I am rererereading the most excellent book by Vivian Gornick on writing, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. Although the book is about writing personal essays and memoir, she says so many smart things that are absolutely applicable to writing poetry.
She herself distinguishes personal narrative writing from fiction and poetry this way: “A novel or a poem provides invented characters or speaking voices that act as surrogates for the writer. Into those surrogates will be poured all that the writer cannot address directly–inappropriate longings, defensive embarrassments, anti-social desires [geesh, what kind of poetry has she been reading?!?!]–but must address to achieve felt reality. The persona in a nonfiction narrative…must identify openly with those very same defenses and embarrassments that the novelist or the poet is once removed from.” I would argue, though, that her ultimate point is of deep relevance to the poet, whether that poet has created a narrative persona other than him- or herself or has used the frankly personal “I” or has no apparent persona at all.
(People always think poets are writing about themselves anyway, and that everything in a poem is “true.”)
Gornick writes: “The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming…self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader.” She calls this unsurrogated narrator, this narrative persona, the “instrument of illumination.
She says “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” And aren’t the most resonant poems the ones that strike us with that wisdom, that “thing”? Poems that lack it might be interesting; but I guarantee you won’t carry them folded up in your wallet for times of trouble, or quote them at relevant life points, or carry a book of them with you through eleven apartment moves.
She talks about being “engaged at the deepest level” in which “writing does not wander about on the page accumulating description for its own sake, or developing images independent of thought, or musing lyrically. The point of view originates in the nervous system and concentrates itself in the person of a narrator who…is to use the narrating self only to shape those associations that will provide drive and lead on to inner resolution. These writers might not ‘know’ themselves–that is, have no more self-knowledge than the rest of us–but…they know who they are at the moment of writing.” This presence of the narrating self to the situation creates the “story,” or, I argue, the effective poem. I’m not talking just about the confessional poem. I’m talking about any poem in which the poet engages with the world and is spurred to write out of that engagement.
Gornick talks about finding the other in the self and using that self-investigation to provide purpose and tension in an essay or memoir. But isn’t that also the case in poetry — is there not a crucial element of investigation, and aren’t we often asking questions of our selves? And must they not be so intimate that you, the reader, are also engaged in that self-same self-investigation, advertently or inadvertently? As Gornick puts it, “…a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows…[t]he act of clarifying on the page….”
About this idea of “truth” in a piece: “Truth…is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to makeof what happened.” It seems to me this is as true in poetry as in any kind of literature.
Of course, this is not what all poets are about. Some are functioning on the surface of sound, or the whiteness of page and what can be played out there, or are at some other kind of poetic enterprise. So I admit maybe my thinking here is too narrow. I am writing about the kind of poetry I am trying to write, not the kind of poetry that is widely lauded in the contemporary world (poetry which makes me feel like there is some huge club all of whose members are speaking some secret language I have not been initiated in. I consider this a failing in myself.).
She talks about “looking for the inner context that makes a piece of writing larger than its immediate circumstance…” That’s the kind of poem I’m talking about.