiku is only about people in any ego sort of way in that people make haiku and people have egos. The haiku moment, as described in all the aesthetic literature, is pretty much about removing the ego's effects on the poem, just as John Cage was about removing his own taste from directing where his music should go.

The fact is, there is a haiku-like poem form people very often confuse with the haiku: the senryu. In fact, the senryu contains most of those human comments that haiku don't. Most people confuse the two forms, which are only superficially identical. (Your "Gone" is actually a haiku, strictly speaking, in the footsteps of Issa, not a senryu.) Simply put, one could say that whenever personality-ego rather than observational-self enters a haiku, it becomes a senryu. Don't take my word for it; there are plenty of citations.

I share your reticence about revealing too much of the self in one's artwork. At the same time, I can trace that reticence, in myself, to my Northern European ancestry and its long tradition of suppression of the self so as not to make ripples that would upset the tribe. Norwegian Lutherans invented stoicism, one ruefully feels, but only in the company of other northern tribes developing their cultures in cold, dreary, body-challenging climes. Calvinism was not a thing invented in the tropics, or particularly needful there.

I think some of your objections, as well as others', are semantic. They turn on definitions of what people mean by "egocentric." To be clear, my own use of the term is informed by Jungian psychology, itself branched away from Freudian psychology, and on a whole lot of personal reading and experience with matters psychological. Not least having been a lay counselor in certain programs over the years. I use "egocentric" in its technical sense more than its popular sense.

Still, I don't agree that it's unfair to associate "egocentric poetry" with a negative valuation of the post-Confessional lyric, because most such poems are really about nothing but diary-level observations anyway.

I can't tell you how many readings and workshops I've been to where the writer thinks they invented or discovered something brand new in the feelings aroused in them when their lover left them or their dog died. As though no one had ever experienced that before. That the MFA workshop poem is dominated by this level of self-observational (self-obsessed) writing is based on the evidence of most of what gets written and published these days. And the MFA workshop tradition set this up, with the early dictums of "Write what you know" and "Mine your feelings for your poetry." Those are direct quotes from some Iowa Writer's Workshop poet-teachers. So, they brought this criticism on themselves.

The trick is to make it artful, so it's a good poem, not just a diary moment. For example, Paul Monette wrote artfully about his partner dying of AIDS in "Love Alone"; I've read a lot of AIDS poems over the years, an occupational hazard of that lay counseling I mentioned earlier, but very few rise above the fog of background conversation to linger in the mind the way Monette's have. Very few indeed. Most are just spew. Healthy for the person, but not artful as poetry.

So I'll stick to my unfair guns, and maintain that "egocentric poetry" doesn't rise to the level of art very often, because it remains focused on MY feelings about my dog dying, and never asks how the dog might have felt about it. The Me Me Me recitation IS egocentric because it doesn't treat others as real enough to be included. Taken to its extremes, it's solipsistic, even psychopathic (for which an argument can be made, in terms of Sexton and Plath, albeit less so for Plath), and while you're correct to point out that most poets don't take it to the extremes, the potential is always there, when mining one's personal biography for poetry. What saves it, again, is artfulness.

I'm far more interested in including the dog. I've gone out of my way to write from non-human viewpoints, and very few readers get that. It's one more way of removing the self from being in the constant foreground, or being in the center spotlight all the time.

Of course the fact that I wrote the poem means that I'm in the poem. But that's where the argument against this falters, because the poem isn't ABOUT me, or my feelings. The poem is about how the dog felt, not about how I felt about the dog.

Empathy is the cure for egocentricity. I wish that were more generally understood. The reason it's not, I imagine, is the same reason Western poets still have a hard time understanding suchness: a question of basic assumptions, and filters.

Jim Murdoch said...

Semantics, eh, Art, now that would be a subject where I could really show of my ignorance but so many of the blogs I've written over the past while have hinged on how we define things. Egocentric sounds bad. It's like selfishness. I was brought up to believe that selfishness is the condition from which every sin ultimately springs. No one ever put it like that, in fact I've just thought of it, and so all my life I've regarded 'looking after No, 1' as basically a bad thing so much so that I've turned selflessness into a real weakness. It's all down to how we interpret things.

When I talk about myself in my poetry it's important to be aware that I'm not being confessional, simply observational. Artists get away with self portraits so why not poets? Confession is another one of those words that we can get all caught up in defining; it certainly has connotations. I mentioned in the paragraph above how I interpret selfishness and I also revealed a weakness, so, is this a confession? I'm not looking for any kind of absolution religious or secular. This is simply how things are.

Anything can be turned on its head and made bad. There is nothing wrong with writing about what you know. It's a start for sure and we all started there with or without the advice. Turning it into a rule is another thing. I made a comment yesterday about the fact that all writing for me is, in one respect, experimental. I have no idea how any piece of writing will end up and some don't finish up worth the effort but the effort was worth the effort if you get my drift. Is that therapy? It can be therapeutic but it was not written with that as its primary goal. But then we're back on that semantic kick again, aren't we? Just what do I mean by 'therapy' in this context?

I like your point about the dog and I've been thinking for a while about how I could go about writing a diptych, two poems that sit side by side, that present complimentary or contrasting thoughts or images. I'm not sure if I could pull it off but it's where my head it as when I'm not working on my novel. As for whether empathy is the cure for egocentricity or not I'm not so sure because that suggests that being focused on oneself is a sickness. Ah, but we're on about semantics again aren't we?

Anonymous said...

Another very fine post, Jim - discursive, convergent, but right on the nail in terms of identifying issues to do with the the poet's stance within the poem. Thanks for this.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks, Dick, and can I just say that I appreciate reading both your egocentric and your biographical poetry? As I mentioned in another comment, if other people didn't write about themselves and the things going on around them then I would have to do without some wonderful insights into humanity in general. I'm sure, considering some of your recent subject matter, that the writing has been cathartic and possibly therapeutic but I'm also sure that the bottom line is that you wrote the poems because they were screaming to be written and with no ulterior motives.

Dave King said...

I comme back to my contention that there are more ways of living a life than can be lived by one person living one life. there are lots of mes. Is it autobiographical if I write about one of the other mes?
whatever the answer - if there is one - that was a fine post.

Jim Murdoch said...

The thing to watch, Dave, is when the other mes start to take over the writing. Then I know I'm in real trouble.

Anonymous said...

you hit a point I had pondered on..there have been times when I posted a poem and I was perplexed that commenters automatically thought it was about me..then I caught myself doing the same thing..interesting

Jim Murdoch said...

Robert, it is interesting, isn't it? The last poem I wrote I actually changed 'I' to 'he' probably because all of this has been going through my mind.

Art Durkee said...

I wouldn't say it's a sickness, because that's a pretty loaded term. I would say it's a limitation. A limitation of perspective. The biggest problem, it seems to me, that lots of egos have is that they can't see past their own projections, which they project outwards onto the movie screen of the world, then think that's all there is to the world. There's so much more. Sickness? No, because it's absolutely normal. Deficit or limitation, though, definitely.

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