Memoir-ish

When a poem uses a lyric approach, readers tend to assume initially that the poet is the speaker of the poem; in this respect, a reader might think of the poem as a personal revelation or–if the circumstances of the poem seem to warrant it–as a kind of memoir. People who have more experience with reading poetry (or who have been assigned to write a literary criticism of the work) may change their assumptions once they read more closely. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy poetry. It challenges my assumptions, surprises me, informs me of new facts and perspectives.

Prose memoirs, most of us assume, are less metaphorical and more “truthful,” at least from the writer’s perspective. Though there’s room for the unreliable narrator in memoirs, readers tend to feel betrayed if they determine the memoir writer hasn’t been honest with them (then we end up with controversies like James Frey’s). I find the blurring of genres rather fascinating, but generally, the folks I know who read memoirs want a mostly-unvarnished truth.

What about taking the memoir in a different direction: instead of blending or blurring toward fiction, into poetry? There are poetic memoirs in print, but they tend to be writers’ experiences expressed in poetry they’ve written themselves. Lesley Wheeler has opted for something different in her book Poetry’s Possible Worlds. Here, she uses the idea of “literary transportation” as a reader of poems, demonstrating how close reading can evolve into a form of reflection on, well, everything. She chooses 12 poems to examine, works that were not only resonant for her but that drew her into some understanding of why and how poetry manages to infect our gut feelings, exert its magic on the reader’s mind. She makes an interesting decision, too, in presenting 12 contemporary poems and avoiding the classic canonical works, a choice that focuses the reader on the newness of the text rather than on its famous backgrounding. It’s fascinating to me how this approach shook up my expectations. In this way, too, she does the readers and the poets whose work she’s curated a great favor: we get introduced to one another through a sensitive, penetrating interlocutor: Lesley Wheeler.

But the book does more than critique 12 poems; if anything, that’s the least part of Wheeler’s purpose. The book “qualifies” as memoir, in its genre-mixing way, because Wheeler explores her response to the poems through the lens of a difficult few years in her own life–here’s the memoir part. But instead of a prose memoir in chapters, each section acts as an independent essay centered around the poem she is reading and, as she revels in and puzzles through each poem, we learn about the challenges in her life. In this book, those challenges come largely from her unreliable, difficult father, whose betrayal(s) of the family snowball into messy misfortune. For Wheeler, poetry offered–still offers–transportation through the grief and anger and ways to navigate the gaps that all lives contain. I couldn’t agree more, and this book reminds me once again of poetry’s necessity.

The poet’s “I”

So often, when reading a poem written using the first-person perspective, my initial reaction is to consider the poet as the narrator–even though I ought to know better!

When I revisit the poem, when I analyze or interpret it on a more abstract or intellectual level, my view may alter. Interpretation sometimes leads me to decide that the “I” in a first-person poem may be a persona, a stand-in for the poet, or a perspective not of the poet’s personal experience but imagined or constructed. The foregoing are reasons to read and interpret poems with care and not to conclude, automatically, that the poet is writing from or of her own experience.

This makes poets sound like rather slippery or manipulative characters, employing use of the personal pronoun to mislead readers into believing something that isn’t “strictly true” (whatever that means). If I am telling a story, surely it must be my story; and if it isn’t my story—shouldn’t I confess that to my open-minded, engaged, possibly gullible reader? If a poem falls into the category of lyrical, readers tend to believe that the writer and narrator are one and the same, despite a reminder in the glossary of terms that the narrator who “expresses personal feelings” may be “the poet, the poet’s persona, or another speaker.” In other words—not the poet’s own feelings, despite the apparent authenticity implied in the use of the first-person pronoun.

Readers may feel betrayed by the writer. Yes, that happens. It also happens that rather awful human beings have penned soaring, beautiful, compassionate poems, because people are complicated and flawed and society often harms us.

And perhaps writing, in some complicated way, can redeem us. I’m not entirely convinced of that; but I do know that I have written poems that basically construct an experience or type of feeling I can imagine but do not authentically know, and that the work of having written such poems has felt like an enrichment of my own experience.

I have been asking myself why and how it happens that poets sometimes—often, perhaps—end up composing texts from other points of view, masquerading as their own. There seem to be a couple of reasons, one of which is simply that we practice writing by using our own much-loved poems as models. The lyric poem has a long history, and even autodidactic students of poetry eventually find that the biographies of some of their favorite writers do not correlate perfectly with the works themselves.

The lyric narrative has been around for less time, gradually supplanting the epic by drawing upon the ballad. And it’s here that readers often get confused about who is the “I” that tells the story, especially when emotional expressions of one kind or another enter the narrative.

I have more to say about this aspect of the poetic stance, the poet’s voice, and the lyrical narrative as lived or imagined experience. And about how that sort of thing evolves during the writing and revision process—with an example or two. But that is for another post. Meanwhile, I am mulling.

Image: Monterey Bay Spice Company

Mulling Spices

Poetry as a value

If individual consciousness exists among human beings, and I believe it does, it is however the collective consciousness that has the longest-ranging impact. We are social mammals. We crave some object or objective with which we can connect and form relationships around in order to create community. Humans cannot survive without communities.

Those communities can be centered around almost anything as long as the focus keeps social members busy with the process of group-forming, skill-sharing, skill-teaching, communication and, ultimately, the development of a shared history. Hence family, tribe, language, or religion–among many other social magnets–keep us cohesive. Until we bicker and subdivide. Society works in ways analogous to the brain and body: through complex systems and nearly-random relationships and long, twisty networks.

I’ve been thinking about the things we “worship”–things we value and therefore believe are inherent among good human beings–and how such perspectives affect the consciousness of entire civilizations. Simon A. May, in Love: A History, suggests that in the early 21st century, “Western” societies have been elevating the idea of love to that socializing focus. An interesting premise, and I suppose there are worse rallying concepts than love, though May points out ways in which even love can be transformed into an ideology rather than an emotion.ann e. michael

In a large society are many sub-societies, each with its own locus of organizing a human collective; these may often overlap or coexist with the vast variety of human interests. Reflecting on this, I consider myself as part of the society of educators, and of book-readers and book-learners, and of art lovers; and also a member of those people who feel that poetry assists in the lifelong endeavor to engage meaningfully and attentively to life.

Here is a list of people like me who subscribe to the necessity of poetry and who write about it on their blogs. Donna Vorreyer has compiled a listing of poetry-related blogs to follow. I will be following some of them, too.

https://djvorreyer.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/it-feels-just-like-starting-over/

Irritation, explanation, interpretation

I had another testy conversation about poetry analysis recently. Hence, this brief explanation, rationale, and license to interpret.

Feeling a mild irritation...

Feeling a mild irritation…

I truly sympathize with people who prefer to avoid any sort of literary analysis; so many times, it is such a badly-taught subject. Nevertheless, it is never a good idea to refuse to learn about something thanks to one or two negative experiences. If that were the case, no one would ever learn to walk (we fell down, we cried, we refused ever to rise up and take another step).

First, let go of the idea that the purpose of literary analysis is to understand exactly what the writer meant. Second, let go of the idea that poetry contains a symbolic hidden meaning.

Instead, recognize the following fairly obvious observations:

1] the poet wrote what he or she meant; the reader can interpret on the reader’s terms.

2] the meaning is in the poem itself.

Poetry is a form of communication, and it is not a detective story. The poet said what he or she said because the poet determined that was the best way to communicate the experience.

Problem: You, the reader, fail to understand the poem. All that means is that you and the poet may be speaking in different terms and that, to you, the poet’s determination of the best way to say what he or she meant does not convey much. Welcome to the world of human interactions.

The reader has choices: turn the page, for example, and ignore the poem. Or read the poem and find its sound or rhythm entertaining. Or read the poem for its summary–the top-line story, if there is one. Or relish the poem’s mood or use of language. Or its images.

Or throw the poem across the room in frustration or anger. Poetry is powerful enough to evoke such responses.

You could also try to examine the poem, look at how the poet uses rhythm or sound or language or image or metaphor or rhyme…you might learn something about how a writer puts a poem together; and even if you do not manage to shoo the “real meaning” out from under a chair, you may be able to come to terms with the poem in your own way.

You are permitted to interpret what the poem means for you.*

~

*CAVEAT: This approach may not get you an A on your analysis paper (though it might), but it will serve to enhance your lifelong appreciation of the poetic art.