Using Autobiographical Elements In Poetry

I

Poets have often used a gripping personal drama as an organizing structure within which to write poetry of great feeling and significance. Sometimes this poetry exceeds its status as merely fine expression or the rebellious voice of a cause célèbre and dwells within the classic space of enduring art, where the exquisiteness of the expression is equal to the striking content of the biographical moment. In contemporary poetry we see many such stories, e.g., a dramatic history of the illness of a young child (Naomi Guttman’s Wet Apples, White Blood), the final stages of the life of a cancer-afflicted parent (Meghan O’Rourke’s Once), the sudden death of a husband (Susan Howe’s That This), or the breakup of a long-established marriage (Sharon’s Olds’ Stag’s Leap). A book of poetry may track the entire arc of a love relationship, with all of its ups and downs, as the basis for revelation and self-discovery (Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Casual Perfect), or it can serve as a means of revealing another side of a well-known tragic love story (Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters). Love, drugs, social acceptance, professional advancement, and money may be the obstacles that lead the poet to the brink of madness which becomes reflected in exciting and original forms of poetry (John Berryman’s Dream Songs and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel).

Many critics point to Robert Lowell’s Life Studies as the breakthrough work that led to “confessional poetry,” as his intensely autobiographical poems were then described. Nowadays, the term “confessional poetry” is used guardedly, because all poets write about their lives in some fashion. Yet “confessions” are hardly made. The baring of the soul is a complicated matter, and even where verifiable autobiographical elements support poetic content and form, poets will admit that the people (including the poet’s own persona) and events portrayed, together with all attendant attitudes and emotions, are necessarily fictionalized by numerous means (e.g., hyperbole, caricature, sarcasm, irony, simile, and metaphor) in order to create the “art” that becomes the main attraction of the work.

Most poets over thirty have parents, children and loved ones who have suffered their mortality in various ways, and they also know friends who have had the kind of dramatic experiences that life eventually brings to everyone. They use their public and private lives, their interrelationships in familial, social and political forums, to speak to us via the effects these experiences have on our inner lives. Autobiographical elements, whether “true” or fictionalized, become vital to a disinterested, neutral reader when they are revealed by those poetic devices that work effectively within the given context of the poem.

It is important, though, for a reader to have a place in the poem, an emotional and intellectual vantage point that the reader shares with the poet. Without that place in the poem, the reader stands outside a fortress. Good writing is the act of giving the reader a unique place in the poem; good reading is finding the doorway in. Some might mistake this for accessibility. Accessibility is really a fictional construct, a temporal notion of the naive reader that eventually yields to more informed readings. If the poet has made a place for the reader, no matter how difficult the poem seems, it will be accessible. That place may be something that is only felt, and not translatable in the same way that it is impossible to translate the precise feeling a painting conveys. Making a place for the reader is a matter of skill, not mental disposition. Without a place for the reader, the poem feels cold, dead or dying.

So, for instance, in “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, the “honeymoon poem” is dramatically tilted off-balance, building from a hushed tone of anxiety to a desperate plea for committed love in the face of a conflicted world. A calm sea is transformed to one with a “grating roar” and then heard as the “eternal note of sadness,” reminding the poet of the work of Sophocles (who knew the “turbid ebb and flow/ Of human misery” in the sound of the Aegean), imputing a relationship and continuity with ancient civilization in our common fate.[1] [These figurations, though, are projections of the poet’s psyche and reveal the inner turmoil that is the poem’s emotional core.] From there, Arnold finds the “Sea of Faith,” once the symbol of lasting love (“like the folds of a bright gold girdle furled”), now sounds a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” disclosing society’s deepening spiritual void as the industrial revolution takes hold (a theme later developed by the poets of the early 20th century Renaissance). Finally, Arnold pleads with his new wife,

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seem
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

(emphasis added). This surprising, dramatic plea for love, with the bleakest portrait of the world one could imagine (on one’s wedding night, no less!), makes Arnold unlike any groom in the history of poetry. What has brought the couple to the brink is found in the concluding lines,

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

This can be read variously. The traditional reading is that the world is “swept by confused alarms” and “ignorant armies,” not only in Arnold’s Victorian Britain, which was beset by social unrest, but in fact the whole of Europe seemed on the verge of a complete upheaval during the Revolutions of 1848. [Historical research reveals that “Dover Beach” was not actually composed on Arnold’s wedding night in 1851, but as much as two years before, the earliest drafts appearing in 1849. The poem was published even later, in 1867.] Accordingly, the couple’s only chance for a place in the world is through their committed love for each other.

The traditional reading, however, is banal, too facile a formula of response and, importantly, it doesn’t give us a place in the poem, for it fails to account for the disturbing depth of Arnold’s emotions. After all, Arnold could have made these observations at any time, but he chose his honeymoon suite as the theatrical setting from which to unburden himself. One cannot ignore the oddity of this intimate disclosure, “And we are here as on a darkling plain. . . .” Something has happened, a lovers’ quarrel, “cold feet” or some other incident where the honeymoon suite has become a “darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight.” Not just a conflict and pandemonium, but where someone wants to leave. The word “flight” is too particular, coming at the end of the penultimate line, to merely describe world unrest. As the poem was begun before the marriage, perhaps Arnold was subtly communicating his own misgivings about the marriage (or marriage, per se) or those of his intended. In any event, the phrase, “ignorant armies,” under these circumstances, is a likely metaphor for the couples’ emotions, and the hazard of clashing by night is not only reckless for armies, but lovers too. The “darkling plain” may also stand for the uncertain future and the conflicting emotions that married life portends. It is not important to fix a specific representation as much as it is to feel Arnold’s apprehensions. Yet, it is Arnold’s urgent and sincere plea – “Ah, love, let us be true/ To one another! – that sets the poem’s course on a higher road, as if all conflict between the two is being purged in this invitation to a vow, a vow that will be spiritually superior to the ceremonial ones that only tradition consecrates. Arnold perfectly aligns the spheres, with the joyless, loveless and faithless world on one side, and the true lovers on the other, but the internal conflict is the key to the poem’s exquisite pathos. It is here that the reader finds a special place in the poem from which to appreciate the reasons why Arnold invoked the misery of ancient history, the then-contemporary world discord and the loss of faith and took his stand at the last bastion, which is, ironically, an embattled love. If love were a sure thing for Arnold, it would be the easy way out and there would be no urgency in his plea. Instead, the poem swells to a dramatic crescendo that, notably, lacks a resolving chord.

Arnold has made his “honeymoon poem” much more than one would expect for the occasion. “Dover Beach” has drama, historical reference, spiritual and social comment, a startling resolution, and broke new ground as the first “free verse” poem, all of which explains why it has a special place in English poetry.

II

This type of artfulness is replete in the best contemporary poetry. Stanley Kunitz was a great poet; not only could he find the bottom of the deepest well in the human psyche, but he also counseled and encouraged many other poets who attained great fame under his guidance. He became U.S. poet laureate at the age of 95. Shortly after his death in 2006 at the age of 100, poet Robert Pinsky wrote a tribute to Kunitz in Slate Magazine. One poem that Pinsky quotes, “The Portrait,” is especially indicative of the beauty and deceptive simplicity of Kunitz’s arresting style.

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
still burning.

The retrieved memory of this incident is simple and straightforward, but the art in its construction is very sophisticated. As we learn later, the poet is recounting this in late middle age, so we expect an authorial viewpoint with maturity and emotional distance, and we experience this in its unsentimental tone, highly organized structure and the detailed psychological analysis that lies at the heart of the poem.

Kunitz frames the issue bluntly: the psychological trauma of a father’s suicide, the most willful and brutal rejection of life, love and family, is juxtaposed to its polar extreme, forgiveness. Kunitz notes that the suicide was committed in a “public park,” adding public humiliation to the mix, and that it happened during “spring/ when I was waiting to be born,” a time usually associated with seasonal and spiritual rebirth and the excited anticipation of new beauty growing in all its splendor. The poet as embryo, “waiting to be born,” conveys a different impression than merely saying that his parents were waiting for him to be born; it is as if the embryonic self was already endowed with a consciousness of his place in the world. It has all the whimsy of the 64-year old wit telling the story. In these first few lines, one phrase sticks out, “especially at such an awkward time.” This was, in fact, the worst possible time for his father to commit suicide. In the use of the word “awkward” we detect the poet’s gloss, either by way of softening a story about suicide and its aftermath, or escaping the evident psychological pain. As the poem develops, this moment signals the first degree of separation between the way mother and son view the most significant event in their lives.

The mother’s silence about the father is figuratively set forth: “She locked his name/in her deepest cabinet/ and would not let him out.” But the father is nevertheless an audible ghostly presence, almost mischievously portrayed in the words, “though I could hear him thumping.” This suggests sympathy with the father, as if the latter were an unwitting captive in the “deepest cabinet” of the woman’s heart. This sympathy is expanded upon while Kunitz recounts the facts surrounding the discovery of his father’s portrait in the attic. The painting is described as a “pastel” (i.e., with soft colors), and the father is portrayed as “a long-lipped stranger/with a brave moustache/and deep brown level eyes.” The words, “brave,” “deep” and “level” are not the kind of traits we associate with someone who committed suicide in the fashion depicted. We ask who painted this portrait; could it have been the mother or father himself? Was the illustrated image an illusion that masked a weak and troubled person underneath, or did something lead the father to drastically take his own life? Is the “thumping” a way of figuratively portraying snatches of remarks made by the mother about the father which drew an unfair or inaccurate impression that is now seen to depart from the physical evidence? These provocative questions, implicit in the poem, are deliberately left tacit and unanswered.

Instead, the mother reacts to the poet’s discovery by giving him a slap that he remembers “still burning” all his life. Is the poet naive about life, as the mother’s rebuke would suggest, her rage so hot that she tears the portrait “into shreds,” or is forgiveness in order? Most psychological research on crime victims (as the family of suicides are) endorses forgiveness as a necessary means of overcoming trauma and moving on with one’s life. This prevailing view argues against a life of bitterness and a desire for vengeance that invariably raises the spectre of the perpetrator and the crime, which is suffered more grievously and many more times in the mind. So the poet is confronted with the question of whether he can forgive his father for the initial trauma — and there are many suggestions in the poem that he has — and whether he can forgive his mother for the secondary pain inflicted upon him for failing to find peace. The “slap” has a lasting impression, a reminder of the mother’s harbored bitterness, which causes a lingering psychological pain to her son, the poet. It is significant that Kunitz wrote from the perspective of his 64-year old self, much older than his mother was at the time of the incident, so that the implicit psychological questions could be fully brought forth in a balanced manner, allowing the reader – who is hearing it all for the first time – to experience the unease and conflict felt by the poet as a young boy.

The poem does everything a great “autobiographical” poem should do, combining vivid storytelling laden with psychological overtones and lingering questions about the way we should live our lives. All this compressed into such a short poem is astonishing. This is the kind of storytelling that was Robert Frost’s bread and butter, and Kunitz is his equal here.

III

I especially admire the autobiographical poems of Seamus Heaney. “Singing School” (in North), particularly the second section, “A Constable Calls,” relates an episode in Heaney’s young life where a British tax agent had come to audit the financial records of his father, a farmer. Heaney, as a child , enters the scene in medias res, outside the house, as if returning from school, where the first thing we see is the agent’s ominously described bicycle standing like a symbol of the Grim Reaper, exploiting the difference with his father’s profession, another kind of reaper

His bicycle stood at the window-sill,
the rubber cowl of a mud-splasher
Skirting the front mudguard,
Its fat black handlegrips

Heating in sunlight, the “spud”
Of the dynamo gleaming and cocked back
The pedal treads hanging relieved
Of the boot of the law.”

And then Heaney follows with this description of the agent, who is already at work:

His cap was upside down
On the floor, next his chair.
The line of its pressure ran like a bevel
In his slightly sweating hair.

He had unstrapped
The heavy ledger, and my father
Was making tillage returns
In acres, roods, and perches.

Arithmetic and fear.
I sat staring at the polished holster
With its buttoned flap, the braid cord
Looped into the revolver butt.

The power of the law becomes synthesized into “the boot of the law,” the cap’s “line of pressure,” a “heavy ledger,” a “polished holster” and the “braid cord” fixed on the “revolver butt.” These images fascinate and disconcert the boy, as much as the confounding thought that arithmetic, that genial school subject, could be associated with fear. The agent questions the father (“Any other root crops?/Mangolds? Marrowstems? Anything like that?), and when the father answers “No”, we hear Heaney’s guilty conscience whispering (“But was there not a line/Of turnips where the seed ran out.//In the potato field?”), as he imagines the repercussions of his father’s lie in visions of imprisonment in “the black hole in the barracks,” an analogue to the eternal punishment of Hell. When the agent departs:

He stood up, shifted the baton-case

Further round on his belt,
Closed the doomsday book,
Fitted his cap back with two hands,
And looked at me as he said goodbye.

A shadow bobbed in the window.
He was snapping the carrier spring
Over the ledger. His boot pushed off
And the bicycle ticked, ticked, ticked.

For Heaney, the poet, this was not just an ordinary tax audit, but one that prefigured death and the final accounting. The ledger is a “doomsday book,” not just a real estate record, and here it is the means by which the agent assumes the role of the Grim Reaper, whose “shadow” is seen “ in the window” while the departing bicycle sounds like the terminal ticking clock of mortality. The poem’s mortal focus is not on the father (even as it might prefigure his death), but on Heaney himself, as the agent “looked at me as he said goodbye.”

Though autobiographical elements may seem particularly interesting to you because they are about your life, in poetry the magic is always in the telling. Saying something sincerely about your lover, your child, or your parent may make the Hallmark card kind of poetry we all know, but original expression, wit, daring and a little depth go a long way to attract the serious reader who is looking for a unique place in your poem.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Footnote

[i] In these lines, Matthew Arnold clearly recalls William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798”:

 For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.

But Arnold sees the world has sadly progressed beyond Wordsworth philosophical liberalism and become harsh and “grating,” devoid of the qualities that once were the cherished treasure of humanity.



Categories: Literary Criticism

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5 replies

  1. I often find it surprising that I feel a connection with poems about lives or events which seem very different to mine. I agree with your suggestion that this is because some poets are able to write truthfully, in a profound and startling way, about deeply rooted feelings shared by many of us. Thanks for an interesting post.

    • Josephine, in my essay, “Using Autobiographical Elements in Poetry,” I’ve expanded upon the idea I have that a reader must have a special place in the poem from which to appreciate the subtleties of the poet’s work. I believe great writing makes this special place for the reader, whereas confused or unfocused writing makes it difficult for the reader. Sometimes the idea is to keep the reader off balance. But finally, at some point, the writer must make a place where the reader can experience both the conflict and harmony of the poem. Some people might mistake this for accessibility. Accessibility is really a fantasy, a temporal notion of the naive reader that often yields to more informed readings. If the poet has made a place for the reader, no matter how difficult the poem seems, it will be accessible. Making a place for the reader is a matter of skill, not mental disposition. Without a place, the poem feels dead or dying. Does this resonate with you?

      • mmm, yes, it does, and I love your idea of the poet making a space for the reader but what about the reader as an active, creator and owner of meaning? You seem to imply (I might be misinterpreting you) that there can only be one ‘correct’ reading of a poem. Also, the reader you have in mind seems passive and compliant. I’ll need to read your essay again but, apologies, too tired just now. – J

  2. Just the opposite. Making space for the reader is the way the writer assures that the reader can interact with the poem. My essay on Michael Robbins goes into an extended discussion of how the reader is a necessary component of adding content to the poem. Even the essay above relates that it is not representational “meaning” that needs to be fixed [Against Interpretation is all about a rejection of specific meaning and all about seeking the emotional nexus with a work of art], but that a place in the poem for the reader is a way for the reader to access the full emotional and intellectual freight of the poem.

  3. goooooooooooooooooooddddddddddddddddd

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