How personal should poems get?

It’s a sort of spectrum. At one end – the safe end – there’s persona (Robert Browning – ‘My Last Duchess’).

To get to the other end (hot and dangerous territory) you move through ‘Lyric I’ to potentially real experience, personal anecdote, unambiguously personal experience, personal outburst or rant, and – at the far edge of the spectrum – first-person confession and writing from the jugular. 

In poetry, the word ‘confessional’ has generally had bad press. It’s like ‘Georgian’. Its dynamic strengths have been subsumed by the whole idea of spillage and blurt. So generally it’s used by critics with a tone of disdain. 

Latterly the word ‘personal’ seems to be acquiring the same disparaging resonance. In more than one place I’ve read comments suggesting mainstream poetry in English is sadly dominated by memoir and personal anecdote. Too much boringly true experience. Not enough innovation and excitement. 

Personally (I use the word advisedly), I’m suspicious of innovation and excitement. I’m with Robert Frost in saying ‘I never dared to be radical when young for fear it would make me conservative when old.’ Or to put it another way, there’s nothing especially good (or new) about innovation per se. Yes, I know I am sixty-two years old and I don’t remember what I thought when I was twenty.

For one thing, at twenty I wouldn’t have ventured any opinion in public (and just as well), but now I have no compunction. I don’t agree that ‘mainstream poetry’, by which I mean the stuff that is in most of the print-based poetry magazines and read by most (but not all, not all) of the aspiring poets, is marred by being written out of unambiguous personal experience. If it is marred at all, it is by a failure to find sharpness and insight inside that material. This kind of failure characterises every era. The majority of printed poetry (I am not dealing with spoken word here) is worthy but forgettable. A little bit of it, for reasons hard to define, bites.

Where am I going with this? I like personal poems. I believe writing out of true experience is intensely valuable at some point to everyone, though of course not everyone chooses poetic form in which to do this.

As soon as you put true experience into any kind of words, you’ve made something of it. Describing is a kind of understanding, or at least moves towards it. One of the purposes (there are many) of poetry is to share an attempt to understand what’s going on. And to share what being human is like.

Tom Duddy writes about ‘a kind of vividness that poems at their best can and should have’ and at the same time his ‘craving for such vividness—a vividness without which I cannot be satisfied, no matter how admirable a poem or piece of writing may be in other respects’. He came to each poem, he said, not as a poet but as a reader with a need. A need for vividness.

Which means precisely what? The word ‘vivid’ has its origins in the Latin verb ‘vivere’ meaning ‘to live’ (it’s also in ‘revive’). Some poems are more alive than others. They revive us. It’s a little like a film moving suddenly out of black and white into colour. Or the sun coming out on a grey day. Or a human being whistling who suddenly turns into a master fiddler and the whole world dances.

So when I say I like personal poems, I like this kind of personal. The kind that wakes me up. That satisfies the craving for vividness, that reminds me what I read poetry for.

I’m working towards two new HappenStance pamphlets released this week. Kate Hendry’s The Lost Original is centred on personal experience. It begins when the poet is a child and her parents separate, and it ends in Costa, with the poet as a mother herself. But it’s not what poems are about that counts. It’s their vividness, which can sometimes be accomplished with such plainness that it’s humbling. Here is Kate’s opening poem. Each time I read it, my heart flips:

Baked Beans

He’d already gone, when Mum told me—
to a room in the Alveston House Hotel.
Still a chance he’d come back home.

It was baked beans on toast, in the garden;
the green baize card table (brought out
for good weather) unfolded just for me.

After I’d been told, I ate up my food
and I took my empty plate, knife and fork
back inside and washed them up myself.

Not one metaphor. Not one simile. Not one rhyme. The vividness all in the detail. The Alveston House Hotel. The green baize card table (how well I remember them). The empty plate. The knife and fork. The ‘just for me’. The ‘washed them up myself’. The vulnerability of the child eating in the garden (in ‘good weather’) on her own. Not one emotion: just that coldly ‘empty plate’.

This is what Kate Hendry can do with personal experience: share its vividness in a way that makes me be that child. To share this well is a sort of emotional intelligence. I re-learn through feeling it, what I already intuitively know, that the deepest emotions may not show. That the child who copes well is feeling things she can’t or won’t articulate, and may never communicate. Until she writes this poem.

The other new HappenStance pamphlet, Alan Buckley’s The Long Haul, is less obviously personal. On the spectrum, he’s nearer the may-be-personal-experience end. But hell – his vividness is personal. Take a look at ‘Flame’ – the sample poem in the webshop. It sends a shiver up and down my spine every time I read it. That’s vividness for you. It’s addressed to a ‘lover’. I have no doubt this human lover existed (or exists). But when you read it, this poem is addressed to you. And it is alive, and burning.

Both The Long Haul and The Lost Original deal with fathers, and these fathers are tricky people, difficult men. In Kate’s pamphlet her father features several times and, in a sense, he’s even on the book jacket, because he s the one who insists she master ‘Compositae, Rosacea, Gramineae’ from Keble Martin’s Concise British Flora. Alan’s dad makes one intensely memorable appearance ‘grappling under a bonnet, / as deft at the wrench as the fine adjustment’ while his son fumbles even ‘to lever off a bicycle tyre.  

How shall we ever understand our fathers? They are like us, and not like us. They never understood us. And we are still trying – those of us who can remember them vividly – to make sense of all that, whatever it was. This is poetry and it’s personal.