The Beautiful Changes
"Poets and Their Work: Poetry as Its Own Biography (personal 'I' vs. poetic eye)"—a somewhat confusing title. But I assume what we are supposed to be discussing is autobiographical, a.k.a. confessional, poetry.
The placing of the pronoun 'I' in opposition to the eye (visual organ) implies that there is a dichotomy here. The fact that the subject has been chosen to be addressed by three poets not known for writing autobiographical poetry further suggests that there might be an entertaining clash here. What do these three navel-gazers think of poetry that engages with the raw matter of life and the so-called real world, and how do they justify their mandarin avoidance of it?
I may be reading too much into a simple discussion topic. Actually, the adjective 'confessional' didn't exist when I began to write poetry and wouldn't for several decades. There were only two kinds of poetry back then: 'modern' (or 'modernist') and whatever went before. The shock and delight of discovering the modernists—Eliot, Auden, Pound, Stein, Bishop, Stevens, Moore (many more but, for me, especially those)—is something that continues to make life seem, well, better if not worthwhile. Though I've never agreed with Williams's statement, printed in the program, that "men," and presumably women, "die every day for lack of something that poetry contains." They die anyway. It's like Auden's "We must love one another or die" which caused him to delete "September 1, 1939" from his works, having realized that we must love one another and die.
I've always been bothered by the term 'confessional.' It implies that the poet has been naughty and must fess up and make it all well. I prefer the constellation Auden mentions in a poem which "makes us well without confession of the ill." We are all confessional poets sometimes. That is, we all sometimes write about our personal experiences. And there should be no stigma attached to this. Even a poem like "The Wasteland" obviously dips in and out of the life of the poet, as it does into so much else.
All subjects are potential subjects for poetry, and none should be excluded a priori. It's the success with which it's realized that it counts. I love Stevens and Bishop, but my life and my poetry would poorer for not having known Rukeyser, Ginsberg, Clifton, Ferlinghetti, the anti-war poetry of Alan Williamson.
It is only when I feel compelled to write poetry that is all 'of a piece,' that I get uncomfortable. Poetry bloweth where it listeth. It should never be thought of as a practical solution to life's mess. Its value is in its total uselessness. It's the roses we are always being urged to stop and smell.
Elizabeth Bishop is a poet in whom the two kinds of 'I/eye' are fully and beautifully fused. We do not read her to discover the details of her biography, yet I feel that we end up knowing her—and I feel it all the more intensely in Key West every time I walk past that little house tucked behind the pandanus bush—better than many poets who set out to inform us about the particulars of their lives.
The few misses anywhere in her work—the one, in fact, that occurs to me—is a sentimental and slightly self-pitying love poem called "Varick Street" where at the end the poet confronts the unfaithful lover by conjuring an ideal world in which "you love me." It's still a Bishop poem and therefore great. But I once slightly criticized it in a review of her collected poems that I wrote for the New York Times. Bishop wrote me that she agreed. But she was a nice lady.
What is more like her lifestyle is the fantastic travel diary, "Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance" which begins: "Thus should have been our travels: / serious, engravable." And we're off on a voyage through steel-engraved atlas illustrations ending with the impossible wish to have ended by having "looked and looked our infant sight away."
That poem appeared in Partisan Review in the summer of 1948, and I was so moved I wrote her a fan letter—my only fan letter, I think ever, to a poet—and was rewarded with a postcard from Maine, one of the many coastlines she cultivated, sandpiper-wise. It was the inspiration for a poem of mine, eventually, called "Soonest Mended" which I sometimes call my one-size-fits-all confessional poem. Since Derek Walcott had the brilliant idea of substituting a poem for a lecture, I'm going to end this mini-lecture by reading my poem, "Soonest Mended," which I hope you won't mind.
[Ashbery reads "Soonest Mended"]