A Crisis of the Personal in Poetry?

I’ve been following some of Ron Silliman’s recent posts about the effect he and Gabe Gudding have been tracing of “McPoem”–cookie-cutter work based on personal experience churned out through the business of MFA programs–on the course of poetry in the past thirty years. Ron’s musings on Gudding seem to imply a strong connection between, “self-expression as a means of growth” and poems expressed badly. I don’t know the inner workings of the multitude of MFA programs available today, but from personal experience as a modern writer navigating the straits between sentimentalism and just mentalism, I can relate to and speak to the notion that poetry should be personal.

In short, poetry is art. If the artist finds all the necessary materials for his craft in rummaging through the toolbox of his past, so be it. But the notion that great writing should (or, equally, should not) be about self-expression in a personal way is like saying all good cars should be red or all great paintings not trees. Absurd, and strange.

There is a tendency to focus on personal experience as the source for creative writing in beginner courses. Memory is readily at hand, often harbors rich detail required to give a poem a sense of veracity, and the right kind of memory can bring the emotional weight and conviction to bear required to sustain a powerful poem. Then again, emotion, haphazardly expressed, is never art. In fact, some feelings and thoughts may never make great art, no matter how well described.

While this trick of focusing on the personal can make unreadable, ambiguous poems take some shape, failing to evolve from this device into other approaches limits the scope of the artist. It cripples her with the notion that poetry is about being understood–rather than making your work understood. I think we must all accept that we will never be understood in the ways we would like to be. But what we write can strike a chord in the poetic minds of others, give them a great experience that transcends prosaic thought. Whether the subject matter is me or something else entirely, the satisfaction of communicating art is the greatest success an artist can hope for. Usually, it comes in a comment like, “Wow. That was a good poem.”

Personal intimacy can create conviction. But so can deep observation. Mary Oliver’s House of Light is a stunning work you could call intimate–but intimate with her keen observation of life around her, and her wise, strange, and beautiful extrapolation from the natural world to the world of artistic thought. BH Fairchild’s The Art Of The Lathe is likewise an intimate portrait of the blue collar Midwest in the 50’s and 60’s. Yet this sense of closeness to the work, to the poet’s genius, comes not from the prolific use of “I” but from excellent writing.

I am reflecting now on events in my own life that have affected me profoundly, and I know that I may or may not ever write about them in a poem. Yet I do write, I do express, whatever I want and as often as I need to. I work through a process similar to Julia Cameron’s morning pages concept–where I write uncensored for as long as I need to, to “clear the pipes” if you will. What I write, I tear up and burn. Literally. Then I get on with writing, thinking and living.

Perhaps there are such, “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” (Wordsworth is often misquoted as saying such thoughts are too deep for words.) And surely poetry is one of the best possible media for expressing such thoughts, or approaching them. Still, until I discover a compelling image, an interesting rhythm, something to put at the heart of a poem that tells me it could succeed–such thoughts are likely to remain below.

Poetry has never been a matter of simply choosing the right subject. Which is why I find courses specializing in, for example, writing protest poetry, like a course in composing only music in G major. Honing the craft–not the content–should always be the aim of a writing course.

My teacher Suzanne Lummis, for example, has a very different style and voice to my own. She is interested in the sultry, decadent and noir. I put paper covers on toilet seats before I sit down on them. Yet I learned a lot from her about what it means to write, because her love of poems transcends her love of genre. If only all teachers were so magnanimously made.

More than the personal, or transpersonal, I think the best aim in art is the transcendental. Whether that means elevating a personal experience beyond the personal, or is achieved through keen observation of the natural world–or something else entirely–matters less than the trajectory it describes. Poems are art. Self-expression is healthy. But to consider the work of writing well has shifted in balance to a kind of “art therapy” seems to miss the point of writing well. Poems are not meant to be understood. People are not meant to be understood. Both are designed to be experienced. Great poems lift us up into a great experience, and our aim as poets is to write such poems.