Saturday, January 15, 2005

Some Thoughts on Self in Poetry

Just finished reading a section of Jenny Boully's "The Body" in John D'Agata's essay anthology The Next American Essay, and now I'll have to buy the book from Slope (oops, it's sold out). Consisting entirely of footnotes to a non-existent text, it's a piece of formal, narrative and thematic-associational brilliance; it gives us a portrait of the mind of the author at work, a portrait of all of the subtext, all of the image-swatches, conversation-snippets, musings and one-liners that go into writing a poem or essay or short story (the text itself, all white space, is any and all of these). Boully's brilliance was to realize that this material, this unfinished process, was the text itself. In the hands of another writer not the ghost of Nabokov, such a way of making disjunction salient--we've seen this before--could seem gimmicky; it does seem gimmicky in Infinite Jest, a book I love (despite its messiness) and will defend ardently against any and all detractors. But the reason Boully succeeds, I think, is that the text constantly and patiently suggests to the reader the necessity, indeed the inevitability, of its form. The oedipal (yes, I know the narrator is a woman) figure of the "great poet" who, like Eliot, suggests that she keep the personal, emotional and autobiographical out of her work, make it subtext and not text--becomes a stifling and tyrannical figure. And yet, a necessary one, too, because for all of its intimate details and personal anecdotes, this isn't confession served up whole; it's Eliot's "escape from personality" gotten at precisely by surrendering to it.

I think about this issue (how to deal with the morass of the self) a great deal--not only because my first manuscript is, in the words of a friend, "a very personal book,"(the former title poem "Interference" offers up a narrative of its own besotted genesis in a three page long footnote)--but more because I am often confused or hurt or upset by the disparaging remarks people I admire have for writers like Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell and, to a lesser degree, John Berryman, dubbed with the pejorative moniker "confessional." I've indicated in earlier posts that I find it necessary to distinguish between these writers and what I might call petit confessionalism. Robert Hass has said that he likes the early Lowell better than the Lowell of Life Studies, For the Union Dead and Near the Ocean. Lowell is probably one of my biggest influences; I claim him wholly and unabashedly--and while I, too, treasure the early Lowell, I think there is much to be said in favor of the three books listed above. My sense is that people write off Life Studies in the same way that they write off Freud. Freud is so much more than the find-the-sausage game that people think he is, just as Lowell's poems are so much more than the person whose news-briefs people think they are. While Life Studies may claim to "say what happened" that's just Lowell vulgarizing himself: the book is about the legacy of history--national, personal, familial-- as it impinges upon our lives, and about the fine web of relationality wherefrom identity derives. While there may be a great deal of direct self-portraiture in this book, it's worth noting that most of the space in these poems is devoted to people other than himself. Look at "Memories of West Street and Lepke" or "Waking in the Blue" or "Skunk Hour," or any of the other anthology favorites. The speaker in these poems only exists in the interstices between other lives, only exists in relation to, and through, and at the mercy of, these other people. "Skunk Hour," for instance, is a portrait of a community in crisis; the poem spirals through five or six character before fixing on the skulking narrator in its closing stanzas, whose crisis is merely an emblem of the larger network of fierce, classist privacy and its kissing cousin, voyeurism. And while we may find something indulgent in the closing movement, it's a far cry from the imitations it spawned, which essentially take the "I myself am hell" lines as their platform, and lose all of the generous attention to other people's lives. It would be difficult, I think, to call these poems narcissistic, or self-involved. And these few poems are about as confessional as Lowell ever gets. The next two books are much more concerned with history, and the way that it bears, horribly, upon the present. In, for instance, "For the Union Dead," one of the best poems of its type since Jeremiah, Lowell the man is but a footnote to the horrible mortmain of the past, a feeble attempt to satisfy its debt. I need this poem today, as I've needed it just about every day of the last three years. I think that a good yardstick here is to ask whether the poem's fealty is to an individual life, an individual's experience, or life and experience in general, whether the vector of the poems is toward individual experience or away from it. Lowell and Plath, when they are hot, exemplify the former movement; petit confessionalism the latter. These poems aren't attempts to document a life, but attempts to find in that life and that experience the thread and trace of the other, the past, and perhaps the future. Jenny Boully's essay, I think, succeeds for the same reasons. One can, of course, feel excluded by the Lowell's poetry--by its privilege and erudition--and I wouldn't want to deny anybody such a feeling. His allusions can be annoying, no doubt, and he's capable of some monstrous clinkers. But on January 20th, when the captain turns on the "Fasten Your Seatbelts" sign and our Present Dented starts using the f-word (freedom), I'll turn as I turned four years ago to Lowell's "Inauguration Day: January 1953," a poem that succeeds at being both political and occasional without any of the morning-after regrets:

Ice, ice. Our wheels no longer move.
Look, the fixed stars, all just alike
as lack-land atoms, split apart,
and the Republic summons Ike,
the mausoleum in her heart.

1 comment:

gina said...

Bravo. I'm about to teach Lowell, old love.

Shelley: "self that bur that sticks"