Archive for June, 2010

All Poetry Is Confessional

I have recently begun what I hope is an authentic endeavor to immerse myself in the study of poetry, with the hope that as I write, a consciousness will begin to take shape of how I am oriented and inclined in terms of tradition, intention, purpose, aesthetics, etc. The book I’m pondering over now is Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes (ed. Ryan van Cleave, Longman, 2003).

One thing I’m learning is that there is an infinity of angles from which poets might view any particular thing, a universe of personal, historical, social, sensory, emotional, imaginal, and spiritual events and experiences to explore, as well as innumerable ways not only of conceiving and shaping poems, but of describing and analyzing and rehearsing what it is one is doing or trying to do. For example:

Most important to me is that the poem not be “confessional”, that the poem be fiction and relate directly to a wider audience even while containing some personal elements.

This is a quote from the poet Dick Allen. I guess it caught my attention, because for me confession with its nuances and ramifications has been about as animating and disturbing an issue in my life and my writing as any I can think of. It seems vital to discern how and why it might be working in what I write. More from Allen:

When my poems start to become self-pitying or too self-conscious, or want to turn into home movies, or are more interesting to those who know me personally than to strangers, I abandon them, for I have failed to listen to the world and to write at my best.

I think I understand what he means, and I am pretty sure I agree with him.
A sappy, whining poem–one with a big mouth and no ears– is an immediate turnoff for me.

However, the question occurred to me whether poems may not be confessional in another sense–covertly, in a way perhaps hidden even from the poet. I am going to make some assertions which, in my limited literacy, I can’t support. But I would like to try them out and perhaps discover at some point whether they might at least have a useful function in deciphering poems.

Assertion: Poets write about what turns their heads, about what leads them into temptation.

If this is the case, the poem must reveal or uncover something about why this particular thing matters or how it matters–in relationship to what. Writing, like confession–or maybe, as confession–is a way I can find my way through whatever it is, while acknowledging and intensifying (intrinsically) my implication, my participation in it, beginning with the very act of choosing it.

Assertion: All poetry is confessional.

How so, and how can this be deciphered ? Is the writer aware of it, or is he “above” the subject, standing aloof from it (the Pharisee), or is he acknowledging his participation in the human race, and his culpability, by humbly taking his position in the middle of it (the Publican)?

I want to make a decision about my intention in writing–in a road map sort of way. What are the signs, the legend I can use to help plot out the “right” or best way to get where I am going? Where am I going? I don’t want to be a critic or a mere reporter. I imagine inhabiting my poems as an sort of invisible intercessor, not pedantically or explicitly, but by standing with, laughing with, weeping with. This might be one vantage point from which I can decipher what is taking place as I write and as I read the work of other writers. How do poets, writing in a vast variety of forms and styles, reveal their attitude or stance, through their explicit or implied subject(s), in relation to their fellow human beings and the creation?

Back to the notion of confession. If I posit salvation as a highly individual affair–just between me and You, God– with my sins as my private business, and their sins as theirs and not mine, then my confession and poetry would most likely have a “them and me” undercurrent, perhaps self-justifying, self-preoccupied, maybe as the angry or self-pitying or self-vindicating victim– indignant, vitriolic, sarcastic. On the other hand, if I see my brother, sister, daughter, neighbor, spouse, adversary) as my life, then my confession will have quite a different character– not something overt, but more like a deep, quiet stream running through my poem–of recognition, even, in a sense, of celebration in the midst of the fantastic impasses and entanglements in which I live with my fellow falling and sometimes irritating or despairing brothers and sisters–or with the physical world which often, with no intention whatever, trips me up and makes me forget or deny or ignore God.

Along with this perspective on confession, I am also proceeding with the understanding that the very nature of the (Orthodox) Christian life is perpetual and unceasing turning (around) towards God, which is repentance. In that light, the question I want to explore for and through my writing life is this: How shall I go about crafting poems that best use the circumstances in which I stand, my unique personal attributes, thoughts, impressions, and understanding to accomplish this turning, this blazing the way in my heart toward God?

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The Old Man and His Puzzle

This is my latest little poem. It is really a collaboration, as it has been pulled out of my earlier more wordy and less focused version, by my friend, a poet of rare gifts, who is encouraging me and nudging me in my writing life, and has inspired me to return to my neglected blog. We’ll see how this goes. I need someone to teach me how to put drawings and photos into my blog.

The Old Man and His Puzzle

Hour upon hour most days,
with no picture to go by,
he shuffles, shifting and selecting,
rearranging and regrouping,
making multiple minute modifications
scouring for clues that may converge,
allotments of decipherable witness
to the image that might be there,
or that has always been there
biding its time.

I found some wonderful words today in The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. As I’ve mentioned before, I own things by copying them. This is from today’s journal entry. She is talking here about the lines that the writer is writing.

The line of words fingers your heart.
The line of words feels for cracks in the firmament.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.

I was sort of startled when I read the second quote, as I recalled clearly having copied it into a journal several years ago. Lately I’ve been rereading some books I’ve read in years past, and find it a strangely encouraging phenomenon, that in revisiting them, I find them so familiar, so like the shape of my own experience, it is like a homecoming. This reminds me that we do ineffably become what we ingest.

I am trying to articulate what it is I want, expect, hope, or intend to do as a writer/poet, looking for the kind of poetry that does something like what I want to do. This is a wonderful sort of new adventure for me, which I hope to explore here. I am eager to hear from other Orthodox poets. I am thankful to Scott Cairns for his podcast: Flesh Becomes Word, that provided a key to a door I have been wanting to go through for years. The Word of God is surely the greatest poem, and so as creatures made in His image, let us also become poems!