What makes poetry personal?

What makes poetry feel personal? What makes each poet’s voice different from another’s? I’m thinking about that a lot right now, as I’m studying first person poems and thinking hard about my own poetic voice.

Often, I think, we link a poet’s voice to their content or subject matter. I would have said that about myself as a feminist or lesbian or Jewish or working class or abuse survivor poet. But if I’m all of these, and more, then what is personal about my poetry? And if I write persona poems, in the voice of another, or use writing to explore lives and experiences not my own, then is my writing still “personal”?

Here’s one answer, not the one I expected, from William Matthews essay “Personal and Impersonal” in the anthology After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography

“… an apprentice not only learns the tools and materials of a craft, but commits to memory and to muscle memory the characteristic motions of an activity. […] an apprentice begins by confronting those parts of a craft that are easiest to describe with words like anonymous, collective, and traditional. But a skillful apprentice moves toward a condition of mastery by which quite opposite words are invoked: hallmark, signature, style.

So the personal and impersonal are intricately braided, and thus both difficult and perhaps not even useful to separate, in the way a craft—let’s say the craft of poetry—is practiced. But you’d hardly know this from reading and listening to discussions of poetry.

Probably what seems most personal to a poet is style, the study of which is, indeed, akin to ballistics.

But what many readers and critics often mean by personal is the relationship between poet and subject matter. Can the speaker of the poem be identified with the poet? Does the poem describe a biographically actual, as opposed to an imagined, experience? How much of the emotional temperature of the precipitating impulse of the poem has been retained or lost in the poem? And, to borrow an easy locution from workshop jargon, does the poem “take risks?”

Note that all of these questions are
1) ad hominem or ad feminam, as the case may be;
2)impossible for the reader to answer without information only the poet knows, and thus closer to gossip than to thought; and
3)the equivalent of asking not if an object is useful or beautiful but how much it cost.

The language we write in is anonymous, collective, and traditional, and likely it’s with the language itself that we should strike a personal relationship, a style without which content is simply imposed upon us by the massive power of conventional rhetoric and cliché. Too little attention is paid to style as a prophylaxis against cant.”


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