After his reading, the poet was approached by a tearful woman. She thanked him for the poem about his brother who had died. “My brother died recently,” she said, “and I sympathize with your feelings about your brother’s death.” “Oh, thanks,” the poet said, “but I don’t have a brother.” Why is this story disturbing? If a fiction writer were reading from an I-based story in which a relative died, no one would be surprised or upset that the I in the story wasn’t the I of the writer. However, although every poetry workshop tries to imbue the poet with the idea that the “I” in a poem is not the real I—that it is not actually the poet speaking—no one listening to or reading an I-based poem truly believes it. In fact, when a poem is critiqued, the poet often feels compelled to explain some event in a poem with the words “but that’s the way it really happened,” thereby reinforcing the idea that the I in the poem belongs to no one but the poet. In fact, unless explicitly presented as a persona, the default assumption is that the I in the poem is the I of the poet. There’s nothing surprising about this. The lyric I has been a fixture in poetry at least since Sappho and the reader rightly assumes that say, Emily Dickinson, is speaking from her inner life, not someone else’s. But when the poem is conversational or flatly declarative and filled with apparent autobiographical details, we do hold the poem to a truth-in-reporting standard, as if it were a memoir. As if it were factual.
Thus, the contemporary reader has, despite all workshop admonitions to the contrary, come to believe the following about the I in a poem:
- If an event is described by the “I” it happened to the poet.
- If intimate feelings are revealed through an “I” they are the poet’s feelings.
- The relatives, lovers, friends and/or spouses of the I in the poem are the poet’s actual relatives, lovers, friends and/or spouses.
- Any beliefs, political views or moral values expressed by the I are the poet’s.
This belief is argued for eloquently by Stanley Plumly in “Words on Birdsong,” wherein he maintains that the truth, the facts, of an experience in a poem should be true. Using the example of a poet who “kills off” the friend in his poem who was, in reality, only ill in order to appropriate an emotion not based on the facts of the experience for an elegy, Plumly makes the following observation:
Whatever his subtractions and conflations, Wordsworth is the great poet of memory because we can believe him. Dickinson draws half her power from her discretion, even her secrecy, but we never doubt the cry of the occasion. The fact that he is our great Symbolist poet does not in any way obviate the intimate autobiographical content of Yeats. Lowell’s best work may be no more psychological journalism than it is confession, but it is nevertheless rooted in graphic, accurate detail–“why not say what happened.” Fundamental emotional experience, regardless, is as irrefutable as death.
Plumly’s objection is not simply to changing the facts of the I’s experience, but to changing them in such a way as to manipulate the reader’s emotions; to portray false emotions as real in the service of making a “better” poem.
In a recent example, as a result of one poet’s open letter to another at AWP 2010 (Claudia Rankine to Tony Hoagland), the poetry world was faced with a public playing out of this problem of the I as poet vs. the I as fictional construction, wherein Hoagland’s poem, and by inference, Hoagland himself, was determined to be racist based on what the I in his poem, The Change, says:
The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine.
In the park the daffodils came up
and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade.
Sometimes I think that nothing really changes—
The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,
and the new president proves that he’s a dummy.
but remember the tennis match we watched that year?
Right before our eyes
some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—
We were just walking past the lounge
and got sucked in by the screen above the bar,
and pretty soon
we started to care about who won,
putting ourselves into each whacked return
as the volleys went back and forth and back
like some contest between
the old world and the new,
and you loved her complicated hair
and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,
I couldn’t help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,
because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips
and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,
like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission.
There are moments when history
passes you so close
you can smell its breath,
you can reach your hand out
and touch it on its flank,
and I don’t watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre,
but I could feel the end of an era there
in front of those bleachers full of people
in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes
as that black girl wore down her opponent
then kicked her ass good
then thumped her once more for good measure
and stood up on the red clay court
holding her racket over her head like a guitar.
And the little pink judge
had to climb up on a box
to put the ribbon on her neck,
still managing to smile into the camera flash,
even though everything was changing
and in fact, everything had already changed—
Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,
and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.
So far, 123 contemporary poets have weighed in on this poem with an open letter on Rankine’s website. I won’t detail the many viewpoints in response, but the majority of them conflate the poem’s I with Hoagland. Many in fact, reflect the stance of both Stanley Plumly and Ted Kooser who also believes that the I in a poem of autobiographical details is bound, ethically, to be the I of the poet. In his essay, “Lying for the Sake of Making Poems,” Kooser says:
In such [autobiographical] poems, the speaker, calling himself or herself ‘I’ (and without forewarning the reader in any way), builds a poem around what appears to be autobiographical information, but that is untrue. ..Why are some of our poets recreating their lives? Can it be that they are merely trying to make their material more exciting? Is the country so in need of new confessional poems that it is necessary to construct them around events that never happened? Is this phenomenon caused by the ‘publish or perish’ pressure on writers who are affiliated with universities, or is it indicative of some bigger ethical or moral problem?
Meanwhile, Hoagland has said, in response to charges of being a racist: “This (the idea that the topic of race belongs only to brown-skinned Americans) is especially true in contemporary poetry where a poem is often presumed to be in the voice of the author. I am not trying to sidestep—of course I am racist; and sexist, a homophobe, a classist, a liberal, a middle class American, a college graduate, a drop out, an egotist, Diet Pepsi drinker, a Unitarian, a fool, a Triple A member, a citizen of Texas, a lover of women, a teacher, a terrible driver, and a single mother.” With his deft use of “single mother,” Hoagland neatly summarizes the problematical conflation of the I as poet with the I as persona: it can be either one or a combination of both, but it’s pointless to try and make the distinction because to read a poem as a work of art, we need to enter the poem as a created, imagined world not as factual report or memoir.
So, what exactly is it about the I in poems that leads readers, even sophisticated ones, to the automatic assumption that it is the poet’s “I”? (And to be disturbed, even outraged, if it is not?) For one thing, in prose, the categories of fiction, non-fiction, memoir, essay and so forth, automatically point the reader toward the intention of the author. The I in David Copperfield is not confused with the I in Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech or with the I in Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle or the I in Lucy Grealey’s Autobiography of a Face, and, even though instances of fiction and non-fiction crossover exist (such as In Cold Blood), the sense of the reading public is that in a memoir, the I cannot, as in fiction, be making things up. James Frey’s Million Little Pieces was a scandal because presented as true, as memoir, and turned out to be untrue. It was presented in the wrong category. The lines drawn in the world of prose between the truth-telling I, the fact-telling I, and the fictionalizing I do not exist in the world of poetry because poetry is one category, and since the confessionals, the dominating category has not been the lyric I, not the epic I and not the persona I; it has been the memoir I. Unless explicitly constructed as a persona poem or dramatic monologue, the poem’s I has the curious burden of not only expressing the poet’s innermost thoughts and feelings, as in a lyric, but also to construct the poem around true events, experiences and people, as in a memoir. Thus, the poem’s I is not only a revealer of secrets wherein the reader expects to be made privy to something highly personal (when the critic David Orr reports in Beautiful and Pointless that someone at a cocktail party is offended by what he does for a living — “poetry critic”—the reaction is “What? How could you criticize someone’s feelings?” ), it is also now responsible to the facts of the poet’s life.
Second, the fiction of the I in poetry is harder to construct than it is in fiction itself, where we expect characterization and point of view; in fact, the imagined I in poetry may these days only be possible in the realm of the explicitly designated persona poem where the reader clearly understands that the I is intended to be someone other than the poet. The clearest use of persona is in the dramatic monologue where an historical, mythological, or purely invented character is inhabited by the poet and spoken through by him or her as an actor speaks through a role. In the 80s and 90’s, Richard Howard revived the dramatic monologue and historical set-piece, Lucie Brock-Broido appropriated the I of cultural icons, news stories and, in The Master Letters, took on the persona of Emily Dickinson. Les Murray posited the I in animals in his Translations of the Natural World. In Averno, Louise Gluck inhabited the persona of Persephone, while Frank Bidart assumed the disturbing persona of a pedophile killer in “Herbert White” and an anorexic dancer in “Ellen West,” and of course, the late Ai created only dramatic monologues, many of them searing and disturbing.
The persistent expectation for the non-fictional I, the “real” I, in non-persona poetry is due primarily I think to the post-confessional hangover — having foregrounded its creator’s life for 50 years, the poem has kept and even increased its memoir look and feel such that we have a way of writing poems so entrenched and expected it is practically indispensable and, I would argue, suffocating the imaginative life of poetry. This conflation of the “I” in a poem with the “I” of the poet permeates contemporary poetry to the extent that a preponderance of manuscripts currently submitted for book publication (based on anecdotal evidence from the publishers and editors I’ve worked with and from my direct experience with manuscripts) is driven by the pronoun I and all its attendant autobiographical details of childhood events, marriage and divorce, medical emergencies, illness, death, grief, and travel reportage.
As Billy Collins notes in his essay, “My Grandfather’s Tackle Box” (wherein he admits his grandfather never fished): “The key risk in writing the memory-driven poem is a failure to take advantage of the imaginative liberty that poetry offers.” In some way, it’s like asking a painter to confine his subject matter to “real life,” to what he/she can see before his eyes. Poetry, in fact shares more with painting than writing insofar as its imaginative component is, or should be, its most important one. So perhaps it’s not the use (or overuse) of I that is problematical—after all, from Sappho to Dante, from Donne, to Keats, from Shelley to Eliot, from Pound to Dickinson, the use of “I” in poems has predominated—what’s problematical are the post-confessional limits imposed on the imagination by its use. What was meant by the confessionals to set the imagination free by breaking into the personal life of the poet and exposing intimate or unattractive life details, gradually assumed the stamp of style for many poets who followed. But, looking back at some of the confessionals’ iconic poems, it seems strange now to think of them as so revealing, so personal, so raw since so much “confession” prevails in our culture now. Instead, what these poems reveal is a focus on technique as much as content. Compare, for example, the start of the highly personal “Double Image” by Sexton with say, Marie Howe’s “Hurry”:
I am thirty this November.
You are still small, in your fourth year.
We stand watching the yellow leaves go queer,
flapping in the winter rain,
falling flat and washed. And I remember
mostly the three autumns you did not live here.
They said I’d never get you back again.
I tell you what you’ll never really know:
all the medical hypothesis
that explained my brain will never be as true as these
struck leaves letting go.
“Double Image,” Anne Sexton
We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store
and the gas station and the green market and
Hurry up honey, I say, hurry,
as she runs along two or three steps behind me
her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.
“Hurry,” Marie Howe
Both poets are clearly the “I” here—Sexton, however, is not speaking as she would speak to another person, to her daughter who is present, but rather she has formulated an I, a persona of herself as it were, and she speaks through that—it is a dramatization of the I, one that uses heightened language and poetic devices (end rhyme, rhythm, metaphor) to present a highly charged version of the self’s experience. Howe, on the other hand, is presenting as clear an I as the one she uses for everyday communication, the one who speaks directly to her daughter, and she eschews poetic devices, though she maintains pacing as good prose should. Howe’s focus on the everyday (dry cleaners, grocery store, gas station) keeps the reader on the pavement, not in a place where “yellow leaves go queer” or “stuck leaves let go” emblems of losing one’s mind. In fact, the confessional poem seems more to be Howe’s, if we hold the definition of confessional to be telling it straight. It was Lowell himself, after all, who first wrote “My Last Afternoon With Uncle Devereux Winslow” as memoir, then published it as a poem in Life Studies. In Lowell’s case, however, as Adam Kirsch writes in The Wounded Surgeon:
In turning his prose into verse, Lowell changed similes to metaphors and rearranged some of the details. More important, however, is the way verse changes the pacing and weight of the passage: one detail in each line, the shape of the poem hewing closely to the contours of its subject. This is an entirely different approach to writing poetry from the domineering music of his early work. Yet, crucially, that music still informs Lowell’s free verse: his lines are still sonically dense, full of rich vowels, demanding to be heard rather than just read. What makes Life Studies one of Lowell’s greatest achievements, and sets it apart from the thousands of confessional poems it inspired, is the way that even the most personal subjects are thoroughly transformed by Lowell’s art.
The crucial word, transformation, is what made Plath’s “Daddy” more than memoir, what makes Lowell, Berryman, Sexton and even the plain-spoken Bishop more artist than reporter. The failed contemporary I-driven, memoir poem is notable for its lack of transformation. Here, for example, a few poems chosen at random from the Best American Poetry, 2009:
A friend called to tell me there was a topless woman picketing
outside the courthouse so I got my keys and eyeglasses,
but when I got there, there were already so many onlookers,
I could see nothing but the top of her sign reading:
I HAVE THE RIGHT TO—the rest of it was blocked
by bobble-headed men in suits, by near boys in ball caps,
by afros and bald spots.
“I Just Want to Look,” Terrance Hayes
Can I tell you a secret? Parallel parking was nothing. I could
even fake the hand signals most of the time—well, maybe half.
Going straight was my bête noir. Give me a freeway and crash!
“Five Lingo Sonnets,” Barbara Hamby
One night that summer my mother decided it was time to tell me about
what she referred to as pleasure, though you could see she felt
some sort of unease about this ceremony, which she tried to cover up
by first taking my hand, as though somebody in the family had just died—
“At the River,” Louise Gluck
The language in so many contemporary I poems remains on the level of well-written description, that the problem is not so much the overuse of I, or the inclusion of “true facts,” that renders the poetry into reportage or good description, but the underuse of imagination and poetic techniques such as rhyme, rhythm, metaphor. As Kirsch observes about Lowell’s:
. . . even today, when such candor is no longer novel and madness has become a commonplace of confessional poetry (and memoir in general), Lowell’s poetry keeps its power—its effectiveness is emphatically literary, a matter of deliberate manipulation of tone and language.
Perhaps in Hoagland’s case, the lack of imagination we attribute to the reader who assumes that the poet is the I in his poem “The Change,” might be shared by the poet’s incomplete transformation of the poem. In any case, the use of I has been an excuse too long for poets to present reportage, autobiography, descriptive prose and anecdote untransformed as poetry. And perhaps that woman who approached after the reading was right to be shocked when told the death was made-up—how could she tell? After all, it was an everyday, untransformed I who stated it as true.
An excellent article; thank you. The idea that the first-person “I” is equivalent to the autobiographical “I” is nonsense, a fetishization of nineteenth century Romantic lyrical modes. Of course, neither Kooser nor Plumly shy away from the far worse emotional distortion of sentimentality: both poets frequently forget that “the rhetorician would deceive his neighbor, the sentimentalish himself; while art is but a vision of reality.” Simply treating “actual experience” is no safeguard against such distortions. In fact, it may be possible to treat fictions more “truthfully” by rendering them in an emotionally honest way, rather than sentimentalizing one’s own chilhood, say, or failed marriage, and thus lying simultaneously to oneself and the reader in a modest, misguided attempt at “sincerity.” (“All bad art,” Wilde warned us, “springs from sincerity.”) A larger understanding of reality may also include the inner, emotional life, for which there is often no exact autobiographical or experiential equivalent: the poet may be more truly herself by exploring dream-states, fears and desires, than by deferring to “what really happened” in some pedestrian, factual sense. The tyranny of autobiography is itself a nineteenth century distortion, exacerbated by our own curiously narcissistic age; it assumes that what happens to us is as important as what we imagine or think about, and exalts the life of the poet as something particularly worthy of treatment. It is a further aggrandizement of the artist as hero, a silly and cliched notion that has been with us since the Romantics. Plumly and Kooser (both midwestern post-Romantics) have fairly boring lives compared to, say, Byron or Shelley, however; who wants to know that much about the life of a creative writing teacher, anyway? As Lowell, the great confessionalist himself once said, “I want something imagined, not recalled.”
Eliot describes poetry as “an escape from personality”; and Yeats can hardly be called a “poet of daily life,” however much he relied on the rag-and-bone shop for his images, preferring to don masks and a self-mythologizing persona to distance himself from the “merely personal.” Are these approaches no longer valid because comparatively mediocre teacher-poets pronounce them anathema?