P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.36 - May 2019
David Graham's POETIC LICENSE 2019 May No.36
Gossip and Gospel: Notes on “Confessional” Poetry
Gossip and Gospel: Notes on “Confessional” Poetry
Way back near the end of the Twentieth Century, my friend Kate Sontag and I got to talking about so-called confessional poetry, which has been nothing but controversial ever since W. D. Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and others were pinned with that label in the early 1960s. I say “so-called” because the term has been applied so widely and loosely that in my view there has never been any agreed-upon definition. Generally speaking, “confessional” became reviewers’ shorthand, reductive and vague. Poems dramatizing real or imagined personal experience have been written for centuries, and for centuries we knew what to call them: “lyric poems.” Significantly, none of the original confessional poets ever embraced the new label.
Like everyone else, over the years Kate and I had seen such matters hotly debated in poetic circles. There was also growing interest at the time in similar issues as applied to prose. We were in an Age of the Memoir, many articles and books were proclaiming. We further noticed that, though there were numerous individual comments about confessional poetry scattered in reviews, articles, and interviews, we could find no single book collecting representative examples of the views of contemporary poets.
Thus was born our anthology of essays, After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography, published by Graywolf in 2001. We scoured journals gathering published essays on the topic, then invited a number of notable poets to write new ones for our book. Our aim was to look at the controversy from as many different angles as possible. The final product was comprised of about half previously published essays and half ones that were commissioned for our project. I will “confess” that I remain very proud of this book.
Unfortunately, the book has gone out of print. But it’s still available in libraries and used book shops. Currently I see that you can snag a copy on Amazon for $6.50. We won’t be receiving any royalties if you do purchase it, but it would still please me to know it’s being read.
Meanwhile, in the years since After Confession appeared the discussion has continued as fiercely as ever, and branched out in many directions. Among the things I am pleased about is that our book recognized how central issues of gender have always been to the larger debate; thus we featured a whole section of essays by and about women poets. Likewise, we realized that definitions of selfhood and community differed significantly among distinct racial and ethnic groups; we included essays by two Native American poets to underscore such matters.
If we were assembling a Volume Two today I’m sure we would want to diversify even more. We’d surely pay attention to spoken word and performance poetry, for one thing. There’s also poetry’s omnipresence on Instagram and other social media as well as blogs and online journals. And of course the visibility of poets who were under-represented for so long in mainstream poetic venues has been rapidly increasing, and rightly so. It’s an exciting and extremely pluralistic moment in contemporary American poetry. I’d say that the time is ripe for some new anthologist to extend and update what we did two decades ago to take account of all these trends and more.
Current conversations we are having in this country about identity are of course rooted in history. And, I would argue, some questions are eternal—perpetually unanswerable and thus worth revisiting often. What I would like to do now is reflect on some of what I learned about such questions while researching and co-editing After Confession all those years ago.
I sometimes feel that all discussions of autobiographical poetry or the lyric-I ought to come with a disclaimer. Marianne Moore's lyric "Silence” might serve as an example why:
My father used to say,
"Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow's grave
or the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like the cat--
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth--
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint."
Nor was he insincere in saying, "Make my house your inn."
Inns are not residences.
As quoted in this little hymn to judicious restraint, Marianne Moore's father sounds exactly as we would expect: pithy, gravely moralistic, and just a little bit odd (what on earth is that mouse's tail doing in the midst of this little sermon?). It's easy to envision the crusty Victorian gentleman who would utter such sentiments, and if you know anything about Moore, it’s no trouble to believe she had just such a father.
But we would be wrong to imagine this. In fact Moore never knew her father. The opening passage in this poem as well as several further details are scrupulously footnoted. A certain "Miss A. M. Homans" is credited with the thoughts about "superior people," and the concluding aphorism concerning houses and inns is based on a remark by Edmund Burke. So the poem is hardly autobiographical.
Yet surely the sentiments here are pure Moore. Her carefully wrought remark equating "deepest feeling" with "restraint" expresses a fundamental aspect of her poetic character. The poem is deeply personal without being at all autobiographical. Let the poem stand, then, as a cautionary note about the complexity of these matters; and let it perhaps induce in us a bit of Moore-like humility whenever we feel like pronouncing about the autobiographical roots of any given lyric-I poem.
Caution is also called for when generalizing about the current poetic landscape, a point which seems more obvious to me than to some others. While researching our anthology Kate and I came across innumerable instances of skepticism about the confessional lyric in our time. These ranged from withering or weary laments for the narcissism and sameness of so much current poetry to urgent calls for new ways of approaching poetic subjectivity. The sentiment goes way back. Louis Simpson wrote in 1986, for instance, "For a generation, American poetry has been stuck in the first person like a truck spinning its wheels." A decade later, Adrienne Rich was noting in her introduction to Best American Poetry, " I was constantly struck by how many poems published in magazines today are personal to the point of suffocation. The columnar, anecdotal, domestic poem, often with a three-stress line, can be narrow in more than a formal sense." And Billy Collins, in an interview from September 2000, asserted:
. . . I think what I hold back, besides just dirty little secrets, is a strict kind of autobiographical narrative information about myself. . . . My idea of hell is looking through someone else's family album or being shown slides of someone's trip to somewhere. I don't care, and I assume they don't care about mine, either.
A number of critiques along these lines, including a fine historical essay by Billy Collins, appear in our book. As it happens, I'm very interested in new approaches to the lyric-I poem. Yet without dismissing such explorations or contesting the justice of individual critiques, I want to speak up for the health and vigor of the lyric-I tradition in our time. In the decades since the original confessional poets appeared, we have seen an astonishing flowering, branching, and hybridization of the lyric genre, along with an influx of voices previously un- or under-heard. Joan Aleshire in our book quotes a very useful distinction made by critic Stephen Yenser. Yenser distinguishes between "gossip (fact, data, raw material") and "gospel (parable, pattern, truth"). Maybe there is too much gossipy poetry today, but I have to say that I find plenty of gospel in contemporary autobiographical poetry.
There is nothing wrong with Collins's preferences, I hasten to add. I don’t happen to share them, but he’s doing pretty well with his particular version of the lyric-I. Yet I submit that those who find little but crushing sameness in the current scene are taking an unduly aerial view. Sometimes, listening to the common critical complaints about generic anecdotal family poems, I feel like simply shouting out names: Yusef Komunyakaa! Dorianne Laux! Charles Wright! Brendan Galvin! Terrance Hayes! Pattiann Rogers! Patricia Smith! These poets may have their faults, but writing generic poems is not one of them. Nor is resembling each other too closely. And they are the tip of a very large iceberg.
In hopes of clarifying what I mean by a poem of gospel rather than gossip, I'll conclude by presenting three poems that do not resemble each other. They illustrate, in miniature, something of the health and range of contemporary poems employing the lyric-I. First, here is "Bellrope" by Robert Morgan:
The line through the hole into the dank
vestibule ceiling ended in
a powerful knot worn slick, swinging
in the breeze from those passing. Half
an hour before service Uncle
Allen pulled the call to worship,
hauling down the rope like the starting
cord of a motor, and the tower
answered and answered, fading
as the clapper lolled aside. I watched
him before Sunday school heave on
the line as on a wellrope. And
the wheel creaked up there as heavy
buckets emptied out their startle
and spread a cold splash to farthest
coves and hollows, then sucked the rope
back into the loft, leaving just
the knot within reach, trembling
with its high connections.
This might represent some sort of extreme of the self-effacing "I," the barely-there speaker. Morgan has devoted himself to chronicling the world of his boyhood in the North Carolina mountains--a more or less pre-industrial realm of hardscrabble farms, Pentecostal Christianity, and a still-active oral tradition. His reticent self is more than personal, then, and has been deliberately subsumed in this very particular cultural matrix. There is abiding mystery here, of an explicitly religious as well as communal sort, as symbolized in the unseen bell's ability to wash into all the remotest hollows of the countryside, bringing the faithful to service. At the same time, the earthy context in which such mystery shines forth is symbolized by the bellrope's "worn slick" knot, homely and palpable as could be. I take it that the "high connections" of the last line thus refer not just to the relationship of souls with God, but equally to the bond of an individual self to its mountain community, no less potent for its near anonymity of presentation.
In contrast, the late Lucille Clifton's voice was typically far from anonymous. Here is her tiny classic, "Homage to My Hips”:
these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don't fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don't like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!
For present purposes I mostly want to note how this lyric participates in several interlocking circles of cultural comment. As an African American woman Clifton was well aware of writing out of a dismaying history of repressions, silences, and exclusions. She takes three notable strikes against her--her race, her gender, and her girth--and fashions them into a compact praise-song of loud good humor. It is thus a culturally embedded gesture in at least several ways, not least of which being its participation in the rich African American tradition of songs and poems of exaggerated boasting.
No less than Morgan, then, Clifton employs self as an emblem, however much the poem also expresses her individuality of voice. Her humor, her pride, and her lively rejection of prejudice in its insidious, self-loathing form, are equally individual and representative. Also note how neither Morgan's nor Clifton's poems are "confessional" in the customary ways: they do not reveal secrets, detail any particular intimacies, or dwell on tawdry or harsh facts. Yet who would say that they are not fully personal in voice? Both poems reflect, I would say, how convention and originality have always interacted, within the lyric tradition, to bring us something worthy and pungent if not entirely novel. Both poems deliver the good news that lyrics always have.
I’ll conclude this small survey with a lyric as different as can be from Clifton’s and Morgan’s. The author is a former student of mine, Brent Goodman; and so I know a bit about its origins. “The Brother Swimming Beneath Me,” which became the title poem of his first book, is an example of a poem that is more "confessional" in the common sense of the term. To my mind it is a reminder that no convention is dead so long as poets continue to employ it in imaginative, feeling ways. For this poem is, among other things, a metaphorical glance into the author's family photo album. Moreover, it is a lyric of naked grief--exactly the sort of thing that can cause pre-emptive sighs in many readers--so every possibility for sentimentality, anecdotal tedium, and mediocrity is clearly present. But see if you don't agree with me that Brent does something quite fresh and moving within familiar conventions.
The Brother Swimming Beneath Me
is not dead yet, though the water
he moves through is green and dark,
and the shadow from the bluff presses down
like a hand over us both, and the eelgrass
must catch lightly against his legs, must bend
with his passing and lengthen, and stay;
this boy who is not dead yet gliding flesh-tone
and wavering hair past, though I want to say
I'm floating in an oarboat and his face is hidden
or blurry, I can see him again and again,
all snorkel and fin and dolphin kick, reaching forward
through handfuls of wavering light;
and ten years before his death his blood is still whole
and smooth through his veins - no - I mean to say
my brother swimming beneath me isn't only that day
on the lake, I'm saying this now because we live
on water and the dead move through us
and we bend with their passing, and lengthen, and stay;
I can feel the dull pull of the oars as I follow him
back to shore, tracing a rise of air through water
meeting air, his hands reaching forward
as the shadow from the cliff darkens us both
and he glides through it into the smell of woodsmoke;
my shoulders work-sore and that first weight in my chest
I would later call grief; while now I turn the words
bowline, half-hitch, cat’s paw over and over again in my hands,
I should say I'm tying this thin rope to splintered wood,
I'm careful and maybe too slow or didn't pay attention
when my brother showed me this because
he’s already just footfalls on the pier and fading now,
the note of each board heavy and muted, me floating
there on the water, stepping out onto the pier, this pull,
this weight, my brother's footsteps small wet splashes
on the woodgrain already soaking through, shrinking and gone
before he reaches the top of the stair - I have to say
his footprints disappear before I can put down my own
though I can still hear him rising, rising.
Poems are good at posing unanswerable questions, but what do they provide in place of answers? Often the best lyrics allow us to feel with full dramatic force what Blake called the "minute particulars" of life. That may not seem like much, but when done well, it’s close to everything, I believe. Capturing the feel of things in a dramatic way is not easy. When Keats wrote his famous letter about Shakespeare’s genius—as demonstrated in “Negative Capability”—he was describing something similar, I think. Giving body to matters of spirit in concrete image and figure can, in some mysterious but very real way, hearten, inspire, console.
In this haunting, haunted elegy for Brent’s older brother Mark, who died when the poet was eighteen, we feel the magnetic pull of connection between the living and the dead. A day at the lake is sketched with loving detail, from eelgrass, snorkel, cliff shadows, and rowboat to rapidly drying footprints on a wooden pier. Yet nothing is explained, really. It's all feeling: palpable weight of grief born in the chest, "dull pull" of the oars against tired arms, singing tones of boards flexing under the brother's shifting weight. Everything appears sunlit and real, yet everything is blurred and mysterious, refractory, like objects underwater. The poem's grammar likewise shifts and blurs, never quite parse-able, never resolving into a tidy narrative. The dead brother snorkeling is a sort of dream memory, then, his body glinting and half-defined, his wet footprints already vanishing from the dock even as he paradoxically rises in vivid memory. Gone and not gone.
In some religious traditions, in Africa for example, a distinction is made between two categories of the dead: the generalized, impersonal dead of all previous generations, and the more recent dead who are remembered particularly and intimately. We might thus posit that a person is not truly gone until everyone who remembers that person has also died. Poets write elegies, in large part, to keep the well-loved dead in that first category, passing on the living memory of their loved ones to the future. It's not an "answer" to the eternal religious questions about the meaning of life and the afterlife, but it is as close as art can come to resurrection. And it is deeply satisfying when a poet nails the feelings as heartfully and accurately as Goodman does here.
The gospel truth on view here is clearly the opposite of gossip.
©2019 David Graham
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