When I was in undergrad, I was all about confessional poetry. All about writing about my period, and guys I had dated, and beer I had drunk, and my relationship with my mother, places I had traveled, and eggs I had eaten and what the eggs I had eaten had looked like.
Surprisingly, my poetry was not good. My workshop group gave me lots of nice comments, because I think everyone was too nervous to really be honest. But really what they were probably thinking was, “Why is this girl so self-obsessed and weird? Does she really think we care about this?”
When I started my MFA program, I turned in some old poems for the first couple of workshops, and I usually drove home after class crying. People were honest, yes, but also honestly mean. They should have said, “Good girl!” over my line breaks and then given me a delicious biscotti for each “Good girl!” thing. They should not have told me that parts of my poem seemed disconnected from the rest, that I kept lapsing into pretty nonsense, that my voice seemed disjointed.
Then I wrote a new poem, one about my dead grandfather (John Bensko said that every poet should only have one grandparent poem per lifetime. I’ve used up mine already. I’m still so young!). Since I’d been beaten with “THIS DOESN’T MAKE SENSE!” in nearly every workshop, I decided to focus on realism. I was going to make it as real and honest as possible, which is really the qualification of confessional poetry.
Here I am, confessing about this relationship with a grandfather I never really knew, which means I told it exactly like it was. I only saw him on the odd holiday my family and I went to visit him and my grandmother because we lived several states away and could only fly. My grandfather had worked in a GM plant for 40+ years and had lost his hearing because of it. He wore a hearing aid, but whenever he wanted to tune out his whiny wife and 5 whiny daughters, he just turned it off and blissfully went along with his business. By the time I had things to really talk to him about, the hearing aids couldn’t make up for the extent of his hearing loss. We couldn’t talk, but he did play around with me. He grew out his pinky nail and would always waggle it at me and say in a high-pitched voice, “laddddyyyyy finnnggggeeerrrr!” At 5, I found this hysterical, but he continued to do it until I was 19 because that’s all we had together. By the time I was in college and my grandmother had had to put him in a nursing home because he could no longer walk, I knew only to brag to him about myself, to tell him about my accomplishments in college, which I’d write on a white board and then hand to him. He’d nod and smile, and just as quickly zone out and call me by my dead aunt’s name.
So, I wrote the poem, and my workshop group demanded I write more about the relationship. When I finally was allowed to speak, I said, “But that’s all there is! If I added anything else, it’d be a lie.” And Bensko deftly said, “This isn’t nonfiction! This is poetry! You don’t have to stick to the truth!” He was right. Poetry is about emotional truth, not the truth of details. We poets search to create an emotional center and if we choose to include lots of details just because that’s how it “was,” it usually ends up taking away from that emotional center. I believe strongly in allowing my own life to influence my work or “trigger” it (thanks to Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town), but I have to choose to give up the limitation of sticking to “the truth.” I have to choose to focus on whatever emotion arises out of the poem.
Are you a confessional poet? Why or why not? How do you stick to the truth or do you instead keep your distance?