. . . . .
Friends and Strangers, I'm between poetry manuscripts, in a kind of purgatory of middleness, and part of the silence (while I revise and play my own secretery, mailing out like a mad filing intern) is that I'm rapt and studious--though it feels more like despair--over the manner of poems I truly feel compelled by. I'm in a kind of desperation for the poems of necessity, by which I mean, of course, those poems my heart desires most. I'm reading feverishly few books, over and over, trying to summon a voice from them that is my own. Some authenticity from between the black hammers.
It's all a great mess in my notebooks right now. And then there is the cloud of great worry, the anxiety, the fear. And the intense envy, which is also a gear. In the end, as always, the language fails, and what I have are these long mornings where I blur and try my best to work and come into focus. Then a long walk on the beaches in the afternoon with my cutiepie, my puppy. The most resonant part of my day: the lightning silent on the fronds, the wind rifling the brokenness of the horizon's blue mane, the wind come down off the black mountain to the north to scour the gold dunes. A brightness underscored by some lengthening transparent shade. It's a useless life, and I pace in it. The stars fall down on my head.
. . . . .
I notice in my last post that I use the words "narrative" and "confessional" synonymously. Probably because I'm trying to find my own lyric place between them. A poem with a lyric "I" born by music, helped along by the trappings of both narrative and confessionalism. What exactly is a confessional poem? I am speaking of contemporary poets whose poems are so often spoken by an "I" that seems authentically the poet. The poetry of our journals is filled with self-referential moments, perceptions, incidents, and minutiae from the poet-speaker's own life. To some extant, we're all writing some version of a confessional poem.
Stern says of his AMERICAN SONNETS that they are "memory-ridden," and I think this is true of his latest book, EVERYTHING IS BURNING, a collection of mostly shorter poems written, he's said in a recent interview, in short bursts:
The same cracked hoarse nasal sexy laugh--
I almost lifted my face out of the newspaper
to remind her of the drowned bee and the shaky
pedestrian bridge, I almost told her her
favorite passage of Mahler, we were that close
going up and down the ladders and interchanging
souls with each other, we were that overlapping,
appearing and disappearing, that prayerful,
lighting each other's cigars inside the room of laurel-green
The "I" here is confessional and not-confessional: sure, this is Stern himself and yet he's not really confessing any incident, there's no secrecy afforded us, no internal monologue that completes a perception of the world. But having written this, it strikes me that this is exactly what this poem does. We're driven by a consciousness in fragmented reflection. Voice is tantamount to the achievement of the poem. As is playfulness with the language, and a remarkable love of experience. But does this make his poem confessional?
The poem is also not-narrative and narrative at the same time: Stern tells the story of this memory, but also refrains from burdening the reader with superficial direction. We don't know who they are, or where, or why they're there, or what happens to them. Stern offers us the details of sensual incident without boring us with the monotony of the story itself. The encounter, the bliss of it was all. We get the good parts! and the poem retains all the mystery of something partially remembered and that emotional resonance that makes it valuable.
One of my favorite poems in the book is a short one that first appeared in The New Yorker entitled "Sylvia." It's written to his little sister who died when they were children, but I like to think of Sylvia Plath:
Across a space peopled with stars I am
laughing while my sides ache for existence
it turns out is profound though the profound
because of time it turns out is an illusion
and all of this is infinitely improbable
given the space, for which I gratefully lie
in three feet of snow making a shallow grave
I would have called an angel otherwise and
think of my own rapturous escape from
living only as dust and dirt, little sister.
. . . . .
A review by Olivia Cronk in the January 2007 issue of Bookslut of Frederick Seidel's new book OOGA BOOGA remarked that "because Seidel spends such time with these bits of the everyday, it becomes noticeable that his existence is textured with a creepy decadence." Seidel, like the best Dr. Seuss book, is violent both in his language and in his imagery. His daily moments, those he might be "confessing", are tempered by metric extravagance and confessional insight. At times his book reads like a psychological profile, as he provokes with sexual violence and bare political heat. As in Stern's poetry, voice is a driving force in Seidel's work. And still, I hesitate to call his work "confessional," even when it is, it isn't:
Clematis paniculata sweetens one side of Howard Street.
White butterflies in pairs flutter over the white flowers.
In white kimonos, giggling and whispering,
The butterflies titter and flutter their silk fans,
End-of-summer cabbage butterflies, in white pairs.
Sweet autumn clematis feeds these delicate souls perfume.
I remember how we met, how shyly.
Four months of drought on the East End ends.
Ten thousand windshield wipers wiping the tears away.
The back roads are black.
The ocean runs around barking under the delicious rain, so happy.
Traditional household cleaners polish the Imperial palace floors
Of heaven spotless. THUNDER. Cleanliness and order
Bring universal freshness and good sense to the Empire. LIGHTNING.
I have never had a serious thought in my life on Gibson Lane.
A man turning into cremains is standing on the beach.
I used to walk my dog along the beach.
This afternoon I had to put him down.
Jimmy my boy, my sweetyboy, my Jimmy.
It is night, and outside the house, at eleven o'clock,
The lawn sprinklers come on in the rain.
Even though a poem as beautiful as this confesses, the focus of it seems to be in praise of existence. Of a time of year, a season of being and losing and the adoration of the time. The poem itself isn't concerned with making any confessional statement. Seidel is in his life, but the poem doesn't examine this life as much as it revels in it. It admires the narrative details of Seidel's experience and transforms them into a spiritual dialogue of sorts between the man and the world. It makes a kind of memory as much as it documents a difficult and layered relationship with his experience of the world in time. Still, there is a restraint that hides the details we expect of a confession. Rather, these sections work as psychological profiles of the same man at different moments of attention. They serve as the documentary of his remembering, that moment un-occluded by langauge. Yes, for me this poem works like an independent short film. I see the man touching the flowers and having a wash of emotion, but there is no cut to another time, no explanation. This time, of meeting the flowers, of being between thunder and lightning, of remembering his dog, is the point, and all of these points are Seidel.
I think I'm wrestling here with what I think confessional poetry really is. Robert Lowell in the study of his family, Anne Sexton in her religious and sexual addresses, Lucille Clifton, Dorianne Laux. . . I look to these writers whose work mostly seems to be confessional in that they admit the details of personal being, and their poems seem to examine issues of personal identity: issues of faith, gender, race, politics, philosophy, etc . . . many of their poems are explorations of a personal wonder, anchored in daily experience.
This doesn't sound so different than what happens in Seidel's poem. For me the biggest difference is a kind of dramatic staging of the voice in his work. Perhaps this is only a stylistic remark on my part. In fact, his first book was controversial precisely for how exactly confessional it was, naming real persons. In this poem, clarity results in a psychologically apparent movement in which each section is deflected by the next. So a psycho-lovely poem, and, I suppose, a confessional poem--but with the air of something different. . ..
. . . . .
Perhaps where I feel clearest about what a confessional poem might be is when reading Henri Cole's newest book BLACKBIRD AND WOLF where I'm struck by a very centered and intimate Self who speaks to his own life. It seems apparent that the poems are autobiographical, and that here is the poet in his own life trying to put things down as simply as possible--"simple" is the demanding task that makes Cole's poems so rewarding. When he speaks I feel as if I must crouch down to listen, to eavesdrop on someone else's prayer, and this, for me, has an aura of sacrilege that makes his poetry that much more insistent. When I read them I feel as if something necessary is happening and my attention is required to fulfill it. I am needed by these poems. They demand me. Yet when I read these poems, I am also accutely aware that I am unnecessary. They exist in themselves completely. Cole is a consciousness considering objects and events in his life, weighing them forthright. It is a pleasure to be able to witness this kind of working understanding:
Waking from comalike sleep, I saw the poppies,
with their limp necks and unregimented beauty.
Pause, I thought, to say something true: It was night,
I wanted to kiss your lips, which remained supple,
but all the water in them had been replaced,
with embalming compound. So I was angry.
I loved the poppies, with their wide-open faces,
how they carried themselves, beckoning to me
instead of pushing away. The way in and the way out
are the same, essentially: emotions disrupting thought,
proximity to God, the pain of separation.
I loved the poppies, with their effortless existence,
like grief and fate, but tempered and formalized.
Your hair was black and curly; I combed it.
If we map the movement of the poem, perhaps we see why Cole's work feels so intimate: "I saw the poppies . . . I thought, to say something true . . . .I wanted to kiss your lips . . . I was angry . . . I loved . . . Your hair was black and curly; I combed it." He's confessing an emotional response to the world as well as trying to remark upon it. He risks a self-indulgence that other poems must combat with stylistic overture. I'm being unfair, since every poet must invent their own way to say, to move. But it does strike me that Cole's poem invents a voice that is stunning for its emotional vulnerability.
What's interesting about narrative is that by the end of the sonnet, it's transformed into contemplation. Again, much of the particulars are fragmented as they bolster the bareness of Cole's voice. Nothing happens in the poem but the poem. We're not told about an afternoon when at the wake the speaker tries to kiss his lover's dead lips and instead finds a correlative in the poppies. Still, the story is hidden here in the speaker's confession, though it turns at the end when he considers what existence might be: "The way in and the way out / are the same essentially: emotions disrupting thought, / proximity to God, the pain of separation." Cole's is a contemplative lyric that he finds by writing about his own life experience.
. . . . .
What good is all this diffcult attempt at naming, defining, categorizing? Is it fair to think of a poet as "Confessional" or "Narrative" or "Lyric"? Isn't every poem bound to itself, to how it might achieve its own poemness? Still, I think it says something about my work if I can say what kind of poem I think I'm writing. Whatever the poem does, if I think of myself as a Lyric poet, or a Narrative poet--these admissions are really evidence of an aspiration. Because even if it's still an abstraction, there is a "kind" of poem I'm envisioning for myself, for my own. . .
Friends and Strangers, I'm not sure. But I am caught in wonder at these poets, who seem to move through their poems with a striking lyricism that reaches me. I'm interested in how they carve out a poem from both confessional and narrative stands.
Are these my new models? Perhaps they are the poles between which I will attract my own version. I am triangulating the stars that fall down on me. I love them. I am against them. I steal them. I curse them. I hide them, mutilate and kiss them.
My heroes, my haunts, my lovely hells.
. . . . .
This is a an imaginary diary of facts, confessions, or messages. This is a notebook of working but broken ideas, lines, images, notes on books I'm reading, writers I admire, and brief fantasies of language. Here unfiltered all mannerings pseudo-private, publicized, ur-. Here I am art and unrevealed: poetic, political and pop. These are my moonlit rough beginnings and should not be taken literally, directly, truthfully, reliably, and none of it is legally binding. These lies are all choreographed, but only haphazardly. Beware.
My work has been awarded the Katherine C. Turner Prize from the Academy of American Poets, a Swarthout Award, and has twice been nominated and shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. My first book, A Book Called Rats, was selected for the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry (Eastern Washington University Press 2007). I'm curating editor for the online journal of poetry: PISTOLA and my poems and reviews most recently appear in Massachusetts Review, Beloit, Ploughshares and RAIN TAXI. I currently teach writing and literature at Santa Monica College in southern California.
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