New Welsh Review
Private and Public Wars
War is a worthy subject for poetry, but poems about domestic wars do not always get the same approval. Poets are often discouraged from writing intense personal poems, especially about extreme emotions. To do so is to court criticism for being self-indulgent and embarrassing. It’s much more acceptable to be ironic than emotionally direct. Writing autobiographically on traumatic subjects such as mental illness, domestic violence, rape, child abuse, infidelity, parents, suicide, and alcoholism is seen as taboo in this highbrow art form, but not in fiction, memoir, biography, non-fiction and the media. I find it hard to come to terms with an art that censors itself so severely. It’s not harrowing images per se that get disapproval, there are plenty of those in poems about the sanctioned violence of war, and they are on the increase.
I’m thinking of three outstanding recent
collections: Breaking News by Ciaran Carson,
Legion by David Harsent and Cold Calls by
Christopher Logue. Many other poets are
reacting to 9/11 and its aftermath by addressing
the issues of public violence and have included
potent verse on this theme in their latest books:
Moniza Alvi, Penelope Shuttle, Choman Hardi
and Robert Minhinnick, to name but four. And this trend is rising. If the subject is handled with imagination and flair the critics welcome it. It is permissible to publish verse containing distressing graphic images: a headless rider (Ciaran Carson); a face exploded flat onto a wall (David Harsent); a bunker-ceiling hung with charred children’s hands (Robert Minhinnick); a bagful of ears emptied on the floor (Carolyn Forché).
The accusation of self-indulgence implies that the poet’s subject is not universal – why expose something that is irrelevant to others? Private wars – so often the mistreatment of women and children – are waged more than we like to admit even in our first world country, and are rampant in third world countries. In Mexico, for example, it is commonplace for the traditionally macho husband to be abusive in the home and to abandon successive women and children to poverty. The issues are as universal as war.
Another frequent accusation aimed at confessional poetry is that artistry is neglected in favour of sensational subject matter. Poetry is one of the highest arts, and aesthetics is its aim. But is it its only aim? Isn’t its purpose to communicate what it means to be human here on earth, to speak the truth? Isn’t it the truth that most of us suffer major trauma at some point in our lives however much we might try to insulate ourselves from it? I am reminded here of Wilfrid Owen’s draft preface to his first book: “Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.” His theme was too urgent for him to limit himself to aesthetic games.
But why this difference in status between the poetry of private and
public wars? Considering this raises some uncomfortable questions. Is it just a case of T. S. Eliot’s legacy – that we are still governed by his drive for poetry to be “not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality”? Is it because poets might not be capable of writing with imagination and skill about their personal traumas? Is it – as many critics claim – because the subject matter overpowers the craft and fails to transcend the raw pain? Or is it because we are too deeply ashamed of what goes on in the supposed haven of home? Is it because poets prefer to portray themselves through masks of respectability and distance? A Alvarez argued that when confessional poets remove the mask they speak as society’s representative victims because their personal crises reflect a larger social and cultural breakdown – the self’s crises are those of society internalised.
Outside our cosseting first world culture – in most of Africa and Latin America, for example – many people suffer trauma on a daily basis. Isn’t it worthwhile for a poet to write about intense personal suffering and make that suffering visible and therefore accountable, in the honest way poems can – viscerally, powerfully, through all the senses, instead of as disembodied images on TV screens or through the evasive, pat language of the media?
If by confessionalism we understand this to mean poetry containing
a high degree of personal anguish – differentiating it from merely personal poetry which would encompass a much larger range of poets – then it might be worth listing who I am thinking of. To the original Americans Robert Lowell, John Berryman, W D Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Theodore Roethke, I would add Sharon Olds as their main heir, and such figures as perhaps C K Williams, Charles Wright, and, more recently, Marie Howe. I hesitate to foist an unwelcome confessional tag on any poet, though, as so many understandably shy away from what is perceived as an inferior mode. It’s rare for any British poet to write confessionally; Selima Hill arguably does, and there are individual collections that have been named as such: Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, Craig Raine’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu and Hugo Williams’ Billy’s Rain, for example, all drew controversy.
Marie Howe seems to accept the label. Charles Wright has resisted it, declaring: “I have tried very hard to get a kind of impersonal autobiography into my poems, so that the poems come out of my life without having the tinge of ‘confessional poetry’ about them.” Robert Lowell embraced the term when M L Rosenthal first coined it, saying that for him poetry had fallen into an overly decorous expression, a tranquillised gentility into which his rough emotionalism might inject new blood. For Sexton getting the ‘story’ out was paramount. While for Plath, her aim was to transform the personal into her own symbolic language, a new mythos, which she did superbly with the idiomatic and direct address of her language. This is often overlooked – one of the disadvantages of confessional poetry is that its sensational content can attract too much attention so that the quality of the writing is neglected, and Plath has especially suffered from an undervaluing of her original and vital style.
Although many critics disapprove of confessional poetry, my impression is that the general public loves it. It has been observed that people not involved in the poetry scene want full-blooded poems about feelings. If poetry has a poor image it is precisely because it so often isn’t about feelings but about aesthetics the public do not understand and therefore view as irrelevant to their lives. Most poems are about feelings, but the emotions may be so carefully disguised that they could appear absent to the non-initiate. Being over-concerned with aesthetics at the cost of content could itself be viewed as self-indulgent – the poet writing to another poet about writing poems, the lifeblood squeezed out. On the other hand, the aesthetic qualities of confessional poems shouldn’t be overlooked.
In her shocking poem ‘The Girl’, Sharon Olds describes the ordeal of a teenager who is raped by two men and who has to watch them rape and kill her friend. The poem has all the emotional force of her personal poems and yet it is about a public event. It’s the language that achieves this power, the chant of the closure with its contained rage: “…She knows / what all of us want never to know / and she does a cartwheel, the splits, she shakes the / shredded pom-poms in her fists.” It’s important not to underestimate Olds’ consummate use of language and rhythm coupled with her dynamic lineation.
The challenge facing poets who write intimately about their families is that they are transgressing socially imposed silences, exposing what is concealed and uncomfortable. As Olds said at the outset of her writing career: “Is there anything that shouldn’t or can’t be written about in a poem? What has never been written about in a poem?” She went on to write daringly about sex. No other poet I know of is doing this with so much candour, and in poems such as ‘Ecstasy’, her evocation of the altered state of orgasm moves into a transcendental realm. She is often criticised for being a poet too concerned with the physical and the body, yet I find it’s through the physical that she reaches the mystical.
Left hand panel of Paula Rego’s
triptych The Pillowman, 2004.
Her second volume, The Dead and the Living, opened with poems that respond to a series of historical photographs. The private poems that followed are searing family portraits. According to the critic Peggy Phelan, The Dead and the Living merges historical and private lives “to chart a new attitude toward history” and “suggest a fundamental similarity and continuity between our public stories and our private ones.”
In a recent review in The Guardian of Olds’ Selected Poems (Cape Poetry, 2005) Charles Bainbridge states: “Her poems are vivid morality plays, wrestling with ideas of right and wrong.” I agree with him, yet so often she is censured for being too personal.
A classic example is the poem ‘Bible Study: 71 BCE’ from her last collection The Unswept Room. She imagines Crassus’ feelings the day he crucified 6,000 men, the what-if of sudden empathy. “If he could have lowered one, / and seen the eyes when the level of pain / dropped like a sudden soaring into pleasure, / wouldn’t that have opened in him / the wild terror of understanding / the other?” Empathy, as Olds observed, is at the heart of the matter. Lack of empathy breeds evil.
She’s continued to write accomplished public poems, but the private ones dominate her collections. However, these private examinations are to my mind just as universal. We all have families; some are dysfunctional in varying degrees. By exploring violence in the family, we gain some insight into the violences of wars and oppressive regimes. Olds has said: “We know that only people who are really close to us care about our personal experiences. Art is something else. It has something to do with wanting to be accurate about what we think and feel.” So her poems are constructs in which close human relations are rigorously examined, enquiries into the human condition. What is it like to have a violent and abusive father? What does his physical and spiritual presence really feel like? Why does he behave this way, and how can a child apprehend him with her body and soul? Is this so different from a torturer’s victim, who may well ask her / himself these questions to try to make sense of incomprehensible sadism? By asking the question: ‘why does this parent do that?’, we might come to understand public brutality.
As I am often labelled a confessional poet who, like Olds, writes critically about her parents, it might be useful for me to discuss my poetry in this context. In The Zoo Father and The Huntress, what I appear to have written are poems about abusive parents, and an attempt to transform the harrowing material by interfusing it with Amazonian and Aztec imagery. (I have also been more happily labelled a magic realist and / or a surrealist because of this.) But I had deeper explorations in mind. At the heart of both books is my belief in the essential goodness of people, and a need to imaginatively recast close family relationships which challenge that belief. I also have an interest in altered states, and this is what I’m after in my language – to give the emotional line a chanting quality. The strong subjects act as a vehicle for me to explore trance-states.
To write about my mentally ill mother, who could be quite terrifying, I turned to the Aztecs whose temples and museums I had just visited. I saw an exaggerated projection of my family story in the quarrels of the Aztec gods. I discussed these ideas with the Mexican poet Víctor Manuel Mendiola, who agreed with me that their bloodthirsty rites were a dark mirror of the human family at its dysfunctional extreme. I learnt, though, that nothing was gratuitous: every sacrifice was deemed essential for survival.
In The Zoo Father an abusive father is revisited through Amazonian imagery. When writing it, I drew on my recent travels in the Venezuelan Amazon and researches on the lives of Amazonian tribes. The shamanistic rituals of the cannibalistic Yanomami and the headshrinking Jivaro / Shuar in particular fascinated me, and raised ethical questions much debated by anthropologists. Again, none of their shocking practices were gratuitous, but possibly neurotic responses to cultural and survival demands. By placing my father in this primitive setting, I could better understand his behaviour.
One of my poems from The Zoo Father, ‘My Father’s Body’, was discussed at a conference at Vilnius’ Writers’ Union. I was intrigued to hear Eugenijus Alisanka, the conference chair and director of the Writers’ Union, arguing that the specific experience of that poem (where I shrink my father’s body with the help of a Jivaro shaman to reduce his power) did not limit it to the personal. He thought that the poem was helpful to Lithuanians who had suffered at the hands of the KGB (as he had) and who could experience catharsis through its process.
Responses to my readings are tellingly different when the audience is disadvantaged or third world. For example, after reading at schools in Mexico City and at City College in the Bronx, teachers told me that my experiences were relevant to a high proportion of the audience. Writing about my father’s abuse and my mother’s malevolence is a close-up focus of what can happen in the public arena. As long as there is brutality in society this personal is universal.
Can we in the UK move beyond confessionalism’s bad image? It’s worth reconsidering M L Rosenthal’s definition in his inaugural essay on that movement: “Confessionalism should be considered not as a prescriptive formula held by any one group but as a general permission felt by most poets to treat personal experience, even in its most intimate and painful aspects.”
I thought this was happening back in 1997 when something extraordinary happened in the British poetry world. Anvil Press published the groundbreaking anthology Beyond Bedlam: Poems written out of mental distress. It was co-edited by two popular and acclaimed poets: Ken Smith and Matthew Sweeney. The contents were unique – poems by John Clare, Christopher Smart, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Selima Hill, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Paul Durcan, and other established names, were interwoven with astonishing poems by complete unknowns selected from open submission; these mainly came from the original bedlam, Bethlem & Maudsley Hospital, and Survivors’ Poetry.
When the anthology received favourable reviews, I wondered if confessional poetry had become respectable. But Beyond Bedlam slipped into publishing history and everything continued as usual. Good new poets emerged, their subject matter tactfully safe and uncontroversial as before. And is the climate changing now? Is a new emotionally open poetry welcome? Not yet, but eventually, the conservative old guard must surely lose its hold. With the continuing rise of women’s poetry, work in translation, and immigrant poets writing in English, the British poetry world might lose its qualms about confessionalism and give it the critical respect it deserves.
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