Tuesday, March 27, 2007

This Actually Happened!

Slate has an interesting dialogue this week between poets Dan Chiasson and Meghan O’Rourke on autobiography and poetry, as part of a “Memoir Week.” What most interests me is not really the issue of autobiography and memoir, but what Dan Chiasson calls “the reality guarantee”:

But what about when writers play to the readerly preference for facts? Here we are on riskier grounds. “This actually happened!” writes Allen Ginsberg at the end of “Howl,” of a story so fantastical—a man jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge and walks away unharmed—that we might otherwise categorize it as “surreal.” But if we DID categorize it that way, it would be just another one of the marvelous, incandescent, surreal details in “Howl”—nice but forgettable. Because Ginsberg underwrites it with this remarkable assertion—”this actually happened”—(and because, importantly, he says that only ONCE in the whole poem) the bridge-jumping episode becomes, for me, the most powerful thing in the poem. It’s as though the curtain parted and the “real” Ginsberg, suddenly playing by the ordinary rules of “factual” depiction, addressed the “real” reader.

This move—let’s call it the “reality guarantee”—needn’t be so explicit as saying, “This actually happened.” There are other ways to cue a documentary response in readers, other terms of the documentary contract. The visually ingenious detail, so real it feels like a snapshot (the doilies, for example, in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station”) or the affective detail so open and attractive as to feel “artless” (as when Frank O’Hara says “fun” in the first line of “Having a Coke with You”). And there are acts of strong intimacy, like Hopkins when he tells God, “I am gall, I am heartburn,” or like Herbert’s when (in “The Flower”) he exclaims, “Who would have thought my shriveled heart / Could have recovered greenness.” Or take it further back: you mention Sappho. When Sappho describes turning “greener than grass” at the sight of her beloved in the presence of a man, or when the anonymous poets of the Greek Anthology proclaim across the millennia, “I press my lips to yours.” These moments read as “real,” no matter what cultural or historical distance intervenes, and I must say, these moments are more or less what I look for in poems.


Diane K. Martin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Diane K. Martin said...

Diane: Interesting post. Do you agree with him? You don't say, but posting the quote sort of implies you do.  
Robert: I agree with him in a general sense. What interested me was, for example, the doily in Elizabeth Bishop's poem, the detail (whether a doily or an exclamation "This actually happened!") that gives a whole poem credibility, whether or not the poem is autobiographical. I know that's not really what the article was about. It's just the part that interested me.

P.S. Remember that old poem of mine, December Matinee, where it says, "Please--I just want to write it down ...." I remember your saying you liked that line, how it represented "the poetic moment" or something like that. I think Chiasson was trying to get at the same thing when he talked about "the reality guarantee."

Diane: Oh, I do like that line (and that poem) very much. But what perplexes me is that "the reality guarantee," if that's what it is, seems totally different in The Filling Station crochet thing and in Howl. Hmm, that line seems like Bishop's "Write it!" at the end of Bishop's "One Art," where the poet comes out of the poem onto a different plane. Maybe that is true in the Howl line too, but less importantly I think, because more lost. Whereas the image in The Filling Station is an integral part of the poem, an image of the human/divine in the commonplace, no? In that sense your line and Bishop's "Write it!" break the fictive act, but the crochet image doesn't.

One other aspect of the discussion is interesting to me and that is that I think there are different tolerances for "autobiography" from a woman and from a man. I'd have to work hard to prove this, but I think it's true.

Oh, another thing: I have poems with made up "real life" details in them that have been around for so long they might as well be real -- not even I can tell the difference by now!

Robert: Yeah, "write it!" is a good example. Do you still think it was a mistake for Bishop to include that in the poem? It's true Chiasson seems to be talking about something else when he talks about the doily, but it's interesting that he connects them, as if they're just different ways of accomplishing the same thing, a sort of credibility, whether the "factual" credibility that comes from specific details, or the sort of emotional credibility that comes from something like "write it."

Diane: I can see the arguments for it, and I know I'm in a minority, but it still bothers me in a way. I'm not wholly sure why -- maybe because the form of the poem is so perfect, so in-step, it seems a mis-step. Or maybe it's just the two "likes" that bothers me.


32poems said...

Hey there, This is off the topic, and I apologize. Would you update the 32 poems URL to http://blog.32poems.com?