Confessionalography: A GNAT (Grossly Non-Academic Talk) on "I" in Poetry
An A/Historical Preview
Poets have always used personal experience as subject matter for poems, but the emphasis on self, the effect of using "I" and the reader's expectation of the authenticity of personal information has shifted and changed over time. Shakespeare used the pronoun "I" and sometimes it was him and sometimes it probably wasn't. The Romantics wrote "personal poems," and their readers caught on to the fact that even when poets were writing about nature they were really writing about themselves. These Romantic selves wandered around the heath and through abbeys at times lonely like clouds, at other times punch drunk on the splendor of everything. Walt Whitman also wandered around proclaiming and expounding, while employing an "I" as big as the cosmos, as irrepressible as an avalanche. Then came T. S. Eliot, who wanted poetry to escape from personality and emotion. He probably didn't put much stock in the fact that one really important goal of a poem, according to Frank O'Hara, is to convince someone to have sex with you. After a while, American poets rebelled against Eliot. W.D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, and Allen Ginsberg started to use personal information in a way that woke everyone up. The critic M. L. Rosenthal described this poetry as "confessional," and people spent a lot of time arguing about who was or wasn't confessional, and what really made a poem "confessional."
Being "confessional" had something to do with breaking taboos, suffering, and claiming that the "self" of the poem was not "a speaker" but was actually the poet. It was a catchy name—"confessional poetry"—and it also meant that high school students didn't have to spend as much time looking for symbols in poems and could, with no training at all, write really bad poems that helped them "express" themselves. Of course, there were a few problems. For one, was this poetry really radically new? A century earlier, Emily Dickinson had written searingly personal poems—poems in which the disclosure of self is so raw and painful you can almost feel her skin come off—and Allen Ginsberg's "I" sounds a whole lot like Walt Whitman's "I." Yet, people felt that these "confessional" poems were unlike anything ever written before, though no one could say exactly how they were different, and the poets themselves made this more difficult because no one wanted to be counted in or left out.
The second problem was that everyone remembers Mother saying "no one likes a whiner!" which was annoying until you're in the presence of a true whiner and realize that Mother was right. Bad confessional poetry was even worse than bad Romantic poetry, and just as poets used to be scared of sounding academic and ivory tower, now they were scared of sounding too much like New Age mantra-posters or 12-steppers or people in asylums. Also, if people are only focused on the content of the poems, what happens to form and craft and language? What about using language not simply as a vehicle for subject matter, but as a supernal medium in and of itself?
Afterwards and meanwhile, some people wrote Language poetry and tried to empty the signs of meaning and talk about "speech acts." With their collages and their games and their abstractions, they were struggling with language so intimately that this was a kind of suffering as well, a deep suffering, but most readers couldn't see this, couldn't feel this because it sounded so damn intellectualized and abstract, and where had all the people gone? Where were the subjects not just the nouns?
Now it seemed that poets were no longer self-absorbed, neurotic analysands, and had instead become high-functioning Autistics in the midst of a cognitive-behavioral therapy session. And readers wanted to know, "Goddammit, where had all the human beings gone and what happened to love and sex and emotion and drugs?" And young poets (dare this author say especially young women poets) started wondering, "Wait a second, why can't I say "I"? Shakespeare did!" And then came Elipticism, Post-Language, Lyric, New Narrativity, Post-post Modern (look these up to little avail and at your own peril) until poets, or shall I simply say "I," began to struggle with how to write a poetry that is truthful and about the self and uses "I," a poetry that admits that things happen and people happen and emotions are real and important, if not essential components of Art, and that the body (MY BODY) is involved, inextricable from language. At the same time, "I" has DOUBT and IDEAS and SKEPTICISM and ATHEISM, and so it is no longer so easy to write about the body and love and sex and belief without acknowledging that "I" is complicit, that people have killed each other over such matters, and that the struggle to be both personal and political and honest and convincing is no small or minor matter. And then we have the history of Confessional Poetry as a specific movement or group of poets, the effects of language as propaganda and beauty, as a threshold to ethnic cleansing, and maybe I don't really want to kill myself and maybe even though I admit that I love Sharon Olds for her courage and candor and bloody show, I still don't want to be put in her party, her group, her post-confessional or neo-confessional prototype because I also believe in privacy, because surgery is not an act of intimacy. It's not easy to make useful objects that are also finely woven especially when clothes are so cheap nowadays and the looms are intimidating.
Short quiz to determine whether or not you are a confessional poet:
1. Are you Robert Lowell?
2. Do you feel, like Whitman, that you are a part of the world?
3. Do you feel that your circumstances, sufferings or joys make you distinct, separate, unusual?
4. Do you dislike the poetry of Robert Lowell?
5. Are you an American?
6. Has anyone ever accused you of being self-absorbed?
7. Do you feel it is ethical to reveal personal material about your spouse, family, friends or enemies?
8. Do you feel it is unethical to pretend to be someone other—either worse or better—than you actually are; in other words, is it unethical to present a fictional self with the sheen of accuracy?
9. Do you believe that poetry should transform the mundane, the real, the banal into something spiritual, transcendent, ephemeral or do you feel that poetry should report reality which is already excruciatingly transcendent and strange and incongruous?
10. Have you ever committed suicide?
Scoring: Give yourself one point for every "yes." Give yourself an extra 1,000 if you answered "yes" to question #1.
If you scored over 1,000 then you ARE a CONFESSIONAL POET.
If you scored between 1-1000 you might or might not be a CONFESSIONAL POET and should write to M.L. Rosenthal for guidance.
Some thoughts about the current climate: Tenets of, let's call it, Confessionalistic Poetry
1. Autobiographical poetry doesn't exist. If it did exist it would be the pure reportage of a poet's biographical information set down as verse. The closest thing we have to autobiographical poetry is the blog-in-verse but even blogs are subject to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
2. Let us call the use of stories and "facts" from a poet's life "autobiographicality." Autobiographicality demands, expects, and pre-imagines an audience; it is social even when it describes the anti-social. When the Autobiographicalistic poet finds his own information so utterly fascinating that he falls in love with the story of his own life, the result is an ode or elegy to the self. The poem looks like the infinitely repeating reflection in the corner of a mirrored dressing room.
3. Autobiographicality is often exculpatory and can be therapeutic; narrative is an anodyne for existential despair. Telling your life story helps you unburden, repent, and see the self as woven into narrative. Autobiographicality is therefore narcissistic and self-preservative. This is not necessarily bad. It is okay, for example, for poets to stay alive. It is important, however, to remember that staying alive through writing is not the same as "expressing" yourself. If we were rigorous in reserving the self-reflexive use of the verb "to express" to describe a lactating woman in the process of manually "expressing" milk from her breasts, we would realize that most poets, no matter how autobiographicalistic, are not expressing themselves. Breast milk expressed into the sink or onto a washcloth runs down the drain or is invisibly absorbed, whereas telling and certainly writing are their own containers. Poetry has staying power (as Paul Valery said: "Poetry is language that doesn't die for having lived"); expression disappears into memory.
4. Autobiographicality, even when inspired by narcissism, is often enjoyed by the reader/listener. First of all, people like hearing about other people's lives. Tabloids, E! Hollywood specials, biographies, and pornography all pander to our natural voyeurism. But, unlike these other forms of commercial art, autobiographicality in poetry is a show of respect for the reader, a kind of humility not just humanity-on-display. Think of it as the difference between how a storyteller makes eye contact with the audience and how an actor pretends the audience isn't there. The autobiographicalistic poet is aware of the audience and doesn't pretend otherwise.
5. Autobiographicality often reminds the audience of poetry's social mission. The stories of self gain oppressive power when kept taboo. Telling "the truth" about life is liberation from this oppression. The stories of childbirth, of boredom, of sexuality, etc., need to be told and can be told powerfully in poems.
6. Let us now define another poetry, I'll call it "Confessionalistic," a silly sounding term I use only in order to distinguish this poetry from the school of poetry previously called Confessional. Confessionalistic poetry may include Confessional poetry but is not limited to any particular era or group of poets.
7. Confessionalistic poetry is not a "school" or type, but is rather a degree or tonality. Confessionalistic poems include moments of Autobiographicality but also have qualities and aspirations that not all Autobiographicalistic poems have. Autobiographicality is a subset of Confessionalistic poetry. Not all Autobiographicalistic poems are Confessionalistic. In fact, Autobiographicality can often be used to mask the lack of self-reflection that Confessionalistic poetry demands.
8. What then does Confessionalistic poetry have that Autobiographicality lacks? Confessionalistic poetry reaches for the universal. It attempts to transcend the personal, the particular, not because it is embarrassed by the particulars, and the personal, but because, ultimately, Confessionalistic poetry uses the bits and elements of story in the service of larger subjects, subjects that are not limited to particularities of the poet's life. This is not to say that the self becomes symbolic as it did in Romantic poetry, but, rather, that the self is always overcome, overwhelmed, disturbed.
9. There needs to be risk. Confessionalistic poetry is more risky than Autobiographicality. Autobiographicality, no matter how disturbing in content, is always the story of a life, of what happened, of circumstance and event. Confessionalistic poetry is the splitting open of self, a minor chord before and without resolution. A shopping list read aloud, even with gusto, with style, is not Confessionalistic, even if you intend to buy parmesan, pull-ups, and heroin. The risk in a poem that relies heavily on Autobiographicality is usually a risk of content. Privacy, reputation, and decency, may all be risked by the Autobiographicalistic poet. But the Confessionalistic poet risks more; she is willing to undermine the boundaries of self. Often, she is writing at the frayed edge of the genre in the busy interstitial space between neurons.
10. As we are pulled downstream by these swirling "isms" and "alistics," I offer, as a piece of floating drift-wood, Jorie Graham's poem "Imperialism." Graham's poem is made of personal detail, a mosaic of scenes and stories presented in the mode of autobiographical truth. A husband and wife, illuminated by a kerosene lamp, exchange cruelties. But the poem is not about the husband and wife. It is not even about how narrative comes to colonize these real people, the Brentwood chair, the linoleum, the poet, the stories the poet wants to tell or how ideas come to colonize the self. Narrative is nothing without them, these details and people, these subjects who sit and try to nail point of view into the world, but the poem reaches for a force that is more powerful than narrative. The poem tells a story the poet cannot tell. A story about the river Ganges. It is a story (river) full of bodies, knives, newborn calves, utensils, genitals, even the ashes of the recently cremated. The story is about the catastrophe of knowing the world and about the impossibility of trying to get clean in thick muddy water. The poet only manages to tell the part of the story about a man washing a white umbrella in that brown river. What the poem is really about you will have to decide for yourself. I will say only that it is clear that the umbrella, the marriage, the poet, the linoleum, the river, the Mother, the "irrelevant" body of the Mother, are not symbolic but real, autobiographical. It is also and equally clear that this poem, while it uses bits of personal detail and elements of story is not about the poet's life. The poem is not about anything she is using to make the poem.
11. Now I will use a ridiculous analogy that I will later disavow and vociferously swear was inserted here by the editors of this publication: Romantic poetry is the lightness of a soufflé about to fall. Autobiographical Poetry is a raw egg with or without salmonella. Autobiographicality is a hard boiled egg with or without a beginning art student in the background practicing chiaroscuro. Confessional Poetry is a hard boiled egg with a serrated knife lodged in its center and a tiny tear drop of blood on the knife's handle. Confessionalistic poetry is half a deviled egg, with no sign of the other half except a thin snow drift of paprika on the white plate.
12. Many poems I would consider Confessionalistic sound and function nothing at all like Jorie Graham's work. Some Confessionalistic poems (Frank O'Hara's work comes to mind) appear to reveal the self accidentally. The content may not explicitly deal with matters of self and self-disclosure, but the effect of writing the poem is profoundly revealing. The autobiographicalistic poet may call himself a dirty name, but will ultimately reveal less than what the handwriting (or signature meters) of a Confessionalistic poet may expose.
13. Whereas Autobiographicality is most often declamatory, Confessionalistic poetry has a wide range of volumes. It can sound like the self overheard or can be almost silent: the sound of the walk of a man who has spent his life in the cavalry.
14. "I" is capitalized because it is not only a name, but because it is also an idea and now, perhaps a movement, like Romanticism. I is the name I call myself, and I is also the idea of self. As such, Confessionalistic poets attempt to engage the public interest, the public truth through material that always involves private experience.
15. The backlash against self-indulgence led to a disavowal of the personal, the needlessly profane, the sensational. But it is important to remember that we learn—nipple in mouth—through sensation and all our ideas are formed from shapes and colors and textures and urgent feelings. Without the personal, without visceral knowledge, without empathy, we are (and I mean this literally) anti-social fundamentalist murderers.
16. There is no need to fear the personal or the Confessional. For one thing, it is unavoidable. For another thing, it is all you have. Penultimately, it can save you. Lastly, you can never really, fully, and honestly tell the truth about your own life because a) you don't know the truth b) there is no one truth and c) you are always telling, and telling the truth is very different from the truth. Think of it this way: If you take your clothes off you are naked but are not a Nude, and certainly not a nude painting. The poem, no matter how bare, is a Nude, and never really naked. That said, you need to take your clothes off to know what your skin really feels like.
17. Take your clothes off.