Poems and personas

Stefanie has an interesting post on the relationship of autobiography and fiction and the “I” of poetry — which, she was taught, is not to be conflated with the “I” of the author. I was taught the same thing, and I have taught that idea in literature classes myself, and I believe it, although I think it’s complicated. I suppose what I really think is that the “I” in the poem is never the same as the poet, but that in some poems the “I” is closer to the poet than in others. I do think there is something to be gained by considering the relationship between poet and poem; I don’t like the idea of walling off the two completely.

I think of Anne Sexton as an interesting case: what do we with “confessional” poets who set out to write about themselves in very personal ways? Even here, in confessional poetry, the “I” of the poem is not Anne Sexton, but the relationship between the poem and the person is awfully interesting and you couldn’t really fully understand Sexton’s work without thinking about her life. But it would also be misleading to assume that the poet and poem fully merge; Sexton still uses a persona. All this makes poetry reading interesting, I think, since a reader can both think about the poems as poems — how do they work or not work as aesthetic objects? — but then can also think about the relationship of the poems to the life, and can therefore have a number of ways of approaching the poem, making the reading experience richer.

Ultimately, I think that fully walling off poem and poet can hide a whole lot of stuff that is really important in literary history: I think it matters that Anne Sexton is a woman writer who is writing against a largely-male tradition of highly formal, abstract, impersonal poetry. She helped open the door to writing that is not only personal (personal in a complicated way, of course), but that discusses women’s experiences in a manner that is new and vital and important.

The other part of the question, for me, is whether there is a clearly-definable “I” belonging to the poet that can match or not match up with the “I” of the poem. In other words, is there even a definable self that can be captured in poetry? You could say that all versions of the self are fictional, and that even if a writer is trying to write about herself as accurately as possible, what she produces is automatically just another fiction, because there is nothing else.

I’m kind of partial to that idea myself. At any rate, Stefanie closes this with question about the wall between poem and poet: “Or should I replace the wall with a split-rail fence covered in morning glories?” Yes!

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Filed under Books, Poetry

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