Perils of being regarded as a confessional poet

Cartoon of poet vomiting her crimes, sins and secrets into a poem

Confessional poet at work: the popular view

If you intend to be a poet and to publish your work, it’ll be a lot of fun but be prepared for three things:

  • many people will assume that all your poems relate true facts about your actual life
  • some people will completely misunderstand your poems, even taking the opposite meaning from your intention
  • once in a while, this can lead to trouble.

That’s the deal!

I’m pretty sure that most people believe that any poem that seems to be about a real person is about a real person. And particularly if you write in a confessional style, people will naturally assume that you are confessing the truth about yourself.

I try to make you believe all my poems are true

This phenomenon is a mixed blessing. I’ve often been labelled a poet of the confessional school, and yes yes yes, I do want people to plunge into my poems and suspend disbelief.  Sometimes my poems are true — in fact I hope they all seem that way, and that you can’t tell the difference.

However, fact is I’ve written hundreds of poems that start from my observations of other people. For example, I’ve written “love” poems that are actually about or addressed to gay men friends, platonic men friends, strangers on a bus, strangers seen from a bus, trees, flowers, road signs, birds, weather, mythical, historical and literary characters, my mother-in-law and other family members, and the imaginary wife of an imaginary member of parliament. I wrote poems for every woman in a 1970s sensitivity group, all the occupants of a house I lived in in Kyoto, and fifteen love poems to a funny little house in Berhampore. I did not have sex with those entities. But I loved them!

I wrote a wedding song not for my husband but for two friends, and it fits almost any couple getting married. I wrote a love song forty years ago for a man who I still adore:

if I die
before I lie
with you
rocks will rain from heaven
on my grave

Sounds like I was deadly serious, right? And yet we have never gone to bed and we never will—it was never going to happen, and it’s a kind of excessively affectionate in-joke. Actually, I love this poem almost as much as I love the real live person who inspired it. (Now that’s a true confession.)

When I’m in full lyrical mode, I fall in love about five times a day. At the Harbourfront Market this morning I fell in love with a shiny black aubergine, a perfect mango, a couple of Italian baristas, and a pain au chocolat. I’m in love with my two gorgeous young AirBnB guests and with a yellow flag flapping above the ngaio trees outside my window.

You think that’s weird? If you’re a poet, attending so deeply to the other that you almost drown, being not only the imaginary lover of your subject but also the cool observer—that is all part of the crazy poet-package. But I am starting to see that it is little bit weird. That’s probably why I’ve never written about this: I don’t want to seem as if I am denying the truth of my poems, but it’s a different kind of truth, so hard to explain that I assume nobody understands except another poet. (Maybe I read too much Martin Buber in my youth.)

Where passion, poem, and assumptions spell trouble

Last month my lawyer had to intervene in a strange case. A woman discovered that I had known and worked with her father 40 years ago, and she jumped to the conclusion that we had had an affair (not true). Then she read some of my poems and decided that they must be about her father, and that I was an evil person who told lies. (I have behaved badly in the past, but not with her lovely father.)

She sent her literary theory with some documents to various academics, hoping that they would archive them, revise their view of my work, and preferably prosecute me.

I felt sorry for her, so angry and so wrong. But for me, it’s all in the job description.

I have a message for people who study poetry. Have fun, have theories, but remember, a poem is not a documentary. Let that knowledge liberate you as a reader.

Two poems in House Poems with a drawing of a house growing roots and vines

Two love poems to a little house

Cartoon by Rachel McAlpine; photo of House Poems by Rachel McAlpine, Nutshell Books, Wellington 1980. Both CC-BY 2.0

17 thoughts on “Perils of being regarded as a confessional poet

  1. toutparmoi says:

    Well. it happened to Shakespeare, but not during his life time. Indeed, not even close to his lifetime.

    But over the past 200 or so years an extraordinary number of Shakespearean scholars have considered his sonnets to be “autobiographical”, so why should you be let off this particular hook? Count yourself in very good company.

    But seriously, this post should be required reading in any Lit. course.

    1. Thanks Denise—well said. It seems so obvious but…

      1. toutparmoi says:

        To me too, but… I’ve just shared it to my Facebook page – timely reading for National Poetry Month.

      2. Thank you! Appreciated.

  2. roshendalal says:

    It happens with fiction too. People think it is real.

    1. Yes, I’ve had that happen too. There’s no escape.

  3. cedar51 says:

    I would imagine that anyone who lives/breathes artistry – would come upon anyone assuming something untoward about their “works” – create something that apparently has meaning, and it might have – but it may not be as one assumes (as you found out recently about your past wordsmithing – that’s probably not a real word, it’s been underlined in red by an infernal bot)…

    1. You got it.

  4. Paula Light says:

    I guess we should take it as a compliment. Sometimes I write real, other times not. People always think it’s real, even when I write about being transformed into a jungle cat and prowling around forests in the dark of night. Sheesh!

    1. You are so right, it is a compliment. And did a jungle cat take you to court?

  5. Robyn Haynes says:

    People believe what they want to believe. And I agree Rachel, poetry is a different kind of truth. That said, revisiting my own poetry after long absences, I find new perspectives and new truths, such is the thrall in which poetry ensnares us.

    1. That is very true, Robyn: we leave space ariund a poem for readers to fill with their own thoughts. It shouldn’t surprise us that we discover new meanings in our own poems or that others create a very different “meaning”

  6. Anonymous says:

    I love this post!

  7. 4963andypop says:

    Very well said. It does seem quite unfair that the public should rob the poor poet of every perspective but his own. After all, other professionals are allowed to claim detachment in their work, even while writing, for instance journalists and judges. And a fiction writer can tell a story through the lens of a villain or a god.
    I think it has to do with the modern day focus on the personal impact of events, as if the only ones with a legitimate claim to telling a tale or describing some-aspect of reality were the ones actually physically present. If that policy were enforced, it would silence a lot of writers, i suspect.

    1. How true! Most people do find the process of writing poems or even the point of writing poems a total mystery, so misunderstandings are inevitable. That’s only dangerous when they think their own beliefs are a moral law. But you have to be a bit disturbed (or a dictator) to do that. For the rest, I take it for granted now as a sign that poetry may be even more mysterious than poets realise. I appreciate your comments— thank you!

    2. You remind me also of the threat that poems can represent.

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