Thursday, July 06, 2006

Poetry Thursday: "Confessional Poetry"

I was musing over some thoughts on "confessional" poetry, and then looked again at this week's prompt and realised that it actually asked about intense personal experiences, which might be private - mentioning the word "confessional" only in passing.

Still, I wanted to put out the thoughts I had about what is often described as confessional poetry. I was pondering the topics usually covered. It seems not everything is used, yet, as the topic for poetry. Most of this type seem to fall into a few categories - rage at a parent (often now dead); childhood physical or sexual abuse (which can overlap with the former); "divorce" poems i.e. feelings about a relationship or marriage, usually now dead.

It occurred to me that only those who no longer care about the other party involved can easily put such poems out in public. One of the reasons that I am never likely to write such poems. Most real relationships, fortunately, are not so one-sided. There is fault on both sides. Whatever the validity of our feelings, others are involved, and if you don't want to burn your bridges, their privacy needs to be respected.

Then it occurred to me that most so-called "confessional" poems confess nothing. Sure, they reveal secrets - but they are not confessions of the author's wrong-doing. They are not "confessions" in the Roman Catholic sense. In fact a famous poem which is a confessional poem in this sense, is William Carlos William's poem This is Just to Say which does actually use the words "forgive me"

Poets, it has been said, are no more moral than any other people, just because they create fine art. In fact, some of them may be quite nasty people. But they do not usually confess to being the perpetrator of violence or abuse.

Back to writing about intense private and personal experience - as I said, in many cases these are experiences involving relationships and other people. I do write from personal experience, but I tend to come at it sideways, not revealing specifics. I suspect there are more reasons involved than just privacy. It leaves more room for the reader to link to their own experience. It seems somehow more "poetic" - which is perhaps the same reason - perhaps poetry is something which makes a universal of a particular.

The other part of the prompt was to create an audioblog of myself reading a poem. Unfortunately audioblogger, it turns out, works by telephoning a United States number. I probably could do it from here, but it would be expensive - so I had to pass on that one.

Here is one of my own poems which is about as revealing as I am likely to get:

What My Science Teacher Told Me

Two atoms can never really touch, she said.
They can approach just so close
before the forces between their outer electrons
become so great
they push each other away.
In other words, when we embrace
in the illusion that we touch
what we feel is the force that keeps us apart.

That is why, when I lie here in your arms
nothing comes between us.

More Poetry Thursday here


Dana said...

I disagree with you on a couple of points. I love my deceased mother dearly, but a lot of my writing deals with my relationship with her. Does that mean I don’t care about her or my relationship with her? Absolutely not. Does it mean I think the story is worth sharing? Absolutely.

Also, just because someone writes about such a relationship doesn’t make the depiction one-sided. Sure, it’s from the writer’s perspective, but in that regard, all writing is one-sided. I’ve written about terrible experiences I’ve had from the perspective of, and I think with compassion for, the other person involved in those experiences.

I do agree that poetry need not be steeped in the autobiographical, but it sure does draw on it in many cases.

Catherine said...

Lynn, it's not that you might care less, but if she wasn't dead, and you thought she would read your poems and might be hurt by them, wouldn't that make you hesitate? And I wasn't trying to say that there wasn't compassion for the other person in these poems. The problem is that I can't illustrate my explanation by telling you the things I'm not telling you in my poems - for the same reason I can't put them in my poems. The stories are worth telling, and they will be told one day, but in the meantime it needs to be somewhat obliquely.

Catherine said...

I wrote "care less" but I think that might have a different meaning in the US. Just read it as "care"

Verity said...

Hi Catherine, I know what you mean about not feeling able to write openly about people you are close to, who may not understand where you're coming from, or your need to write about your experiences and feelings about them. You could always change the names, and of course you don't ever have to share openly what you've written. There is always that question when writing is shared - about how aware the writer is of their audience and how confessional, how truthful they are really being.

I loved your poem at the end of the post, a wonderful idea.

Catherine said...

Come to think of it, compassion may be the reason why poets don't so often confess their own large failings (as compared to small faults). It is so much easier to write about topics like abuse with something like compassion and forgiveness for the abuser, or at least a little clarity, if it is someone else. So much harder to forgive oneself. We can be very hard on ourselves at times.

susanlavonne said...

I love the way that your poem begins so casually and then packs such a poignant punch in the last two lines...cleverly and beautifully written!

jim said...

Very interesting that the act of confessing is about admission of wrong-doing. What complicates all of that for me is to whom the confessing is being addressed: we "confess" rather differently to a parent than to a priest than to a friend about the same act. We also come to confessions (religious ones and legal ones, especially) to serve our own ends, too, even when we are admitting our own faults: to a judge so that we get a more lenient sentence, and to a priest to get absolution. No, it's not a simple matter at all.

Anyway, I dig your poem, and I'm a sucker when it comes to bringing in any kind of science lesson in a poem.

vicci said...

very short..but powerful poem...

RavenGrrl said...

Catherine, thanks for your thoughts about so-called confessional poetry. You stimulated me to think about it more before I post something this week. I am still working through my own thoughts and feelings about this type of poetry. After reading my past poems which I had written strictly for personal reasons, I realized there wasn't one I would share publically (well, maybe with my therapist... ) -- for many of the reasons you cite in your post. So, I sat down to write a personal poem that has nothing to do with another person. Maybe I can expand my definition of personal poetry. Mary Oliver, along with many of my favorite poets, writes deeply personal poetry. Most often w/o reference to anyone else.

In a roundabout way I'm saying that your short list of topics usually covered by confessional poetry is probably true -- at least with amateur poets -- yet I have encountered a wider range of what I'd rather call "personal poetry" topics and I'd like to head in that direction myself.

I also agree with Lynn: a poem about a painful or intimate experience with someone else doesn't always come from a lack of care or compassion for that person. I think Lynn's poem for this week illustrates that very well. And, personal poetry that deals with relationships can also be incredibly powerful, profound and meaningful. Transforming, even.

Before I head off to think about it some more I also wanted to tell you I enjoyed your poem. It works. thanks for sharing that and your thoughts in general.

ecm said...

I thought the image of your poem worked so well. I didn't even realize that was true. I love when poems reveal new things about the world that I didn't know.

Dana said...

I love your poem, too.

when we embrace
in the illusion that we touch
what we feel is the force that keeps us apart.


And look at all these fantastic comments.

Jeanne said...

I love it when science is used to reveal the ordinary and it is made extraordinary, especially in poetry. Thanks.

Deb R said...

I think there's a lot to what you say, Catherine. I definitely censor myself on things I'm writing to share with others if the topic deals with someone who would recognize themselves in the writing and be hurt by what I'm saying if I told too much or told the story in an insensitive way. It can be tricky to be honest without being hurtful.

I really like your poem!

paris parfait said...

It's hard not to anticipate someone's reaction when they read something personal one writes. It's held me back from writing many things and I probably shouldn't have allowed that to happen. I'm getting better about it, but it's still difficult. I think your poem is wonderful! Thank you for sharing it, along with your insightful musings.

Ceebie said...

Catherine, loved the poem. I know what you mean, in part - I have refrained from writing about certain episodes in my life, to refrain from hurting the very people they are about. I recently submitted an installation to an art exhibit that contained a prose poem about my experience of building a canoe with my dad, and the love between us (although it's a confessional piece, it actually is about a positive experience between us)...It was a really uncomfortable experience for my dad, who almost asked me to withdraw the piece from the festival. The written piece is now under consideration by Canadian Geographic, and I think my dad's finally come around to accepting that if his daughter is to pursue her writing passion, he may end up in her writing... It's been an uncomfortable tension for me throughout my life, but I find the confessional writings are the ones that are the most honest, and well received.

chiefbiscuit said...

I too love the poem - it's neat in more than one sense, and yes I like science in poetry too.