Peculiar to poetry is a preconceived expectation of “truth”. David Orr’s essay in the Times Sunday Book Review captures some of this response in spite of cynicism in the culture about literary authenticity, particularly following a spate of memoir writers whose manufactured memories and inaccurate portrayals were exposed and condemned.

Orr starts with an anecdote of a poetry reading where one of the poems is about the death of a child. Afterward a member of the audience comes up to the poet to say how sorry he was for his loss.

“I appreciate that,” says the poet, “but the thing is, I’ve never had any kids. That was just a poem.”

Orr continues:

The point, of course, is that the news we get from poetry isn’t like the news we get from newspapers…What’s curious is that poetry’s “emotional truth” is so often equated with actual truth — which is to say, poetry is perceived as conveying genuine information about the author’s innermost self. It is, we like to think, “personal.” But the concept of “the personal” is hard to pin down because it can involve both personal feelings (which are subjective) and personal facts (which aren’t). Sylvia Plath is often considered an intensely “personal” poet because of her work’s singularly ferocious sensibility, but her poems contain relatively few names of the people, places and events that figured in her private life. Robert Lowell’s writing, on the other hand, is considerably less concentrated than Plath’s, yet contains far more information about who Lowell was, whom he slept with and what disease killed his uncle Devereux Winslow (Hodgkin’s, in case you were wondering). That both Plath and Lowell are thought of as “personal” says a great deal about the confusion associated with this word, and the potential for more confusion that arises whenever we decide that poetry is the best medium for conveying private information.

The waters are further muddied by the two strategies most often associated with “personal” writing, which we might call the authentic and the confessional. The notion of authenticity is essential to poems that focus explicitly on identity, ethnic or otherwise. The poet gives us seemingly reliable testimony about a way of life and thereby infuses his work with the personal flavor that readers desire. Similarly, confessional poems — and yes, they pop up long after confessionalism’s heyday in the 1960s — use the intimacy of an exposed secret to make us think that lines aren’t merely lines but a statement of personhood. The unifying factor here is that both strategies depend upon facts outside the poem to anchor that “personal” sense. If Seamus Heaney’s oeuvre were revealed to have been written by a Portuguese guy living in Toronto, or if Anne Sexton were actually a mild-mannered soccer mom, it would disrupt our entire sense of their poetry. At the same time, though, it would be wrong to say that Heaney’s or Sexton’s appeal depends completely upon autobiographical data. Exactly why we take personal poems so, well, personally remains a mystery and a muddle.

It IS a muddle and a mystery. I don’t think it can be unpacked, and I was heartened that Orr seems to agree.

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