Sunday, July 20, 2008

Adult enough

Some interesting comments today in David Orr's review of Frances Richey's The Warrior in Sunday's NYTBR: 

What's curious is that poetry's "emotional truth" is so often equated with actual truth--which is to say, poetry is perceived as conveying genuine information about the author's innermost self.  It is, we like to think, "personal."  But the concept of the personal is hard to pin down because it can involve both personal feelings (which are subjective) and personal facts (which aren't).  [He gives the examples of Plath and Lowell, noting that Plath's poetry involves more personal feelings than facts, and that Lowell's involves more personal facts than feelings] . . . . The waters are further muddied by the two strategies most often associated with "personal" writing, which we might call the authentic and the confessional.  The notion of authenticity is essential to poems that focus explicitly on identity, ethnic or otherwise.  The poet gives us seemingly reliable testimony about a way of life and thereby infuses his work with the personal flavor that readers desire.  Similarly, confessional poems--and yes, they pop up long after confessionalism's heyday in the 1960s--use the intimacy of an exposed secret to make us think that lines aren't merely lines but a statement of personhood.  The unifying factor here is that both strategies depend on facts outside the poem to anchor that "personal" sense.  If Seamus Heaney's oeuvre were revealed to have been written by a Portuguese guy living in Toronto, or if Anne Sexton were actually a mild-mannered soccer mom, it would disrupt our entire sense of their poetry.  At the same time, though, it would be wrong to say that Heaney's of Sexton's appeal depends completely upon autobiographical data.

Orr goes on to note that Richey's book manuscript sold at auction for a lot of money because it was "paid for the true and genuine and authentic and confessional story inside the book.  The money was paid for something personal."  He praises the book for its subject matter insofar as it is testimony, knocks it for being average and conventional (yet, he admits, skilled) poetry, and criticizes the poetry for being often too conventionally phrased, displaying "hushed theatricality," and reducing "all human behavior to a family drama starring the narrator."  

Orr may be right, Orr may be wrong.  I may never get around to reading Richey's book.  He quotes some language that is less than fresh.  "Hushed theatricality," though, in a book about having a child on multiple deployments in Iraq?  Has Orr not read about the IEDs and how death is perhaps the least of the worries of some of the soldiers that are hit by them?  Does he not understand the profoundly disabled men and women who are returning to the states?  Isn't it authentic for a parent to have fears about that, doubts about the mission, worries about social and cultural issues that might be deserving of big emotions, or "theatricality"?  

And the passage he quotes about how "Richey snatches the spotlight from a bunch of iron-pumping cadets" as an example of the reduction of human behavior above, is not quite convincing.  That comment, in particular, struck me as a little sexist.  Lowell sure planted himself in the middle of his family drama.  And isn't it a little egomaniacal to write poetry to begin with--for anyone, man or woman?  I can't figure out how to put this gently, and without accusation, but many of the poetry blogs written by guys, especially young guys, seem to be inordinately combative, a putting of the self and its views first and foremost.  Poetry, from the guy perspective, seems often to be about planting that banner firmly in the sand and staking one's claim to some righteous standard or aesthetic or principle.  

Orr's comment seems to me an ad hominem (or ad feminem) attack.  If the poetry lacks technical skills, so be it.  Criticize it on its merits.  But attacking a female poet for putting herself first or herself in the spotlight seems a little nasty to me.  Oh, I forgot, women, like children, are supposed to be seen and not heard.  In so far as we have the genetic potential to be mothers, I guess we're supposed to be selfless.  And maybe that's the problem:  this book is from the perspective of a mother writing about her child--how dare she talk about herself!  and her feelings!  

As for the distinction that Orr draws between the authentic and the confessional--I think it's quite a good one, but it is a matter of splitting hairs.  Confessionalism is thrown around much more broadly than just being poetry that reveals personal secrets.  Adam Kirsch's book on the subject, The Wounded Surgeon, is a good one--his argument is that the poets smeared with the "confessional" label were hardly revealing secrets--even Lowell.  They were using personal history and the perspective of the individual's "I" for a variety of effects.  Psychoanalysis is emerging in this period as a cultural phenomenon, and a different sense of the self is emerging within popular culture.  Look, if Stephen Greenblatt can articulate an emerging difference in the concept of the self in the early modern period (Renaissance Self-Fashioning), what's the problem with noting that the concept of the self changes over time into the modern era as well?

"Confessional" poetry also arises at the time when women are starting to enter postsecondary education in greater numbers and are emerging as powerful writers themselves.  The feminist revolution is just stirring in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Bishop and Moore have little in the way of threatening sexuality attached to their verse--neither is heterosexual--which is not to diminish the impact on their psyches of being closeted.  But they're not mothers.  Plath and Sexton are.  Both Plath and Sexton explore, to different extents and in different ways, issues and themes involving family life and children.  Plath and Sexton have both been excoriated for being "personal."  Sometimes I wonder to what extent all this discussion about the personal and confessionalism is really tied to nascent sexism.  

Woman, especially mothers, have important and significant things to say about family life (private life, so it seems), yet even now, a writer like Emily Bazelon has to twist herself into a pretzel about the anxiety of writing about her children.  She notes that both she and Ruth Marcus (both are writers whom I respect) have their husbands vet their pieces about family life.  While certainly hubby should get a say, I suppose, this sounds a little old school and patriarchal.  Bazelon writes, "When I write about my kids, I'm not only thinking as their mother.  I'm also thinking as a professional writer.  Those two identities don't always align--they just don't."  

So, my question is, why not?  Why don't they?  Why can't they?  How can we explore motherhood beyond the limits of caricature if we have such deep-seated anxieties about the privacy of family life?  What ethics prevent us from writing about individuals and attitudes within the family, yet permit us to write all kinds of long-winded contemplations about perfect strangers we're observing on the street or in a public park?  Don't they have rights as individuals, too?  Writing about human behavior can't be off-limits.  Isn't it a little Victorian to suggest that any discussion of any aspect of family life is 'confessional' and revealing secrets?  What's the difference between describing and analyzing human behavior and attitudes and exposing the secrets of behavior or the origins of attitudes?  Isn't art in a classical sense supposed to get at essential truths?  Isn't "essence" something that is hidden within?  Or found deep within?  

Secrets are secrets: confessed sins, the exposure of a child's complete misunderstanding of the world or an adult topic, the sexuality of a child, things one is asked not to tell, but the trading of other sorts of intimacies--funny things my kid said, the sharing of common anxieties, the querying about common anxieties, anecdotes about family life--these are all things that women trade all day long in conversation at the park, in their homes, at the bus stop.  Analyses of their children's behavior.  How else do you know how to parent than by talking about it?  How do you come to understand your children or anyone else for that matter than through discussion.  

Branding all aspects of being a mother off-limits to writing is silly.  Are we not adult enough to tell the difference between a real secret and the texture and fabric of our lives?  Look, if you can only write or speak about your experiences to the extent to which you conform to existing social norms, pray, what is the point?  Doesn't that obviate discovery and experiment?  Doesn't that prevent the development of multivariate voices in literature?  Doesn't that lead to caricature?  

Postmodernists and avant gardists side-step all of this by questioning the notion of the self to begin with--but the rest of us have to grapple with it.

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