The Convergence of Personal, Political, and Spiritual Poetry
By Nadia ColburnDecember 9, 2014
A FRIEND RECENTLY CALLED me dismayed: her book of poems had been called “confessional” in a review; she was polling her friends. The consensus was that the term was pejorative; the implication that the poetry was overly personal, not really important, perhaps self-indulgent.
Fifty-five years ago, the critic M.L. Rosenthal coined the now infamous term “confessional” in his review “Poetry as Confession” of Robert Lowell’s fourth book, Life Studies. “Lowell,” Rosenthal wrote in this review, “removes the mask. His speaker is unequivocally himself.” So far, so good. But though Rosenthal was positive about Lowell’s book, which he saw as a breakthrough, he nevertheless had mixed feelings about removing this mask, and made that ambivalence clear: “it is hard,” he continued, “not to think of Life Studies as a series of personal confidences, rather shameful, that one is honor-bound not to reveal.”
The subjects of Life Studies — childhood, one’s relationship with parents, insanity — were considered overly “personal” in 1959, not real subjects of “manhood” (Rosenthal’s term), and it is not surprising that Rosenthal uses the language of “shame” and “honor” to describe the project. Indeed, Rosenthal continued in the next sentence: “the prose section called ’91 Revere Street’ is essentially a public discrediting of his father’s manliness.” It makes sense, then, that after the first white men — Snodgrass and Lowell — about whom the term was coined, the term “confessional” has largely been used to refer to women, usually white women. Today when most people think of confessional poetry, the poets who come to mind first are Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton: two women (both mothers) who wrote personal poetry, struggled with mental illness, and killed themselves.
The themes of the domestic, of sexuality, and of mental health are labeled “confessional,” perhaps, because they are considered “not quite honorable.” After all, one goes to Catholic confession to confess one’s “sins.”
But I fear that sometimes the threat of the term “confessional” prevents people from staying on the path of their own truths, a path of self discovery and ultimately potentially of a spiritual awakening that asks us to move beyond these notions of “manliness” or womanliness, or other categories. After all, the “confessional” is a religious practice that assumes that in expressing one’s problems, one can ultimately let them go and move beyond them to get closer to God.
In a recent piece called “Confessional Writing Is Not Self-indulgent,” the essayist Leslie Jamison discusses the ways in which personal writing connects people through self-recognition. Even beyond that, though, removing masks is an important task of poetry, and of all writing, because it is often exactly through revealing the personal that we are able to transcend the rigid boundaries of self and the categories around it, and to connect with others outside ourselves, both on a political and a spiritual level. Those themes that are considered “personal” are important to us all — not only in our private lives — but also in our public, communal lives. And the people who write about them, even in our age of Oprah, continue to be pioneers.
Afaa Michael Weaver is one such pioneer. He has been exploring the intersection of the personal and the public for 30 years in poetry, and in his most recent work, shows the possibilities for spiritual growth and healing in the very subjects that are often considered “shameful.”
Weaver’s Plum Flower Trilogy, the final volume of which, The City of Eternal Spring, was released in the fall of 2014, is an ambitious project telling, through lyric poetry, the story of repressed and recovered memories of sexual abuse at the hands of his uncle in early childhood and its ramifications throughout the poet’s life and work. The subject matter might invite the term “confessional” — like Lowell’s Life Studies, the trilogy examines the poet’s childhood, his relationship with relatives, and his own struggles with insanity, and of course it takes on a taboo sexual subject.
Like Plath and Sexton, Weaver at times had suicidal tendencies. But Weaver was lucky enough to live today and not a generation earlier, and his exploration of himself through poetry led not to suicide but to a more clear understanding of who he is, where he comes from, and of the capacity to heal. Like Dante’s Divine Comedy, Weaver’s trilogy takes a journey into the depths of human experience and suffering, and then back up and out, and is ultimately a story of redemption. And like Dante’s poetry, Weaver’s work is at once personal, historic, epic, and spiritual.
Weaver’s story is one that he has been telling from the beginning of his writing career in precise lyric language, and is the story, among other things, of a black working class man in America.
Born in Baltimore 1951 to parents who had come north in the Great Migration, Weaver was the first in his family to go to college, but he dropped out when his wife became pregnant. The baby was born with Down syndrome, and to support his young family, Weaver got a job working at U.S. Steel. When his son — to whom The City of Eternal Spring is dedicated — died at the age of 10 months, Weaver was heartbroken. A year later, he suffered a mental breakdown.
By then Weaver was working at a Proctor & Gamble factory, where he remained for 15 years in jobs that his family expected him to keep for the rest of his life, and that he, too, had little hope of leaving. In 1985, at the age of 33, much to his family’s surprise, he was accepted into Brown’s MFA program. His first book was accepted that year as well. He left Baltimore and became a professional poet.
Weaver’s focus, for most of the first two decades of his professional life as a poet, was largely a political/cultural one, grounded in claiming and reclaiming cultural, racial, and familial identity and pride. In 2000, he published a collection of selected and new poems with Sarabande Books called Multitudes recalling, of course, Whitman’s famous line “I contain multitudes.” Compared to Whitman by the poet Michael Harper and critic Arnold Rampersad, Weaver brings in new voices and experiences to American poetry, and like Whitman he sings and celebrates himself. In poems written in the black vernacular, Weaver’s poems, with their short, crisp lines, and with great attention to detail and with great compassion, take us to inner city Baltimore, to his mother’s kitchen and his grandmother’s bedside, to the basketball court, the factory, and the front stoop to show the different experiences, voices, histories that are part of his own unique development.
Though personal, the poems from the first part of his career do not qualify as “confessional” poetry, I would suggest, largely because they clearly are documenting a non-“culturally normative” experience, and the personal is thus seen through the lens of the cultural and political.
Weaver never loses his interest in the cultural and historic, but his interest in the past decade has grown more personal and inward as well as more spiritual. Seven years after publishing Multitudes, Weaver published another “new and selected” collection, The Plum Flower Dance: Poems 1985-2000, the first book in his Plum Flower trilogy. While the Plum Flower Dance contains many of the same poems as Multitudes, the focus is different: while Multitudes is arranged chronologically, the later book is arranged according to the five elements of Chinese philosophy “gold, water, wood, fire, and earth,” a sequence which in “Daoist cultivation,” the notes at the end of the book tell us “is the creative path.”
This first book of the trilogy takes us through the poet’s earlier work and shows the effects of the trauma on the first 20 years of his poetry — years in which he was writing from the trauma, but often without conscious awareness of it. Here the purpose of self-examination is not as much cultural as spiritual. The poems focus more on natural imagery and the body than do the poems in Multitudes and are full of a quiet musing.
In a poem titled “Fifteen Years” for the 15 years he worked in a factory, the poet looks back at the relentlessness of hard factory work with compassion and also sadness.
We could go longer than we thought
at times, working double and triple shifts
in the steel mills, our lives lived with coworkers
our families the strangers….
These things I grieve
when I think of this time, this sentence
when I had no vision of how to be.
This question of how to be — and how to have a vision of how to be — has always been central to Weaver’s work. And the answer comes in part from escaping some of the chains of oppression, inequality, and economic and social bondage to achieve more personal freedom.
The path of this personal freedom has been largely through a deep study and practice of the Dao. When recovering from his first nervous breakdown in his early 20s, after the death of his son, a fellow factory worker gave Weaver a copy of the Dao De Jing. Several years later he started to practice Tai Chi. Over the years, these practices deepened. By the time he wrote The Plum Flower Dance, Weaver had spent a year in Taiwan on a Fulbright fellowship, and he had started to study Chinese and to practice the Dao every day in sitting meditation.
The second book in the trilogy, The Government of Nature, which won the Kingsley Tufts Award in 2013 — a $100,000 prize, the largest of its kind in the world for a single volume of poetry — explores in some detail the trauma itself and the poet’s recovery of self through a Daoist practice. The epigraph to The Government of Nature puts this process of spiritual growth simply: “Through the course of Nature,/ muddy water becomes clear.” The muddy waters of the past — of history, racism, trauma, repression — become clear with time and through the writing process itself.
While some people consider the exploration of trauma to be “confessional” — an airing of the private for the sake of naming — in Weaver’s poetry the exploration seems to be more of a karmic undoing of energetic knots. The notes to The Government of Nature also explain the Daoist idea “that the internal human body is a microcosm of our outer world.’’ The external — questions of race and class — and the internal — personal trauma and repression — are not two separate entities.
In his poem “Leaves,” Weaver writes
The lines that make you are infinite, but I count them
every day to hear the stories you carry. These are not secrets
but records, things we should know but ignore.
The external world has the stories and the information we need for our inner life.
In a later poem, Weaver, recalling the terror of the trauma, connects with both the animal and the spiritual experience:
Fear hit me the way tears light up like flames
afraid to let themselves go when a child is made
to know what animals must know, the beating down,
blood and meat where spirit and song should be.
In City of Eternal Spring, the final volume of the trilogy, published this fall, Weaver travels even farther into the Dao and into Chinese culture and farther into his own healing and integration. This third volume of the trilogy takes as its subject also Weaver’s time in Taiwan as a Fulbright scholar, and the book contains many beautiful poems about China and the self, and about coming back to love after long absences. These are poems of celebration and acceptance that a traveler in a land not his own can offer.
In “To the Hundred Year Old Tree,” Weaver writes:
I see the leaves of it now, around the corner,
they are all there is, the voices silent, the chatter
of motorcycles nothing, the drum conundrum
of heat now the still hand on the drum’s skin,
the great wish of spirit that made trees gone
silent as I sit in prayer with fried dumplings
and a poem as full of hundreds and thousands —
sum of what the still wish of loneliness can be.
But in China, the poet is, of course, always an outsider, and he knows this from the beginning. “I am Chinese in the mirror. Chinese is an endless space in time — /
I have come here to be what I cannot be.” Like so much good American literature, the object of travel is in part the coming home to one’s country, and more importantly, to oneself. And ultimately these are poems — as all of Weaver’s work has been — about coming home.
The final poem in City of Eternal Spring, the final poem, that is, in the trilogy, ends with the poet returning to the US, to where he was “born”:
In Los Angeles airport I sit
stunned by the English, letters
harsh things with no stories
I know. The food smells dead,
metal forks and knives set
for making war against food.
I am undone and done again,
broken off from narratives
of birth and being, of limits
broken by the genius of slaves.
I stand here where I was born,
and the masks wait for me.
In straightforward language, with its elegant line breaks and enjambments, the poem, ironically titled “Being Chinese,” recounts a homecoming that is anything but simple. But a homecoming, nevertheless, it is. The poet comes back to the harshness and confusion of American culture and language: to the English letters that, unlike the more artistic Chinese characters, do not tell stories; to the American food, which is meant to nourish but lacks vitality and is met in a confrontational manner. And here, back again at his beginning, where he has been “done and undone” by his own personal history and by being a black man in a culture with the legacy of slavery, the poet, like Shakespeare, knows he will have to put on masks again.
Rosenthal defined the confessional poet as a person who “removes the mask” to get at what is “unequivocally himself.” Few poets have taken off as many masks as has Afaa Michael Weaver: the masks of race, class, cultural identity, insanity, and the deep, long buried mask of incest. These are all difficult masks to take off, and Weaver has done so with much clarity and bravery.
He also reminds us that some of those topics that we think of as “feminine” and potentially “shameful” or “dishonorable” — sexual abuse, betrayals of the body, domestic relationships — are also subjects that affect men; re-examining manhood, Weaver helps re-examine, as well, our notion of womanhood, and personhood and takes us one step closer to moving beyond the very notion of the “shameful” itself.
At the end of his poem “Scapegoat” addressed to his uncle, Weaver writes: “I hand him the weight of years, a single feather / from a man called less than a man by men who do not know men.” Often we think of confessional poetry, political poetry and spiritual poetry as distinct from one another. But Weaver brings these different modes together. He shows us that writing from our deepest personal experience is not distinct from writing from the political or the spiritual realm and he shows us that the internal and the external are not distinct, but develop together.
I can’t help wondering whether this path of uncovering might not have kept some earlier poets alive. What if in airing their deepest confusion and sorrow, they had been met with an audience that saw their emotions not as problematic, but instead as important to a process of self-discovery, of turning the mud to clear water, a process that is not only poetic and personal but also spiritual and political?
In a 1996 Paris Review interview, Helen Vendler suggests, in a slightly condescending way, that confessional poetry be called instead Freudian poetry — she points out that Lowell, Plath, and Sexton were all in analysis when they were writing their poems. Is it possible that Freudian analysis was part of the problem? That it blocked the karmic healing that can come from exploring one’s deepest feelings and repressed memories and traumas in other ways?
Louise DeSalvo has suggested that Virginia Woolf, like Weaver a survivor of incest, entered her final and deepest depression after reading Freud: while she had always known that her abuse was connected to her depression, reading Freud, who suggested that sexual abuse causes pain only because it feeds into children’s fantasies, confused her and made her question her entire emotional life. Soon after, she put stones in her pocket and walked into the sea. Plath famously, and I find terrifyingly, describes her angry poem “Daddy” as an expression of an “Electra” complex — in other words, an expression not of any legitimate hurt or anger, but rather of her own warped sexuality. Sexton, it has been suggested, killed herself after starting an affair with her analyst.
However much Freudian analysis has and continues to evolve, in each of these cases, instead of acknowledging and making space for her feelings, the woman found herself in a situation in which she was made to doubt the legitimacy, and perhaps the “honor” of her emotional life. Freud’s own take on sexual abuse has been documented by therapists such as Judith Herman, whom Weaver thanks in his notes. In her book Trauma and Recovery, Herman shows how Freud went from listening to and believing the accounts of his patients to deciding — in the political climate of his day — that their accounts must simply be fantasies.
Weaver’s own bouts with insanity, which his poems and prose explore, were experienced in the space of repression and shame and taboo. But his healing came when he found the safe space of a spirituality of acceptance — the central principle of the Dao is that things are as they are. The Dao also provides a deep model of innate human dignity. The 26th chapter of the Dao De Jing, which the notes to City of Eternal Spring declare guides the volume, teaches that “the wise man in all the experience of the day will not depart from dignity.”
I want to suggest that the problem with continuing to use the term “confessional” poetry — or having it in the back of our cultural consciousness — is that it encourages us to see part of our experience as sinful, without the space to accept and heal ourselves; it reinforces Rosenthal’s notions of what is honorable or dishonorable and that there is such a thing as “manliness” that needs to be guarded.
Even as we take off the mask, even as we become less guarded, and claim our inherent dignity, however, there are always new masks, new perspectives, new personas that we put on. This of course is especially true for a black man in America — coming back home Weaver steps again into the role of African American and the masks that Paul Lawrence Dunbar wrote about 100 years earlier. But it is also true for all of us.
Weaver’s work suggests it is the human condition, even at our deepest levels of self-knowing, to be also partly other than ourselves. On a cultural level this can be uncomfortable, but throughout the Plum Flower Trilogy Weaver reminds us that on a spiritual level it can be liberating: we are always in a process of change; we are always affected by larger realities, with their limitations, contradictions, and disappointments, as well as their wonders and surprises, and our individual egos are always part of something greater.
Nadia Colburn is a founding editor at Anchor Magazine: where spirituality and social justice meet. Her poetry and prose have appeared widely in such places as The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, Women's Studies Quarterly, and The Kenyon Review. She lives in Cambridge, MA with her husband and two children. www.nadiacolburn.com
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