Write Into Life

Perils of being regarded as a confessional poet

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:

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 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