The Very Act of Telling: Sharon Olds and Writing Narrative Poetry
"I want to live.…I say/ Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it." —Sharon Olds
I grew up gay in a fundamentalist Christian family. I started writing poetry to survive. A part of me twinges at that statement, even now, with a sort of embarrassment for sounding corny, for saying something that lacks irony or sarcasm. Perhaps in the current poetry climate where cleverness and self-conscious language play seem to be increasingly revered, I would go so far as to say that there’s a new sort of "closet" I’ve found myself hiding in: one where I admit that poetry really does matter to me on a very personal level, a level of survival.
One of the first contemporary poems I ever read was "I Go Back to May 1937" by Sharon Olds. I remember being struck with the idea that a poem could let its writer enter the past, even witness a past which he or she wasn't a part. It’s a fairly common device, I soon found, but something inside me shifted the first time I encountered it. I believe at that moment I started imagining the vast possibilities of poetic expression: if poetry could allow a person to enter the past with the choice of drastically altering history, then could poetry also predict a future? Could poetry address injustice? Could poetry be the precise language of representation for the inexpressible body? Could the very act of "telling" allow a person to live? Could I--gay, closeted, and utterly miserable--find a way to live? The answer, I realized, was: Yes. Poetry, I discovered, had that kind of power.
I now look at "I Go Back to May 1937" as an ars poetica, and I’m fascinated with the moment when Olds’ narrator picks the parents up "and bang(s) them together/ at the hips." In that moment, the narrator is not only participating in making her very "physical" body by initiating (furiously) a sexual act between her parents, but she is also constructing a "body" of poetics. The narrator in that moment refuses the role of disembodied observer and chooses, instead, to be an active agent in sculpting her own story. This act, followed by the announcement, "I will tell about it," links the body to language—introducing a hands-on poetry, a poetry of decision, of accountability, a poetry of both physical and artistic necessity.
So why now, years later, after feeling such power from a single poem, do I feel pressure from peers to remove the narrative "I" from my poems? Why am I encouraged to remove the narrator’s intensely personal details? Why can’t "I" be imagined on the page? Is the reader afraid to be gay for a little while (to be black for a little while, to be a woman)? Of course, everything goes out of fashion; trends, by definition, shift. But isn’t there something inherently disturbing about disenfranchising the disenfranchised? I’m not saying that any or all poetry should be narrative, or that all gay writers should or do tell their stories in poetry. But if we’re going to embrace the sonnet and praise the villanelle, then shouldn’t we also celebrate the narrative "I"? I’m concerned about the voice that says: Take the "I" out. Whose voice is this, really? Perhaps I resist it because it feels dangerously similar to the voice I recognize from childhood: the fundamentalist voice of fear and doubt, the voice that eradicates the body and the self, the voice of conformity that renders the individual speechless, invisible.
Olds’ narrator chooses the body, the story, her own life. And so do I. As a gay person, I don’t believe I have the luxury of removing "me" from my poems. And, frankly, I’m tired of worrying about being relegated to the margins of contemporary poetry for writing about the body, for writing with emotion, or for using the narrative "I." Recently I saw a news article about a politician in Alabama who is introducing a bill to the legislature with the hopes of removing all public funding from libraries and universities that have books with gay or bisexual characters in them or that promote homosexuality as a valid lifestyle. My first thought was: This is absurd. Just because we aren’t talked about doesn’t mean that we don’t exist. Then it occurred to me: If we aren’t talked about, do we really exist?