Click here for Part 1 of the Poets' Roundtable on Person and Persona
On Being No One
HOW I WOULD LOVE to be the speaker of my poems! For then I should know such liberation. No one can arrest me for smashing windows in a poem. I can make cop cars crash while turning sharp corners in a poem. I can banish anything (object, person, animal) I find tedious or merely unpleasant. If, in some alternate reality, I could actually be my speaker, I would be a god.
No one much likes a god in daily life, however. In “real life” my speaker would be unbearable. I’ll be the first to admit I wouldn’t want to be stuck in line behind her at Starbucks.
(Last I heard, she no longer breathes oxygen, but rather lives off whiskey vapors and those ardent fumes that pour off the smokestacks just across the Goethals Bridge, having recently taken lodging in an abandoned shopping center where she cares for her pet toad.)
To insist on imposing an author’s lived life onto his or her work is an act of anti-reading, a demonstrated refusal to authentically engage with the thing itself that’s been built out of language.
Furthermore, such an approach diminishes the intellectual pleasures that are so fully available to the perceptive reader. My advice: don’t try to find the author’s life in a piece; rather, look for your own.
Many bad readers are bad writers. They have yet to form a sense of what they need to provide to their own readers. In short, they are poor listeners. Incapable of understanding what it means to be an audience, they serve no audience.
Conversely, bad writers are bad readers. Unwilling to meet the text on its own terms, they pin their difficulties on the writer. They may as well have not even read the text. They want the author to pleasure them while they insist on doing nothing. Handjob.
I am prepared to argue that we have spoiled the brilliant work of the confessional poets by mucking about in their private lives to the extent that we can no longer read their poems with imagination.
And I will go further. A piece of literature, once produced, has very little to do with its author.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The best writing not only anticipates the author’s death, it assumes the author is already dead. Because that’s what it means to write toward pasts in which you’ve never lived, and futures in which you can never hope to live.
I’ve long harbored the suspicion that readers who want to graft autobiography onto literature are deeply afraid of creation.
But poems don’t truck in that business. Poets make them whether the frightened reader, the deeply disengaged reader, the selfish reader, likes it or not.
I’ve been holding fast to a fantasy of a new New Criticism. An approach by which the reader puts the cultural, Marxist, and psychoanalytic paradigms to good use without pulling the author’s so-called life into the equation, because I like to think my poems will outstrip my life, if I’ve served them well. That they will enter into that conversation upon which my faith as a human being resides: reader and writer as lovers and most intimate friends. A connection over and outside of time, as faithful as the constellations upon which we rely for symbol and direction.
If you could see me now, Reader, stepping outside the room in which I’ve been writing this, a basement “television room” in my retired parents’ condo, in order to smoke a cigarette while propped on the lawn chair I’ve stationed inside their garage, you would see that I’m no one.
I’m no one. I just make things.
I Wrote About Cancer Once
FOR THE SAKE of contention, and because my "I" is garnering a reputation lately of refusal (I just made that up!), I want to come at this subject from the wrong end — the un-cool, un-PC end — of the stick. The division between the poem and the poet happens to be, for me, as real as the fourth wall. It doesn't exist, but we all agree to respect it for the most part, until somebody throws a rotten apple or answers the persona during her performance.
Likewise, I take dirty pleasure in knowing things about an author, whether a fiction writer or a poet, and sometimes I try to ferret out how those details might manifest or take hold in the author’s work. It's unfair to do, I know, but because I'm not terribly invested in my own history, I don't mind if others attempt the same connections with my own work, assuming they bother about my boring details at all. Fair is fair, and I'm no hypocrite.
Until I am.
So. This is a perversion, I think, many of us engage in, both women and men, but of course, ours is a gendered lens we look through. While the men are perceived as having stark-raving adventures and loads of sex and expressions of machismo that attest to their virility and daring spirits, women writers are often read as promiscuous sluts who need to get a grip on a good home life and chill out with children on our hips — and we are often shamed by such inferences and readings of our work during Q&As, as Lynn points out. The double standard lives!
But what I am interested in moreover, beyond this conflation of "real life" with our stand-in words, is a point that T.S. Eliot extrapolated on in "Tradition and the Individual Talent." In the abstract (and, admittedly, through a male Eurocentric perspective), he points out that any new piece of literature enters into conversation with the entire body of existing literature, and alters that historical body with its entrance: "Whoever has approved this idea of order [...] will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities." Implied in this statement is, also, that the work is all that is left in the end. The poet who is aware of this is likely not mired down by the sensationalism that accompanies her when she receives attention, good or bad, for her work. Reaching this point of enlightenment is no easy feat when our lives remain attached to the work in multiple ways, signifying and affecting readings of the work, despite that knowledge. But it is her work, as Cate hopes in her essay, that will enter the body of literature, and it is her work that will be known. It is her work, finally, that will commune with the words that represent the past, to challenge and transform it. Today's work can argue with, amend, and alter the entire body of literature. Some will call this revisionist work, but that is a misnomer; every literary publication that enters the world symbolizes issues of the day, thoughts on the past, people that are and were. And so on. Because ultimately, the author actually does die and leaves behind two things: the myth of the author and the work itself. Which is more important and deserving of attention?
There are ultimately no easy divisions once we get past the immediate superficial division of poet versus poetry. Let the problematizing begin. Intellectually, I understand the need to agree to that fourth wall, but I can also draw some obvious conclusions: the “real life” sexist will likely not render his female characters favorably or complexly (Bukowski), and the womanizer will treat his written women as objects (Hemingway), and so on. This type of deduction poses the question of whether the life of the mind counts as "real life," whether who we are is as much what we imagine as what we've seen and done. Metta takes this concept further, perhaps unwittingly in favor of my point: "Regardless of whether or not a person writes 'pure' autobiography or whether they lie to tell the truth, whether they stretch their memories to insert li(n)es to fill in the gaps, they’re trying to connect." The dismissal that “it's just fiction,” that it’s "not real," because the author imagined it, feels like an excuse to evade responsibility for what one is contributing to the conversation that spans the entirety of literature. That is, it is not terribly important whether, in real life, James Salter views women simply as physical beings useful only for sex, to be callously abandoned (though the sensationalist in me wants to know more about his current wife and ask her things). It is more important that he leaves a trail of books behind that represent, in compelling words, women in such low regard. This should not be so easily dismissed as "not real" or "just fiction." This is the stuff that shapes minds and will represent, for future generations, how women were viewed in the past. Perhaps that's the point. But that's not the only point, and certainly Salter should be motivated to do more for his female characters, unless in real life he isn't.
By extension, I think about someone like Alice Walker, who has written extensively in fiction and nonfiction about the stories of women who underwent female circumcision. I can't imagine Walker is invested in making sure no one thinks she has any personal connection to such an experience. Or that she herself underwent that painful torture. She crafts such stories partially, I imagine, to warn off such mindsets in the present and future. Perhaps she has had some related experience that compelled her to craft those works. Am I curious? Of course. I admire the woman. Will future generations read her work in the context of what she might have experienced? Will they wonder how Salter treated his wives? Perhaps. Do we hold them accountable, as writers, for what they have represented of and for our society? Perhaps. Can their lives and experiences be read as influencing their content? At risk of being disowned, perhaps again. None of these divisions is easy or clear. No one wants to be boiled down to the sum of her or his stories or poems. That's reductive and belittling. But the complexity of conflating lived lives with words on a page is something to be problematized, not avoided out of a base fear or in the name of clear divisions that don't actually exist such as the theater's fourth wall, though we will certainly uphold those divisions in polite society for the sake of composure and public decorum.
Poems are even more difficult because, as several have pointed out here, there are no clear markers indicating a true separation of story from real life experiences in poetry. The divisions simply aren't there historically. We often think of Whitman's "Song of Myself" as the workings of his mind — not necessarily that he traveled and was as bold in his person, but that his mind was. It is nearly impossible to read that book and not query where Whitman's sympathies were in the war or what his thoughts were on abolition, etc. It is nearly impossible not to see at least the poet's fantasy life etched so eloquently in scenes of bathing boys and laboring men on the wharfs. Unless you're looking through the fourth wall; then all is tucked in properly again.
On the flip side of Lynn's concern, this issue is aggravated these days as we see numerous attempts to conflate the cult of personality and the work itself in an effort to substantiate the work, as if they will both last forever. With time, the author fades into a fleeting story and only the work is left. I'm not sure we should work so hard to maintain and emphasize the fourth wall divide between author and work. Who ultimately cares if I write about a difficult subject and someone thinks I suffered the abuse depicted or caused someone harm? If I know I didn't and the made-up or real person knows I didn't, isn't that enough? The urge to correct the record on my own behalf isn't going to change the overall culturally biased readings we currently engage in. If anything, the work itself can do more harm to those conditionings than me screaming down the random police agent at the end of a reading who prefers his women to be less opinionated. When my opinions are printed and widely distributed, they are much more effective and farther reaching. I likely won't change the officer’s mind in that moment anyway, even if I defend myself as not being represented directly in my writing.
Those who want to force another "real life" narrative onto the work seem to be testing the work in a way that attaches the writing to what they think they already know, to what is more easily digested and accessible, therefore somehow rendering it more palatable for themselves, even at the cost of stripping and reducing the work. They are ferreting out the meaning that satisfies their ideologies, likely omitting any substance that doesn't suit them, and leaving any challenges behind. Their loss. So how much attention and creed should we pay and give to this reading style? That is, how much energy should we expend trying to dissuade it? I wrote about a cancer once in one of my poems, a mention of a rictus, and a woman approached me after and asked simply if it was true. I assume she meant to ask whether it true for me as something I had experienced. I said yes, because it was true for someone, and she seemed to be seeking some solace in that possibility, so I gave it. Do I want it to be written somewhere that I suffered from rictus? No, but I am also not deeply invested in expunging that record if it happens. The people in my life who know me know it's not true, and I can easily dispel that idea in an interview if the world magically becomes invested in my personal life. For the most part though, the larger world is not invested in poets' lives that way. Poets are romanticized, but that knowledge does nothing for my work. As it stands on the surface, the readers so inclined towards bringing his or her own issues to the work are likely seeking some sort of personal affirmation of their beliefs, however oppressive or negative. Let your words resist those expectations; strive to make your writing do the heavy work for you. So when people see women's writing as personal account, it is often because they want some control over women; symbolically, "woman" is the unpredictable force that needs to be policed and harnessed. And that fact is fair game for fodder for writing too. Gird thy loins for fleeting battle at readings in defense of your self? Or let your imagination write the unpredictable into existence to challenge the entirety of literature, even long after your loins have died? My impulse is to steer the conversation, when it turns to my so-called personal life, back to the text and retort with questions regarding how my words work in the larger fabric of society. That is, if you're accusing me of being too flirty in my poems, I will ask you with whom will my poems flirt when I am asleep? But I digress. Whichever side of the fourth wall you choose to invest in, just remember, it's all real life.
Amy King teaches English & Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College, co-edits Poets for Living Waters, and works with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.
Cate Marvin's third book of poems, Oracle, is forthcoming from Norton. She is co-founder of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.