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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A Hand

A Hand
Jane Hirshfield

A hand is not four fingers and a thumb. Nor is it palm and knuckles, not ligaments or the fat’s yellow pillow, not tendons, star of the wristbone, meander of veins. A hand is not the thick thatch of its lines with their infinite dramas, nor what it has written, not on the page, not on the ecstatic body. Nor is the hand its meadows of holding, of shaping— not sponge of rising yeast-bread, not rotor pin’s smoothness, not ink. The maple’s green hands do not cup the proliferant rain. What empties itself falls into the place that is open. A hand turned upward holds only a single, transparent question. Unanswerable, humming like bees, it rises, swarms, departs.

new work – On finding a kindred spirit in Sappho, then

On finding a kindred spirit in Sappho, then knowing too much anthropology to trust my own instincts Elliott batTzedek I have had not one word from her Frankly I wish I was dead Sappho (Barnard translation) Times change cultures change languages change but the human heart remains the same. As if! As if we don’t foolishly scrawl our ignorance across everything we encounter: Kilroy was here to claim that he knows that you are just like him. As if the world weren’t bigger than big "Shakespeare in the bush" and all that etc etc etc Maybe it is only this foolishness that stays the same: a need for analogy soldered to an evolutionary tangle reading into what we can’t remotely understand a meaning to feed our own need— the need of our time our culture our language, our heart.

new work – A Prayer of Petition

A Prayer of Petition Elliott batTzedek is too easy—ridiculous, pathetic, to consider that a request, small or desperate, could be answered might be would be Save me. Help me. Stop them. Save me. a child’s refrain mine They told me I had a Savior so I called him every day ringing ringing ringing ringing ringing sometimes twice in a day ringing ringing ringing ringing ringing until one day the line was dead uuuuuuuuuuuunnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn I had to save myself about which I remain somewhat bitter If you can ask with a heart you still can open I am jealous I am broken I am not like you

new work – Lullaby

Lullaby Elliott batTzedek What is the oldest true thing you know and how does it bind you? Softly, I pray for you, gently— Mississippi River silt, puppy ears, bunny fur, Downy, Charmin, Palmolive or if rigidly then may it, I pray, be the spine that keeps you upright as the cedars of Lebanon Mine wraps me tight so calm so reassuring, lullabying its sweet refrain: there is no place for you in this world there is no place for you in this world there is no there is no there is no there is no place there is no there is no there is no there is no you