David Wojahn, whose book Mystery Train I loved while I was at Sarah Lawrence, wrote an essay called “Generations 'I': The Future of Autobiographical Poetry" which is an awful title. I could understand "Generation I" singular and unquoted but not this plural quoted thing. Anyway, the essay appeared in a 1996 issue of the journal The Missouri Review.
This essay is about the dependence of current writers on Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, “possibly the most influential book of American poetry published in the last half-century” and how his legacy is “complex and troubling.”
“Without Life Studies, the careers of as diverse a list of poets as Plath, Sexton, Merill, Levine, Heaney, Bidart, Pinksy, Gluck, Hass, C.K. Williams, Sharon Olds, Frederick Seidel and Charles Wright would be hard to imagine.”
The autobiographical lyric, which has become so ubiquitous even “a former U.S. President, Jimmy Carter” had published a volume of autobiographical poetry, which to Wojahn might just signal “the utter exhaustion of a particular style of autobiographical verse…merely another form of…self-therapy movements…the very sort of specific personal solace offered also by AA, Al-Anon, Rolfing, Zoloft or Sufi dancing...”
Ouch. Wojahn then addresses the alternative avant-garde tradition of neo-New Criticism, close readings and “a rather schoolmarmish and moralizing tone.” He quotes Marjorie Perloff’s essay, “The Changing Face of Common Intercourse: Talk Poetry, Talk Show, and the Scene of Writing” (another farty title) to talk about how “the self” is packaged for TV talk shows “with their emphasis on intimate disclosure (usually centering upon what were once called shameful secrets),” in other words, “the media’s crass commercialization of human suffering.”
So he’s looking for a happy medium and admits that it’s “very hard to draw a clear line between work whose main value is therapeutic or inspirational and work that really addresses and expands the possibilities of the art itself.”
Wojahn feels talk show culture has negatively influenced the current confessional poetry and proposes Mary Kinzie’s alternative idea of “applied poetry."
In Wojahn's paraphrase, Kinzie blames Anne Sexton (practially for being a famous poet), for “a persona intrinsic to the making of poetry [being] mistaken all the way around for an excellent poem” as if those things were mutually exclusive. Sexton is to blame for “the dumbing-down of autobiographical poetry, a loss of aesthetic gravity which it [possessed] from writers such as Berryman and Lowell…a litany of victimhood.”
I feel this is a very mistaken impression of Sexton but let's continue.
Hhe turns to fiction writers who take use elements like “a sense of point of view, of strategic timing and delayed exposition” for granted…”ruminated asides” and artful “jump-cuts.”
Examples of this are C.K. Williams’ Tar and Frank Bidart’s Golden State (a book which, by the way, is now selling for 300-400 dollars used on Amazon right now).
“The new poetry of self, in other words, is seen as expansive and inclusive in ways which confessional poetry decidedly was not….One of the mysterious legacies of confessionalism is the reader’s implicit belief that poets tell the truth about themselves, and that this activitity is not only good, but sufficient in itself to create a good poem.”
He uses Bruce Weigl’s poem “The Impossible” as an example of a failed autobiographical poem, mostly because it doesn’t earn its end after some harrowing self-disclosure. (I took the ending as a bit sarcastic, but I could be wrong.)
I don’t have much patience for people trying to shoe-horn poems into their cookie cutter ideas about what poems should be, people who themselves who have little patience for the full panoply of what poems can be, or poems in the process of becoming something, which I feel applies to Weigl’s poem.
Wojahn insists personal poems must have “psychological perspective,” to overtly explain why a particular moment is explored, why it was chosen, to explain the “consequences” for the writer. He talks about “an inherent contradiction typical of many recent autobiographical lyrics…more frequently designed to convey the illusion of reportorial fact than to emphasize the complexity of psychological truth—or beauty” as if this is the final definition of poetry in all cases.
He prefers Susan Mitchell’s “Leaves that Grow Inward” and it’s “circuitous meditation.” Mitchell's poem is full of challenges to the idea of telling the truth or one's own truth, the role disguising the truth plays in an autobiography. This does make the poem very interesting, but not better or worse than poems that don’t do that.
Wojahn says the Mitchell's poem “refuses…to reduce the struggle between the self and the world to a well-intentioned truism.”
I would say Wojahn is not bringing the same skepticism to the first poem with his assumption that the author buys into the final truism or if maybe that truism is part of a longer journey. Plus, truisms are not, in and of themselves, bad to include or end upon.
Wojahn says he likes that the Mitchell poem’s pain has not “somehow been solved.” But there’s nothing in the first poem that feels “solved” either.
I have marginalia at the end of the essay that says,
“Doty [Mark Doty] – Stay with it longer. Don’t clip that edge. Write beyond end. A real end doesn’t end neatly.”
I don’t know if that means Mark Doty was a guest lecturer that day. He did make an appearance in one of our workshop classes and then a tornado of competetion ensued when the students found out he would be teaching one class the next semester and there were only limited seats. Tears were shed. (Not by me; I didn't know who he was yet. If I had, I would have been a tornado too.)
The note could also be someone in the essay class quoting Doty though.
In any case, terms like “a real ending” are just as full of hooey.