Friday, May 19, 2006

Prisoner #1

This morning, after the dogs had been carted off to daycare to run around traversing plastic toy tables and tiny outdoor playground equipment with other puppies from the area and after my wife had departed to wind down the serpentine roads of the Western Hills in rush hour traffic, I walked into our bathroom and stunned myself.

The entire wall above the sink in the bathroom is lined with a continuous 4-foot-high mirror, so when you walk in for whatever purpose, it’s virtually impossible to avoid a chance meeting with yourself. This morning, however, I left my customary baseball cap in my office and, because of a recent head-shaving incident, was a bit startled by the image that confronted me. Normally, my hair is a long, unruly main of wavy black, sprinkled with strands of silver, and this is the self-image I still have of myself. This is the specter I expect to see staring back at me. Of course, I will get used to it. I will learn, eventually, to imagine myself differently.

Likewise, my wife is reticent to comment about my appearance now. She prefers my hair longer and is also adjusting to the radical departure in my personal aesthetics. Yet we both still love me. And we both will adapt. In fact, both of us recognize that identity, by definition, is invested with a certain amount of fluidity. At least, I hope that’s true. Otherwise, people would be mighty boring and far more explicable than I’ve thus far found them to be.

In fact, even if you don’t view your own identity as a sort of malleable construct, then you must recognize that any "I" in a work of literature is nothing more than that. Indeed, in the late 50s, as a reaction to the dominant thinking of the so-called New Critics, W.D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell brought us a new conception of this "I." With deeply personal (and moving) poems both poets helped established the Confessional mode of poetry, sort of. Naturally, there is a long history in poetry of writing about deeply personal feelings: think of Shakespeare’s sonnets or even the odd mixture of spirituality and sexuality in John Donne’s poems. More, consider Ben Jonson’s "On My First Son." Indeed, what could be more personal than the death of one’s child?

Yet before Snodgrass, no poet had really brought that kind of attention to the every-day affairs of our lives. With Robert Lowell, of course, this notion was taken to yet more extremes: at one point, he even incorporated letters from his wife into his poems. Of course, as the 60s opened, Mr. Lowell would inspire several of his students, most notably Plath and Sexton, to follow a similar path, establishing what would become known as the "confessional poetry."

For some reason, when I think of confessional poetry, I don’t think about these luminaries. Rather I think of countless poems that seem mere celebrations of egoism. They spring up unbidden in journals everywhere like dandelions in an unkempt lawn. They extol the virtues of the speaker, and to my mind, often amount to little more than a "woe is me/I’m bourgeoisie" kind of attitude, and frankly, I’m exhausted by the ramifications that one’s identity is political. Instead, I’d like to believe that my identity is, well, mine.

Undoubtedly, much of my loathing for this "genre" stems from a peculiar form of self-loathing. When, in college, I wrote poems using the first person, they were almost always autobiographical, and they were often—though not always—lacking in merit beyond the therapeutic.

At this point, of course, I could strike like a black mamba injecting squirts of venom into the figurative veins of myriad well-known and minor poets, but where would that take you? Instead, I’ll remind myself of how my first workshops were handled. In college, regardless of whether or not a poem was clearly personal, we always treated the speaker of a poem as a character. This makes sense, of course, because in a narrative, regardless of its truth, the conventions of plot and thus character apply. Furthermore, in a workshop, referring to "the speaker" rather than "you" certainly eases the unavoidable pains of those first few critiques. Finally, it recognizes that poems are more than simple itineraries of one’s day.

By now, I tend to be offended when someone automatically thinks that an "I" has a one-to-one correspondence to the poet. Would a fiction writer have to suffer through similar naive interpretations? In fact, most poems function through a certain amount of fictionalization. After all, suspension of disbelief is already established through the genre itself. I mean, who (aside from the New York Poets) ever spoke in the meters of poetry?

After college, I carried home a handful of Kinko’s-manufactured chapbooks. When I handed one to my step-mom, she read through many of the poems, but stopped at one that described my father, "like some sort of pit bull.” Ironically, such a notion is in direct opposition to the way I see my father. Unfortunately, that characterization seemed to work better for the poem (and thus for me).

What amazes me, though, is how little poets take advantage of the endless character development and fictionalizations that are essential to poetry. I mean, why does poetry need to be thought of as "non-fiction"? Why not construct a multiplicity of "I's" as Ai does?

After all, how else can you explain to your parents that all of those poems aren’t autobiographical?


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