‘As I write I create myself again and again.’ – Joy Harjo
As poets, everything we create emerges from the ‘self,’ from our accumulation of life experiences, from our religious and secular education, family and social relationships, input from various media sources, and so on. To begin to discuss the ‘self’ in writing is to first suggest that the ‘self’ is an ever-changing entity, always transforming and redefining itself. We are not exactly who we were ten years or even ten months ago. And we’re not the same “self” with our bosses as we are with lovers, spouses or best friends.
In this culture we often experience an uneasy relationship with the ‘self.’ On one hand, we certainly make much of individuality and self-determination. On the other hand, too much introspection is considered self-indulgent.
But as the poet Elizabeth Wooldridge says, ‘Writing about ourselves doesn’t mean we’re self-involved. We have to start with ourselves before we can reach beyond ourselves. And whatever our intention, the way we see and write about the world reveals who we are.”
Our challenge is to find ways to translate our very personal experiences and feelings into something universal, into poetry that will interest and resonate within our readers. Toward that end, I offer the following:
First, it is important to note that just because something is TRUE does not make it IMPORTANT or INTERESTING.
Secondly, in poetry, LYING is permissible.
In regard to the first point, it is sometimes a poet’s greatest challenge to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of his/her experiences. Simply because an experience was significant to us doesn’t mean it will be so for our readers.
The key then, may have more to do with how we write about ourselves and our experiences than what topics we choose.
The most devastating personal experiences can turn to pallid mush in the hands of a writer who is unwilling to really penetrate and expose that experience, who doesn’t take the time to approach his/her topic from a fresh angle, with fresh language and palpable imagery. Likewise, the barest minutiae of life can be charged with power and import in the hands of a skilled writer.
Too often, we poets rely too heavily on ‘loaded’ words (like love, hate, fear, beauty, sadness), on sentiment, in our attempts to pluck at our readers’ heartstrings. But the true hard beauty of a work comes from freshness, from subtlety, from making the abstract specific in a way that a reader is unable to turn away from or deny.
Consider this excerpt from the poem, ‘Billy,’ by Linda McCarriston:
“It was winter. You had driven
your homemade go-cart into a door
that he was saving for something.
I can see the little v’s you made
in the paint. I see his upper body
plunging up and down like one
of those wind-driven lawn ornaments,
the one that is pumping.
The barrel reaches your bottom.
You must be holding onto it.
It must be braced against
his table saw. There are no words.
The barrel bangs and scrapes.
Your body sounds different than
a mattress. The noises he makes
are the noises of a man trying to
lift a Buick off the body of
a loved child, whose face he can
see, upturned, just above the wheel
that rests on her chest, her eyes right
on his eyes, as yours were on mine.
The language in this piece is simple, lucid and unsentimental and yet the poem is devastating because McCarriston has written honestly, from the center of that experience. She has used powerful imagery (the sound of the barrel banging and scraping, her father ‘plunging up and down’) and rather than telling us how she felt, allows us, through the use of imagery and figurative language, to experience this incident along with her.
On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, consider how the poet Steve Kowit writes about what he terms, ‘an occasion of awakening into the ordinary miracle of our lives:’
Dusk in the Cuyamacas
It was the tangerine
& golden sepia light
spilling over the Cuyamacas
of the manzanita
chiseled in space—
that shook me out of my dreams,
till I woke again
to my own life:
Everything just as it is.
This poem uses the imagery of the ‘tangerine’ light and the ‘chiseled’ quality of the leaves, as well as the sense that his surrounding are ‘shimmering,’ to communicate the truth of that moment to his readers.
It should be noted, however, that the ‘truth’ of that experience would be just as true if Kowit had never BEEN to Cuyamaca but rather conjured that moment while sitting in a bar in Wayne, New Jersey.
Poetry isn’t journalism. We’re not obligated to achieve complete verisimilitude in all things. At times we as writers are too slavish about ‘sticking to the facts’ when the real emotional truth of a situation may be revealed through exaggeration or through creating a wholly imaginary situation to express an emotional truth. It doesn’t matter, really, that it was a balmy, spring day when a love affair ended. If it ‘plays’ better in the dead of winter, it is to the poet’s benefit to relocate it thus.
In my poem, ‘Breakfast with Poet,’ for example, I write about an encounter between the subject of the poem and myself. Here’s an excerpt (by the way, in using this poem as an example, I’m certainly not claiming it as an exemplary piece of work but rather trying to illustrate the permissible gap between the ‘factual’ and the ‘true.’):
The eyes of the poet move on,
traveling past the dull landscape of my face,
stubbed cigarettes and coffee bitter in his mouth.
In the yellow-toothed light of morning, he
longs to be somewhere else.
The chip in my mug tastes like a wall.
I know he'd like me to say that,
better still to write it,
about coffee grounds bleeding through the filter
or last night's beer cans lining the counter.
And I could give that to him,
show him the dirt beneath my fingernails
count the grains of sugar his careless spooning
has left on the table, or how I learned
to count to forty on my grandmother’s
ribbed lavender beads.
What is factual is that I NEVER met the subject of this poem in person and hence this encounter never really occurred. Nor, for that matter, do I really consider that my face is a ‘dull landscape.’ I don’t drink beer, my grandmother never had jade beads, and so on. All of these images were placed intentionally in the poem to make a statement about the nature of a dwindling relationship and about the differences in the poet’s and my philosophy about poetry and life in general.
Creating a scenario such as this was the best way I could devise to explore the larger truth of those circumstances. I engaged in what Wooldridge calls, ‘lying to tell the truth.’
She further says, “Our feelings are often so huge or complicated we can’t express them without going beyond normal speech. That is, we can’t define them without lying. Kenneth Koch points out in ‘Wishes, Lies and Dreams’ that lies belong in poems…. What’s real may lie below the surface of fact and we have to stretch the apparent truth to reach it. So, in poems, with the help of lies, we can tell what’s real like nowhere else, and sometimes arrive at the emotional truth.”
Finally, here are a few practical suggestions and exercises to help plumb the array of experiences and memories residing in each one of you:
Go through old photo albums and write about some of the pictures contained there as though they’re scenes from someone else’s life.
Do a ‘Rashoman’ kind of study. Write about an incident you recall vividly and ask someone else who was involved to tell it to you from his or her point of view. Compare the two versions and see what’s revealed.
Get silly and compare yourself with inanimate objects. Ask yourself, ‘If I was a building, what kind would I be?’ How about a fruit? Bird? Car? Traffic sign? Natural disaster?
Take time to explore as much of the ‘self’ as possible. Be brave about confronting what is difficult, be smart about communicating what has brought joy. Write in such a way as to bring a fresh perspective to those topics and themes. Rely on detailed imagery to express abstractions. Lie when necessary. Your work will be the richer for it and you will find more freedom to explore the fascinating topic that is you!