more on the ethics of first person/autobiographical poetry

from Stephen Dunn’s essay “Degrees of Fidelity” from After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography

Poems […] that involve or implicate family members should raise certain questions for those of us who write them. Why are we writing about this particular subject in the first place? Certainly we have the entire world of experience to draw from. Why this poem about brother, or mother? Why now? And what must such a poem do to involve strangers in what’s personal to us? As the cry of its own occasion, a worthy poem ideally should suggest some answers to those questions.

My experience as both a writer and reader has convinced me that most poems about family should be put in a locked cabinet, like diaries, kept, if at all, as private data for our children to find after we’re dead. Some family poems, of course, driven by necessity and in search of the elusive properties of their subjects, deserve the light of day. For the poems to merit this, their authors need to develop new allegiances—to texture, tone rhythm(to name just a few)—as the poem evolves. In other words, pretty soon aesthetic matters as well as subject matter must be driving the poem. If not, there’ll be Trouble with a capital T in Poetry City. Beware the poet who values content more than the handling of content, a danger especially present in our most personal poems.

[…] Is a poem ever worth the discomfort or embarrassment of, say, the family member it alludes to or discusses? Certainly many poets have thought so, especially since the advent of the so-called confessional poetry in the late fifties. My loosely held rule is that if my poem has found ways to discover and explore its subjet, if it has on balance become more of a fictive than a confessional act, then—regardless of its connections— I will not be discomforted or embarrassed by it.

But to raise the notion of the fictive is to also raise corollary questions. What, if anything, would we falsify, say about our mothers, for the sake of being interesting? Do family stories, written in the first person, make a covenant with the reader that implies a fidelity to the actual? If they were written in third person, would that covenant change? Put crudely, how many among us would sell out our grandmothers for an exquisite stanza?

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