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« Overheard on the Elevator 11/24/09 8:30 a.m. | Main | The Best Line in the Book »

November 25, 2009


Enjoyed the interview, Martha, particularly your comments regarding the appealing departure from narrative/confessional poetry. That aspect resonated especially with me after having recently received the following passage from an avid poetry reader who is NOT a poet:

"In his essay, 'The Personal Heresy in Criticism,' [C.S.] Lewis attacks the widely held view of poetry as the expression of the poet's personality. In its place, he proposes an objective, impersonal theory which defines poetry as the artistic imitation of reality. The true poet reflects eternal realities in his art. His role is not to point to himself but beyond himself: 'The poet is not a man who asks me to look at him; he is a man who says "look at that" and points: the more I follow the pointing of his finger the less I
can possibly see of him.'"
—from *C.S. Lewis on Scripture* by Michael J. Christensen, p. 46.

Geoff M. Pope

An "objective, impersonal theory which defines poetry as the artistic imitation of reality" sounds so clear and seems to resolve the messy problem of personality. But think about it: it in itself is an expression of personality, the personality of a person (like C. S. Lewis) who desires that this situation obtain for everybody at all times. When you realize that, then the next and more interesting question is why? Which leads us inevitably into the messy realm of personality, and the even scarier realm of who gets to decide who gets to think what. C. S. Lewis wants us all to be Catholic, too, not to mention that he is someone who by his own admission would like to see less and less of his fellow man and more and more of what Lewis assumes he is pointing to. Assuming of course that whatever that is is the same thing, and means the same, to the guy standing beside C. S. Lewis (further assuming we can still see that person, not just his finger). You just can't say good poems come from this, not that; what you're saying about "narrative/confessional" poetry is that, at this point in your life/career, you don't like this kind of poetry and it doesn't inspire you to write your own poems. That's fair; just don't expect everybody else to be at that particular point in time, too. A further point: not everybody feels this negativity about other human beings that this attitude seems to harbor. If Mark's poem were merely clever, I wouldn't like it nearly as much as I do; I see way more there, an expression of a larger narrative and a large personality.

I agree with you, Jim; this is merely where I am “at this point in [my] life/career.” I’ve been overly subjective in my work -- in my life! But where did you gather in what I wrote that I specifically “don’t like this kind of poetry [narrative/confessional], and it doesn’t inspire [me] to write...”? Did you skim my blog? Compare “Fastball from My Dad” and “Don’t Rush Me” to “The Girl with Rainbow Toes” and “A Couple in Love.”

To end, C. S. Lewis was a Protestant; and, as a Narnian, he didn't (I don't think) want “us 'all' to be” _anything_ -- especially not a Cat-ho-lic!

I may be wrong (it's happened before!) but CS was a High Church Anglo-Catholic, right? Church of England? Same as TS? That's Protestant (Episcopalian in this country) but not low church (Presbyterian and Baptist in this country). And as for the rest, I was just overreacting; I do that a lot. I didn't mean to target either you, Mark, or Martha; I was speaking more generally; or at least thought I was. And I wasn't implying that you, Geoff, didn't like that kind of poetry, but was reacting to Martha's and Mark's conversation, though filtered through CS, whom I'm not fond of. Does that make sense? It's all language: "confessionalism" is a figure of fun because it's so outmoded it's disappearing from us even as we speak; Martha and Mark are right to dismiss it. But so is the "terminally hip" (which is not to imply that's what anyone here is proposing). Another way of saying it, maybe, is that "the hip" has tuberculosis, and is dying, too. Meanwhile, doesn't Narnia give you the serious creeps?

Correction: I was not/ am not dismissing personal/confessional poetry. I was merely pointing out my attraction to Mark's work. CS wants us all to be Catholic? I am 6/7 through the Book of Narnia, and I don't quite agree.

Martha, first of all my response was based on the conversation between the two of you. I quote your opening: "I'm drawn to Mark Bibbins' work because he is not a confessional poet,and also because linear narratives do not seem to be exceedingly important to him." Okay, I can imagine a linguistic universe in which that is neither a positive nor negative statement. In this context it seems negative to me. Later you say: "In these poems you seem to continually resist [narrative and confessional poetry] ... Is the confessional poem, or the I poem in general, an old hairy dead beast to back away from ...?" Maybe you're NOT "dismissing personal/confessional poetry poetry," but one could be forgiven for thinking there's a bias here. But the more important point is that you've opened up a line of discussion and I'm more than in bounds to contribute to it. In fact, your reply seems a bad faith desire to choke off that discussion. Mark then says: "I like it when poems surprise me, and a lot of what falls into the above categories doesn't do that ... The dead beast isn't going anywhere; that doesn't mean I want to hover over it, sniffing it and describing the stink." Maybe what's going on here is that you want to be able to damn "n & cp", then protest when you're held accountable for it. Finally, CS Lewis is an Anglican, an Anglo-Catholic, a Protestant. He is a sophisticated and worldly man who is a brilliant proselytizer for the Christian faith. After Narnia, give The Screwtape Letters a try. I said he wants us all to be Catholic; heavens, that I would exaggerate! Like many of his generation he saw the Christian myth as the best defense against evil, rather than our generation which suspects it's more likely part of the problem. How about "godly" instead? That's one of his favorite words, and he certainly wanted it for all of us.

Have you read m/any of my poems? Let them speak to my bias against confessional/narrative poetry.

It's always stimulating to see the old unkillable arguments taken for another run around the track. I take it that the ongoing uproar about "confessional" poetry (a term I don't much like) is ongoing precisely because it's important, though, and concerns aesthetic questions that are deeper than matters of what's currently fashionable and "hot."

This is the premise, anyway, that underpins the anthology of essays *After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography* (Graywolf 2001) that I co-edited with Kate Sontag. Our book does not push a single thesis but aims to orchestrate a range of views. Poets who weigh in on various aspects of the historical and aesthetic challenges of autobiographical poetry include Yusef Komunyakaa, Alicia Ostriker, William Matthews, Carol Muske-Dukes, Billy Collins, Joan Aleshire, Ted Kooser, Andrew Hudgins, Carol Frost, Brendan Galvin, Stanley Plumly, Annie Finch, and Stephen Dunn.

To my knowledge there is no other book like it.

If you're interested, a few links to whet your interest.

My essay from the book:

A feature in Valparaiso Poetry Review on the book:

The book's introduction:

Our book is meant to contain multitudes, and features a number of essays that directly contradict others.

But I do have some opinions, some fairly strong. Here's a sampling:

a) It's long past time to retire the term "confessional," which is loaded, inaccurate, and rightly detested by just about every poet to whom it is applied. I prefer the word "personal." But of course there is another nice sturdy word that's been around for quite a while: lyric.

b) Poets who inveigh against the sameness, mediocrity, self-absorption, and so forth of the lyric-I poem are often confusing categories. Most poetry of every era is mediocre; that's a given. So to point out the weakness of the average lyric poem written today is not saying much. It's certainly not news.

c) The lyric isn't going away any time soon, no matter how much theoretical huffing-and-puffing occurs, or how one draws the aesthetic battle lines. Nor is narrative going to become outmoded. Song and story are deep human urges, and poets will keep writing poems that sing and tell tales until the end of literature.

d) I believe that poetic subjects and modes don't become outmoded, though certainly individual poets and poems can lose their freshness. But just when you think the sonnet is dead, or the dead grandfather poem, along comes some frisky new voice to make it new. Don't blame the mode, then; blame the poet. As William Matthews once wrote, "dull subjects are those we have failed."

e) Martha Silano's own poetry rocks. And it is, as she notes, frequently personal in mode.

And if I may -- as a segue to DG's final e) --

My Son Asks 'What's a Torrent?'
by Martha Silano

It's a womb, a swarm of worms, a swirling, untamed horn.
It's our bobbing, bubbling future, the dry leaf careening
beneath its branch as the first fat raindrops fall.

It's a gushing surging, riffling, swiftness; it's here,
where the river turns; there, where we heard the dipper
like water singing;

and now it's splashing, banging banks, swishing
past an overhanging willow like a girl with a comb
pulling and pulling her tangled hair.

Whole trees (it can happen; it happens) unleashing.
It's a swelling and bulging: the Skagit, the Sauk,
the Snoqualmie, the Stillaguamish. What the fishermen call

off color, an every-which-wayness all utterance (short
on restraint, hard to decipher), a violence purely, refreshingly
amoral, as in Now I'll go this way, not that way, cabins and coffins

loosening from comfortable clay. The mystery of mud stains
on three stor y houses. Bursting, confusing, it could be
carrying your books, your wallet, your living room sofa;

it's friction's slurry and spin, the whole big, dark tugging and gurgling
jostle and sway of everything liquid, our roiling,
rapid-riding brains.

What more could one ask for
except maybe a pumpkin pie
with Gerard Manley Hopkins?


Dear David,

Thanks so much for posting your thoughts on poems of a personal nature. I agree that the term "confessional" should be tossed out the window, mainly because it equates sharing in a narrative way about life experiences with heading for the confessional to . . . confess. Yuk! Even the best confessional poets were doing way, way, more than confess, so I would argue that the word should be retroactively and presently decommissioned at once.

I like how you boil the whole argument down to good and bad poems, of whatever ilk. Some last, some suck, and the reasons for that have little to do with whether they're personal, lyrical, linear, non-linear, etc. 99% of what's written falls away within a hundred years. Scary thought, but it's also comforting to know that mostly what's well-crafted and socks us in the gut or changes the way we think (or both!) is what survives.


How sweet of you to post my torrent poem. Thanks so much!

And PS to DG: thanks for the kind words about my own often-very-personal poems.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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