confession vs. storytelling
One of the main points of my ECE is that the poet I'm writing about, Eleanor Lerman, is not a confessional poet, though she mainly writes what can be called personal narratives. I'm not going to go into this right now, as I'm a bit sick of the topic --- my essay passed muster as far as the content, was returned for MLA corrections, has been corrected, but won't make it out until tomorrow's mail. I'm just glad I was able to paint a sympathetic portrait of Lerman even though at times during the writing of the thing I felt that Lerman was the worst poet ever to have her work published. Certainly not true, but I'll bet some others of you who've written ECE's may have had similar feelings about your poets, at moments.
No, what I'm thinking about now is my own poetry. What is the difference between "confessing" and telling a story which happens to be about your own life??? I will try to paste one of my latest
(I should note the title is borrowed from Rae's creative thesis):
A cup of ice water means the world to me.
Many in Katrina’s aftermath had less,
though I can make a list of what I don’t have:
working car, now, is the latest item, and
money to get it fixed, or even money for lunch.
At home the hot water pipe has sprung a leak ---
we scrounged seven dollars and change to buy
the less good of two clamps at Keith’s Hardware.
If we’re lucky, Gabe won’t be too tired from work
to screw the pieces into place. But we are blessed:
my girlfriend has a bookstore charge. So, here, now,
each of us has a shiny new book to read,
and let’s lengthen the list: I have this pen
and a big fat notebook for this assessment
of an impoverished life where things go wrong.
Ants run around on the wall I’m sitting on, as I wait
for Triple A, but none have bitten me yet.
There’s more. I’ve put everything I need
from the trunk of the car into my brand new
monogrammed LL Bean backpack on wheels,
frightening gift from my practical mother ---
cat food, medicine, a denim shirt in case the temp
should plunge from ninety down to sixty suddenly.
My girlfriend’s complaining of discomfort ---
how can that be? Sitting in a parking lot
in the heat? We are indeed a lucky pair.
My car will sit at the service station
a good solid week until payday. I will walk
or take the bus. Or hitch up the big dogs
to the red plastic wagon my girlfriend’s son
bought at Goodwill for the baby, which is now
taking up space on the dining room floor.
We will get where we need to go. We will get
our medicine. The cats will eat. Life is not
just a carbon impression of life today --- it is real.
I read this poem in its draft form (which it is still in) at Destinations bookstore in New Albany, Indiana. Response was good, but I'm seeing things in the poem to work on, like for example it sounds like the baby is taking up space on the dining room floor. And I'm not sure about the
last line -- which I've changed since reading the poem.
So what's the verdict, bloggers, is this a confessional poem??? The way I look at it, I'm not a hoarder of secrets; I guess I was influenced early on by my writer father, who kept telling me that "everything is material." I actually did write this poem sitting on a concrete wall at the edge of the parking lot where my parked car was leaking antifreeze like a geyser. In a way, I think this is a "found poem" --- or a poem which exploits a real-life situation to make a poem.
Of course it's psychological/psychiatric issues in poems that are most likely to win the confessional label. I don't even see why this should be. If a poet writes about being depressed, then suddenly they're confessional? To me, moods and brain-states are just part of life.
Because Plath/Sexton/Lowell/Berryman et al had psychiatric diagnoses, they were given the additional label (which I'm positive they LOVED) of "confessional." To me this is especially
ironic with Lowell, who had such a huge body of work that had little overtly to do with himself: historical poems, translations, etc. When you read almost any definition of "confessional" in a glossary, it says it was a "literary movement." I really don't think so. I think the poets in question were using the material their lives gave them. It's true that for example Elizabeth Bishop could have been a more confessional poet --- she suffered from severe alcoholism and depression --- but she either chose not to consciously, or simply wasn't drawn to writing poems about these psycological issues as much as others. She was Lowell's buddy, of course, and
critical of some of the decisions he made about subject matter, such as his decision to write about his ex-wife (am I dreaming this??? I think I read this somewhere).
Yes, each one of us poets is responsible for the choices we make as to subject matter in our poems (what an ungainly sentence). Of course, in the big wide world there is plenty to write about other than our mood or mood-medicine. Is the choice to write about the latter a matter of
"honesty" or is it exhibitionist? Is honesty a kind of exhibitionism? Would the confessional
poets have done a greater service to themselves and American Literature if they had kept mum about their hospital stays and states of melancholy, and instead written about mating habits of insects and fall foliage??? Would they have written better poems???
Are poets more or less likely to write, say, about suicide, now, than before Plath and Sexton?
Did these two make the climate more or less favorable to such poetry? Can a poet now write about ANYTHING she wants to write about, or did the "confessional movement" create new taboos, in the long run???
I'm actually interested in answers to these questions.