A question on autobiographical poetry

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It seems I have developed a reputation as an autobiographer and theorist of autobiography, whatever that means.

As a consequence, an academic has asked me a question to which I do not know the answer. Perhaps you out there, my fellow bloggers and poets, will know more than me and I can pass on the information to the good person who is conducting research on the issue.

She asks the question:
What’s the best introduction to autobiographical poetry?

Again does such a thing exist? I can only think of poets who write autobiographically and that pretty well covers all of you, but maybe some are more obvious about it.

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29 Comments on A question on autobiographical poetry

  1. Dianne
    November 21, 2009 at 3:45 am (8 years ago)

    A weekend college writer's conference in San Luis Obispo, Ca, had only two ideas from sessions fellow writers gave to me:
    writing in the first person is the most engaging, (and there are 3 levels of this) and the first 2-3 lines are the most important.
    ?useful?
    Thanks, and give me feedback honestly! Di

    Reply
  2. Jim Murdoch
    November 21, 2009 at 8:25 am (8 years ago)

    It's a mistake many people make. We accept that prosaists are liars, they make up things all the time, but poets are all assumed to be telling the truth. I read recently of some reader who got very annoyed with a poet when he learned that what the poet had written was made up; he felt cheated somehow.

    Anyway, I would suggest you friend begin with the so-called confessional poets and here's a link.

    Reply
  3. Elisabeth
    November 21, 2009 at 8:26 am (8 years ago)

    What are the three levels of first person writing, Dianne?

    It stands to reason as far as I'm concerned that first person writing, whether strictly autobiographical or not, is the most engaging. There is something so direct about the 'I' that takes responsibility on the page for whatever follows.

    And I suppose the same could be said of the first two to three lines of a poem being most important. This applies pretty well to everything, first impressions and all that.

    Thanks for getting back to me.

    Reply
  4. Elisabeth
    November 21, 2009 at 12:47 pm (8 years ago)

    Thanks for the link, Jim. I've passed it on.

    It's interesting this assumption that all poets tell the truth and prosaists are liars.

    I suspect we all mix the truth and lies, that is if any distortion of facts constitutes lies.

    Distorting so-called facts is probably inevitable when it comes to any form of creative writing, poetry, prose or otherwise. If we stick to the facts we might as well be writing out a recipe or some other bit of boring reportage.

    Reply
  5. Jim Murdoch
    November 21, 2009 at 3:04 pm (8 years ago)

    Yes, and what I find particularly amusing is the fact we talk about poetic license when it comes to playing fast and loose with the facts.

    Reply
  6. The Weaver of Grass
    November 21, 2009 at 6:24 pm (8 years ago)

    In theory I think it is much easier to not tell the truth in poetry – one has to think of so many things – the metre, the resonance, the internal rhyme – sometimes the truth gets distorted somewhere in there.

    Reply
  7. John Ettorre
    November 21, 2009 at 10:22 pm (8 years ago)

    I think Jim's right on about that, as he generally is about most things.

    Reply
  8. Elisabeth
    November 22, 2009 at 12:00 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks for all these suggestions, Jim, Weaver, John and Marshal Stacks.

    I recommend we all take a look at the suggestion of Peter Bakowski's blog. Marshall Stacks is right, his poetry and blog are beautiful

    Reply
  9. Jim Murdoch
    November 22, 2009 at 3:35 am (8 years ago)

    Agreed, Lis. I've happily subscribed to Bakowski's blog.

    Reply
  10. Ann ODyne
    November 22, 2009 at 9:25 pm (8 years ago)

    I started by bolding the gripping bits for you, but realised it's all in bold – the heart (no play on words) of Bakowski's autobiographicity has got to be talking about his own bloodstream –
    Portrait of blood

    The thin armour
    you give the newborn,
    the midwife
    washes away.

    In playgrounds,
    when the bullied fall,
    you rush
    to the hill of a bruise.

    The shape of your engine room,
    lovers carve into tree trunks.

    In war
    you blossom from
    every wounded soldier
    and civilian.

    In the field hospital
    you glisten on
    the gloved hands of surgeons
    and each busy scalpel.

    You’re not to be trusted,
    rummaging in the attic of our skulls,
    studying the blueprints of our veins,
    deciding where to place

    your quick assassins,
    clot and haemorrhage.

    I hold my breath,
    check my pulse,
    as you make your rounds.

    Reply
  11. Shadow
    November 23, 2009 at 10:23 am (8 years ago)

    personally i can only write about what i've felt, what i've seen, experienced, dreamed about, identified with… does that make every piece autobiographical? not necessarily.

    Reply
  12. Elisabeth
    November 23, 2009 at 12:05 pm (8 years ago)

    Yes, Shadow. I agree.

    What is autobiographical anyhow? 'I write about myself'. I suppose we all do that in any case even when we offer our perspectives on other people, places and things.

    Thanks, too, AnnODyne for introducing us to Bakowski. Wonderful writing.

    Reply
  13. Rikkij
    November 23, 2009 at 8:18 pm (8 years ago)

    I'm not sure I can ever seperate myself completely from something I write. Even if it's a complete work of fiction, my true feelings are there somewhere. I don't care if a writer's details are accurate, I care if a writer's emotions are phony. But what do I know. ~rick

    Reply
  14. Jay
    November 23, 2009 at 10:17 pm (8 years ago)

    I simply don't understand the question… But like has been commented above, I wouldn't consider poetry to necessarily ever be more autobiographical than anything else.

    Reply
  15. Conda V. Douglas
    November 24, 2009 at 1:37 am (8 years ago)

    No fictional poetry? That seems odd to me too. I suppose for a tome of "autobiographical poems" I would most like to read something very specific about the poet, whatever that might be.

    Reply
  16. Reader Wil
    November 24, 2009 at 12:07 pm (8 years ago)

    That's a difficult question toanswer. I don't write poetry, not much anyway. But I think everything you write is autobiographic. It's what you feel or an interpretatation of what you think the other person feels. Nobody can get under the skin of somebody else. You always write about what your eyes saw, your ears heard and you felt while thinking of the other person. It's always you who emerges from your writings as long as your poetry is sincere. There are people who produce poems which are incomprehensible. In this case I always suspect the writer of being interesting and wood-be intellectual. Like Frederik van Eeden proved when he wrote so-called poetry under the name of Cornelis Paradijs.( Van Eeden = Paradijs) in about 1880.

    Reply
  17. Tommaso Gervasutti
    November 24, 2009 at 7:28 pm (8 years ago)

    About telling the truth in poetry: you start with the strong desire to centre the truth and then you actually touch it but something else happens which is The Poem itself. A sort of impact middle-way between the truth of one's own perception and experience and what the poem wants in the meanwhile, and you never clearly know about the latter before you start writing.

    I agree then with the view that all poetry and prose have in them autobiographical elements, more or less, either very subtly or very evidently or both.
    The best introduction: a flash that has shocked you. A master of this flash, that grows throughout in concentric circles, is in my view Joyce Carol Oates.

    Reply
  18. Mim
    November 24, 2009 at 11:08 pm (8 years ago)

    Most lyrical poetry is autobiographical, including Shakespeare's sonnets. Here's a poem by Elizabeth Bishop:

    In the Waiting Room

    In Worcester, Massachusetts,
    I went with Aunt Consuelo
    to keep her dentist's appointment
    and sat and waited for her
    in the dentist's waiting room.
    It was winter. It got dark
    early. The waiting room
    was full of grown-up people,
    arctics and overcoats,
    lamps and magazines.
    My aunt was inside
    what seemed like a long time
    and while I waited and read
    the National Geographic
    (I could read) and carefully
    studied the photographs:
    the inside of a volcano,
    black, and full of ashes;
    then it was spilling over
    in rivulets of fire.
    Osa and Martin Johnson
    dressed in riding breeches,
    laced boots, and pith helmets.
    A dead man slung on a pole
    "Long Pig," the caption said.
    Babies with pointed heads
    wound round and round with string;
    black, naked women with necks
    wound round and round with wire
    like the necks of light bulbs.
    Their breasts were horrifying.
    I read it right straight through.
    I was too shy to stop.
    And then I looked at the cover:
    the yellow margins, the date.
    Suddenly, from inside,
    came an oh! of pain
    –Aunt Consuelo's voice–
    not very loud or long.
    I wasn't at all surprised;
    even then I knew she was
    a foolish, timid woman.
    I might have been embarrassed,
    but wasn't. What took me
    completely by surprise
    was that it was me:
    my voice, in my mouth.
    Without thinking at all
    I was my foolish aunt,
    I–we–were falling, falling,
    our eyes glued to the cover
    of the National Geographic,
    February, 1918.

    I said to myself: three days
    and you'll be seven years old.
    I was saying it to stop
    the sensation of falling off
    the round, turning world.
    into cold, blue-black space.
    But I felt: you are an I,
    you are an Elizabeth,
    you are one of them.
    Why should you be one, too?
    I scarcely dared to look
    to see what it was I was.
    I gave a sidelong glance
    –I couldn't look any higher–
    at shadowy gray knees,
    trousers and skirts and boots
    and different pairs of hands
    lying under the lamps.
    I knew that nothing stranger
    had ever happened, that nothing
    stranger could ever happen.

    Why should I be my aunt,
    or me, or anyone?
    What similarities
    boots, hands, the family voice
    I felt in my throat, or even
    the National Geographic
    and those awful hanging breasts
    held us all together
    or made us all just one?
    How I didn't know any
    word for it how "unlikely". . .
    How had I come to be here,
    like them, and overhear
    a cry of pain that could have
    got loud and worse but hadn't?

    The waiting room was bright
    and too hot. It was sliding
    beneath a big black wave,
    another, and another.

    Then I was back in it.
    The War was on. Outside,
    in Worcester, Massachusetts,
    were night and slush and cold,
    and it was still the fifth
    of February, 1918.

    Reply
  19. quin browne
    November 25, 2009 at 1:47 am (8 years ago)

    i have written one autobiographical work. everything else comes from some odd village in my head, full of completely dysfunctional people (i'm so glad that word has a 'y'… it's so seldom you see that poor letter used outside ending a word… where was i? oh, yes–)

    i appreciate your comments, btw, on my little bits of work. truly, i do.

    Reply
  20. Elisabeth
    November 25, 2009 at 5:57 am (8 years ago)

    Rikkij, I agree, it matters most that the writer's words are not phony. Phony is a put off.

    Jay, it's true, isn't it? Somehow poetry seems no less autobiographical than anything else and yet as Conda observes we don't talk much about 'fictional' poetry. Thanks, Conda.

    Poetry is poetry, somewhere in between and Jim's comment about so-called 'poetic license' when we play fast and loose with the facts, attests to this. Elsewhere it's called literary license. As if the needs of the writing dictate the terms.

    Reader Wil, certainly for me, pretty well every thing I write is autobiographical and even my few attempts at fiction have come from some 'unused memory store' inside of me.

    This brings me to Quin's 'odd village in her head'. I suspect we all have one, populated by memories, impressions and imaginings.

    Davide, thanks for your thoughts on the way we might begin with a wish to write the truth in poetry but then we slide away from it in the process of writing. Again there's something about the needs of the writing itself.

    Thanks, Mim, for this inspirational poem. I had not read it before.
    I wonder what the Elizabeh Bishop who writes such powerful poetry would make of my question.

    Reply
  21. A Cuban In London
    November 25, 2009 at 11:22 am (8 years ago)

    It is indeed an interesting question to which the answer ought to be: Your own poetry. Or musings, or reflections for that matter. I have often been intrigued as to how far authors – be it novelists or poets – go in revealing aspects of their lives or hiding them from us. Where does the autobiographical end and the fiction begins?

    Great post.

    Greetings from London.

    Reply
  22. John Ettorre
    November 25, 2009 at 12:16 pm (8 years ago)

    I'm surprised that Sylvia Plath's name hasn't yet come up in this regard. Given the uniquely evocative nature of her poetry and the way she died (both of which have helped make her into a feminist icon), she's been as deeply studied as any poet of the 20th century. And of course her poetry is utterly autobiographical.

    Reply
  23. BwcaBrownie
    November 25, 2009 at 9:41 pm (8 years ago)

    When in doubt, or at a loss, people may turn to their partner, parent or god; but having none of those I Guugle.
    Please do put "autobiographical poetry" ( the "-" is critical)
    into your searchbox because the results have several great places to read, and I was drawn to this one at GNAT – Grossly Non-Academic Talk .

    (oh dear – the verification is crazied)

    Reply
  24. Paul
    November 26, 2009 at 9:35 am (8 years ago)

    Poetry as self-expression therapy? As the reader, I don't know if it is auto-biography or character creation. And I doubt that the writer can with absolute certainty. Every writer's voice is an artificial (artifice), so the approaching poetry as autobiography is not only vain it is also futile. I cannot begin to express my lack of sympathy with 'confessional' poetry.

    Reply
  25. Elisabeth
    November 26, 2009 at 11:51 am (8 years ago)

    So my Cuban friend in London, I too am stumped by the question, where does the autobiographical end and the fiction begin. I know that when my memory fails I let the words lead.

    And John. Sylvia Plath is the obvious example but so much of her autobiographical poetry is stylised into fiction, however much it is grounded in her own life story.

    And thanks Bwca Brownie. This wonderful reference to autobiographical poetry has popped up before, care of Jim.

    And Paul, what is it that you cannot bear in so-called 'confessional poetry'? A Catholic upbringing perhaps.

    Certainly, the word 'confessional' is problematic. It implies sin.

    Reply
  26. Paul
    November 27, 2009 at 12:50 am (8 years ago)

    No it is nothing to do with sin, it is the combination of the vanity in constantly looking at oneself and describing oneself, and the futility in that the reader does not know if the subject of the poem is the writer or not. The image created in the readers mind is not verifiably the image of the poet, in fact, it is extremely unlikely that the image in the readers mind is the poet.
    Hence, my dislike of confessional poetry is based on a dislike of its vanity and its futility. To create a poem is to create a fiction, inevitably.

    Reply
  27. Dave King
    November 27, 2009 at 10:51 am (8 years ago)

    I've read this through a few times and thought about it, but i'm still not sure what the question means. Does it mean how can you best introduce it? or what is the best way into it? My question would be: Why does it need any special introduction?

    Reply
  28. Elisabeth
    November 28, 2009 at 4:20 am (7 years ago)

    I don't understand the question too well myself, Dave, but I think it comes from the notion that all areas of inquiry have canons attached to them that students should read in order to get a broad overview of the area in question.

    Presumably for something like autobiographical poetry, or 'confessional' poetry as some people call it, Sylvia Plath would get a Guernsey.

    The search is on for the text book that gives an introduction to the area of autobiographical poetry. From what I gather here and from elsewhere it seems there is no such beast.

    Though for anyone interested Mary Besemeres has pointed out a possibly useful reference in the special issue of the journal _Life Writing_ on poetry and autobiography from earlier this year, edited by Jo Gill and Melanie Waters.

    Reply

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