All My Pretty Selves

After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography edited by Kate Sontag and David Graham. Graywolf Press, 2001.

As Reviewed By: Kathleen Rooney

If you have any interest in confessionalism as a mode of artistic expression, and you haven’t visited the blog Post Secret, “an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard,” then it’s high time you did. Confessions ranged from the whimsical, “What Happens at Church Camp . . . Stays at Church Camp,” to the devastating, “I died when they put you in the ground.”

You can see the site for yourself at: Go ahead and check it out now since you’re on-line anyway. I’ll wait. The secrets are titillating, provocative, funny, and the cards themselves are triumphs of folk artistic whimsy. You may also notice that the site contains, near the bottom, the problematic statement: “Sometimes courage is more important than talent or technique in making meaningful art.” I take issue with this privileging of content over artfulness as I see it being applied with alarming frequency to contemporary art and literature, and I find it particularly objectionable as it is applied to confessional poetry, much of which is represented and discussed in After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography.

To say that a poem should be accepted as authentic and significant simply because the real-life pain or experience behind it is authentic or significant is, to me, a deeply specious argument for a number of reasons, not least because it seems to champion truth and factuality—and, of course, the so-called “courage” required to reveal this truth—over talent, technique, and imagination. Unlike the otherwise wonderful Post Secret, After Confession does not reduce the argument made over the course of its multiple essays to an elevation of courage over skill. Rather, the anthology uses its 28 essays (most of them reprints) and two poems to explore the full range of views on confessionalism and autobiography in poetry. In doing so, the editors have created a comprehensive analysis of the mythmaking of self that’s risen to the fore not just in poetry but across the artistic board in this age of tell-all memoirs, daytime talk shows, and self-help programs.[private]

This anthology’s wide range and inclusiveness are a credit to the care that Graham and Sontag have taken, not only with the content of the pieces they have selected but also to the order in which they are arranged. After Confession is smartly book-ended with Sharon Olds’s poem “Take the I Out,” in which she declares:

But I love the I, steel I-beam

that my father sold. They poured the pig iron

into the mold, and fed it out slowly . . .

and Adrienne Rich’s “In Those Years,” wherein she warns:

In those years, people will say, we lost track

of the meaning of we, of you

we found ourselves reduced to I

and the whole thing became

silly, ironic, terrible . . .

In between these two poems are four sections devoted thematically to “Staying News: Critical and Historical Perspectives,” “Our Better Halves: Autobiographical Musings,” “Degrees of Fidelity: Ethical and Aesthetic Considerations,” and “Codes of Silence: Women and Autobiography.”

As one might guess from the section titles, After Confession showcases a number of approaches—theoretical, critical, multi-cultural, psychoanalytical, historical, postmodern, and feminist—to the issues of authorial honesty, candor, courage, craft, and technique. Many of the pieces, such as Joan Aleshire’s “Staying News: a Defense of the Lyric,” are informed by classical concepts such as “kairos,” Pindar’s term for “the rules of accurate choice and prudent restraint, the sense of what suits the circumstances; tact, discretion” which she uses to illustrate the qualities that lead to a mature and successful lyric. Aleshire also makes use of Gilbert Murray’s The Classical Tradition in Poetry to explain why confessional poetry takes as its chief subjects “Love and Death, and then Strife,” for, as Murray points out, “The world is not greatly interested in marriage which has involved no difficulty and no opposition, or even in a natural and expected death. It is Love won in spite of obstacles and enemies; it is Death in the midst of strife and glory, especially Death averted or conquered.”

Lest the reader be put off by what might sound a bit dry and perhaps self-consciously scholarly, it is worth noting that not only are the majority of these essays intelligent and carefully researched, they are also personal, conversational, and accessible. They do not suffer from jargon or exclusionary writing, but rather are for the most part open and inviting. After Confession would be useful both as a classroom text and for anyone interested in memoir, the intersection of the personal and the literary, and the blurring of truth and fiction that has taken center stage in the post-James Frey era.

In his brief essay “Personal and Impersonal,” which originally appeared in a 1989 issue of Curiosities and which also opens the witty and informative first section of After Confession, William Matthews’s notes that “The word anthology comes from a Greek word that means bouquet” (13). Matthews’ observation provides a clever metaphor for thinking of an ambitious book such as this one. There are, of course, plenty of recent anthologies of essays on poetry and the making of poems, including Mark Strand’s The Making of a Poem: a Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, Stephen Dobyns’ Best Words Best Order: Essays on Poetry, and Gregory Orr’s Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World. Of these, the one that After Confession most closely resembles is Reginald Gibbons’ excellent The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets on the Origins and Practice of Their Art, which includes authors with distinct perspectives on their craft and careers. Yet After Confession stands out as unique among these aforementioned books for its focus on a particular mode of poetry. While for many readers the words “confessional poetry” call to mind grim post-war works by Plath, Sexton, and Lowell, this anthology commits itself to reassessing the place of autobiography in poetry at the opening of the 21st century.

Thus it’s fitting to remember that anthology, in addition to meaning bouquet, can also mean “a collection of epigrams.” In addition to being largely effective as a group, the pieces in this first section contain a number of one-liners and trenchant paradoxes. Writing of the importance of not privileging content over technique—widely held anxieties regarding originality and style, and the interweaving of the personal and the impersonal—Matthews offers this zinger: “Jack Nicklaus didn’t hit that shot out of a fairway bunker from a sidehill lie with his personality; he hit it with a 4-wood.” Sydney Lea delivers a rigorous and funny analysis of why Keats’s “Beauty is truth” is lovely and rhetorically satisfying, whereas the ubiquitous “Happiness is a warm puppy” is just plain corny. And he points up his “cautionary dictum” that “pronouns are not people”—which is to say that “an ‘I’ was interesting only if proved to be.”

The final essay of the first section, “My Grandfather’s Tackle Box: The Limits of Memory-Driven Poetry,” is every bit as light and mordant as one would expect a piece by Billy Collins to be, but in the end it manages to be as weighty as it is witty and stands out as one of the strongest essays in the book. Discussing the balancing act between fidelity to events as they actually occurred and fidelity to the pleasures of the imagination, Collins asserts, “In poetry, the imagination is not just free to add the light that never was, it is expected to carry the poem beyond the precincts of ordinary veracity.”

After such a strong start, perhaps it’s inevitable that the next section would seem weaker, especially since its purview is much narrower and less universal. “Our Better Halves: Autobiographical Musings” seems to be precisely that—too many musings, too few coherent and broadly relevant analyses. Editor David Graham’s own piece, which kicks off this section, focuses on the dissection of his own writing instead of on imaginative interrogations of the self in a wider context. This trend continues throughout the section; unless one has a deep love of or familiarity with the essayist in question, the pieces tend to feel obscure, self-indulgent, or dated. It is interesting to encounter authors who generally write mostly poetry—Stanley Plumly, Colette Inez, Thylias Moss, Frank Bidart, Claudia Rankine, Annie Finch, and Yusef Komunyakaa—in prose. Nevertheless, one wishes that this section were not so riddled with commonplaces (Colette Inez writing “Nowadays . . . Sunday dinner in America is just as likely to serve up enchiladas, takeout mu shui shrimp, or lasagna as once chicken and peas were doled out by our real or imaginary grannies”), and pop psychological bromides (“learning to be one’s own trustworthy guide while drawing on memories, fantasies, and desires finally leads to compassion after rage. What gradually followed was not a reconciliation with those who wronged me, but an intensified self-regard,” also from Inez). Annie Finch writes in her piece “Coherent Decentering: Toward a New Model of the Poetic Self” of “long adolescent summers” (139). Unfortunately, this entire section feels a bit like one of those summers: languid and self-absorbed.

Luckily, the collection regains momentum in the third section. While it too contains a substantial amount of self-analysis, it couples this focus with the larger concerns of ethics and truth telling, and how such issues relate not merely to the author but also to the audience and to other poets. Editor Kate Sontag opens the section with her piece “Mother, May I?: Writing With Love,” grappling with the way in which “the rise of the poetry of witness, confession, and autobiography has made more complicated the negotiation between poetic license and the contract with the reader, between invention and interpretation, between the mother of the poet and the poet herself.”

This section contains both the most impressive as well as the most disappointing moments of the book. The former is Andrew Hudgins’s piece “The Glass Anvil: ‘The Lies of an Autobiographer,’” wherein he chronicles the eight necessary “lies” through which a poetic memoir can create a work that is artistically and emotionally, if not strictly factually, “true.” These include lies of narrative cogency, texture, emotional evasion and omission, interpretation, and impressionism, as well as the use of appropriated memories. Deftly using his own collection The Glass Hammer to provide examples of each of these necessary fallacies, Hudgins creates an utterly absorbing handbook for anyone concerned with work that purports to be a poetic autobiography. Hudgins also wisely reminds us of the danger of condemning styles wholesale, and thus making unkeepable vows, for as he puts it, “I vowed, because I was tired of so-called confessional poetry with its often lurid self-revelations, not to write about myself. So, probably as a result of that vow, I wrote a childhood memoir.”

Ted Kooser’s “Lying for the Sake of Making Poems” also deals with the ethics of authorial responsibility, but it fails for the same reasons that Hudgins succeeds. Our former poet laureate appears embarrassingly naïve, morally condemning any poet who fudges even the smallest detail of a first-person experience, Put another way, Kooser condemns any poet who—as Billy Collins laid it out earlier—uses imagination with memory. Kooser writes:

Perhaps I am hopelessly old-fashioned. Perhaps I should accept the possibility that what the poet says happened really didn’t happen at all, but I’m going to have to make a painful adjustment in the way I read poetry and honor poets. I grew up believing a lyric poet was a person who wrote down his or her observations, taken from life. I have always trusted the “I” of Walt Whitman as he dresses the wounds of fallen soldiers; I trust Mary Oliver to tell me what birds she saw as she walked through a marsh; I trust Stanley Kunitz when he describes two snakes entwined in a tree. When “I” says something happened, I believe it happened, and if something awful has happened to “I,” I feel for the poet.

Kooser seeks to reduce lyric poetry to mere reportage and to reduce criticism of such poetry to a mere praising of authorial “courage.” This is a distressing prospect, uncomfortably close to the quotation from Post Secret. To approach any poem containing the word “I” as though it must be observed as opposed to imagined seems to be a sadly restrictive way for a reader to behave. The truth of art is not the truth of life. Subjectivity is an ineluctable part of who we are and of how we convey our experiences, real or imaginary. It seems beside the point to fixate on whether something “happened” when the fabric of an event’s relation can never be neutral. Kooser continues:

Poets defending this kind of poem sometimes take the position that they are writing ‘dramatic’ poems, thus sidestepping the ethical questions. Just the same, I prefer that the poet prepare me. If a poem is framed in such a way as to inform its reader, at its onset, that the situation presented is a fictional dramatic monologue, that seems to me to be honest and forthright.

Here he sounds almost as though he wants poems to arrive in stores with warning labels like those that appear on packs of cigarettes. Kooser’s argument further frustrates because it comes close to being reasonable. He writes of poets who compose in the first-person about emotionally compelling but factually false situations, including:

a childless man [who] writes with great skill . . . about a schoolyard experience with his small son [and]. . . another poet [who] writes with touching sadness about the suicide of a brother, and we pity her until we chance to learn . . . that she has no brother.”

His problem with such writers, he declares, is that “Hundreds of readers may be moved by these fabrications, moved to pity the poet, moved to praise his or her courage and candor.” Yet rather than sensibly pointing out, for instance, that readers shouldn’t assume that a poem is true in the first place, and instead should judge it on other merits, Kooser merely decries these authors for being frauds and for stealing our sympathy from the truly courageous and candid poets to whom ghastly and unfair things truly have happened. Instead of venturing to say that perhaps “courage” and “candor” are not the principal things to praise in a poem, he concludes his piece with the effete rhetorical question, “Why do we permit this kind of behavior in poetry when we would shrink from it in any other social situation?” Leaving aside the obvious fact that reading a poem is not like any other social situation, I would ask why we couldn’t admire poets for limber imaginations and not merely for their pathetic and allegedly interesting lives.

The anthology concludes with a section on autobiographical poetry by women, giving thorough historical footing to the pre- and proto-feminist contexts in which the style arose. Standouts in this section include Louise Glück and Carol Muske-Dukes, but Sontag and Graham saved the best for last, rounding out the collection with Alicia Ostriker’s perceptive “Beyond Confession: the Poetics of Postmodern Witness.” Ostriker examines a triumvirate including Adrienne Rich, Carolyn Forché, and Sharon Doubiago. In doing so, she arrives at the conclusion that:

These book-length works wrestle . . . for the soul of epic poetry. Individually and collectively, they are up against the weight of a tradition that begins with Homer and the Book of Joshua and extends to the latest Rambo movie, in which war is glorified and warriors are heroes . . .Is there another path to poetic greatness? . . . Is there a poetry in which the body’s language teaches not only resistance, but transformation? In which the ‘I’ exists as a kind of bridge between hopelessness and renewed desire? . . . These works of postmodern witness begin, I believe, to construct such a poetry, such a poetics.

Here, then, we see that in the end, Post Secret is not totally off the mark in their praise of courage as a valuable component of meaningful art. Courage can be, as Ostriker implies, a trait of poetry that aspires to greatness. But this courage is the kind required to arrive at a new way of seeing and a new means of expression, not merely the courage to confess publicly terrible or amusing secrets about one’s self.

After Confession led me—one somewhat skeptical of the inherent value of confessional art—to consider more closely the nuances of the genre, reminding me that, as with any other genre, contemporary confessional poetry has its highs and lows, its strengths and weaknesses. So too could After Confession prompt fans of confessional poetry to interrogate their own notions of what constitutes successful autobiographical poetry, to remember what factors besides a confessional author’s courage constitute grounds for praise.

In his introductory comment on the etymology of the word “anthology”, William Matthews was talking about our selves, about how “We’re neither so various nor so consistent in our idea of ourselves as it might please us to think. We’re an anthology of selves, and so, inconsistent; but the anthology is chosen by the same editor and so consistent.” The conclusion he reaches seems to apply not only to lives and selves but also to books such as this one. Perhaps a reader may be left wishing the bouquet had contained more irises, less baby’s breath, more broad criticism, less self-analysis, but the bottom line on Sontag and Graham’s essential collection is that autobiographical poetry should be approached with a diverse array of mindsets and methods. None is the best, none is right all the time, affirming, as Matthews says, that “Perhaps the resolution of different scents into harmony is the most consistency we’ll achieve or should strive for.[/private]

About KRooney

Kathleen Rooney was born in 1980. Educated at the George Washington University and Pembroke College, Oxford, she is an MFA candidate in poetry and a writing instructor at Emerson College, where she is the editor in chief of Redivider. A recipient of the Ruth Lilly Fellowship in 2003 from Poetry magazine, her poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Sow's Ear, Ilya's Honey, GSU Review, Poet Lore, GW Review and America. Her criticism has appeared in The Nation, and Provincetown Arts, and her reviews appear regularly in Harvard Review and Boston Review. Reading With Oprah: the Book Club That Changed America is her first book.
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