Saturday, November 29, 2014

Confessions Old and New

     For those who’ve travelled down any road of literary discovery, I don’t think it is surprising for me to say that I recently began following a path of study that led me to insights I was surprised to find.  Not so much surprised at the findings, but surprised at myself for what I had missed. 
     Last summer as I came to the last day of a creative writing class I was teaching at The Clearing Folk School (Door County, Wisc.), I asked the class what they would like to have me add next year.  I got a resounding “more women writers.”  Even though the class was an introduction for burgeoning writers, how could I have skipped Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Doris Lessing, Virginia Wolf…just to name some of the superstars.  There are so many great woman writers.  But I focused on fundamentals with Basho, Hemingway, Neruda, Kerouac, Ginsberg…yes, some of my own personal influences (all males).  But where was Anne Sexton…I was disappointed and embarrassed in myself for neglecting her work.

     When I was an undergrad studying English and writing poetry (most of it bad I must admit), I was living within the aftershock of Anne Sexton’s 1974 suicide.  While a student, I read every one of her books and absorbed her powerful sense of simile and metaphor, as well as her courage to use physical/body imagery in starkly vivid ways. What I missed about Sexton was the size of the huge door that she opened in poetry.

     Anne with her contemporaries (and friends) Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell was categorized, along with others, as “Confessional.”  Unfortunately, this category became pejorative.  I realized this critical attitude, but in my own na├»ve un-academic pursuits of poetic knowledge and enjoyment, I assumed most contemporary poetry was confessional in some manner…even if the first person was not speaking autobiographically.  The Beat writers had their own category (too Bohemian for the literary establishment to take them seriously as it did with their Confessional contemporaries), but they too were breaking down the taboos of what personal experience was acceptable to write in poetry.  I have always believed in the Hemingway mantra to write what you know, to write “one true sentence,” that if the writing doesn’t come from true experience the reader will know it.

     So I began a study to shape a class that would explore “how much confession is too much confession” with a focus on de-bunking the criticism of confessional poetry.  The answer to that original question was fairly easy to determine: too much confession is self-absorption, narcissism, and shock for the sake of shock.  What I found (to my surprise) was how I had never formalized in my own mind the importance of Sexton and Plath in breaking the ground for women to write about what is true female experience…forget the confessional categorization.  

     Plath with her anger and raging against the feminine roles she was forced to play.  Sexton with her honesty about mental illness and subjects of menstruation, sex from a woman’s perspective, adultery, masturbation, and motherhood.  Neither of these women would think of themselves as feminists (though the feminist movement of the ‘70s used Plath especially as a poster child), they thought of themselves as “woman poets.”   But this courage to be honest, not to hide what they were truly talking about behind euphemism or allegory, opened the door for all writers and you can easily see how they set the stage for the Slam poetry of today (as much as Ginsberg had).  

     I had always realized the place of the Confessional Poets in the American poetry pantheon.  But what is important to me is that now I can verbalize why literary confession is validating for readers.
Why?  Because we are all human and in the shaping and crafting of personal experience into the framework of a literary form, what we share as feeling human beings takes on a universality; it is shaped for us in a way that becomes less mysterious, less threatening, less scary.  We can see others and ourselves more clearly, more accessibly.  We gain an understanding that is not taught in school, or church, or even by our families.

     “Confession” also means affirmation and revelation.

     This is not confession, but insight.  This is writing the “true sentence.”  The best writing prompt I ever received was this: “write something that you don’t want read until after you are dead.”  How brave you can suddenly become.  If there is a story inside of you that won’t be silenced, then it is worth writing down because it is your own truth; whether it ever gets read, or not.

     This is from Anne Sexton’s poem “For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further:”

                  I will hold my awkward bowl,
                  with all its cracked stars shining
                  like a complicated lie,
                  and fasten a new skin around it
                  as if I were dressing an orange
                  or a strange sun.
                  Not that it was beautiful,
                  but that I found some order there.
                  There ought to be something special
                  for someone

                  in this kind of hope…

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Fly in The Soup, on being a young writer in Chicago

     For the uninitiated, the main entry hall of Oak Park River Forest High School (Oak Park,  a suburb just adjacent to Chicago’s West Side) has a special and proud feature identified by students as the “wall of fame.”  It consists of neat rows of framed pictures of notable graduates of the school.  Some more recognizable than others, some are Hollywood types, others scientists or statesmen, and of course the school’s Nobel Laureate Ernest Hemingway.  (You’d think that with Hem’s literary stature and international fame the school could go a little bigger and with a better quality photo print, but I digress.)  Not very far from the photo of Hemingway is a photo of Charles Simic with the caption “poet.”   Taking a quick poll, I count five of my poet and English-major-type friends who actually know who Simic is.

     Not unlike Hemingway, Charles Simic left Oak Park shortly after graduating from high school.  Also like Hemingway, Simic left Oak Park determined to be a writer.  Also like Hemingway, Simic went on in 1990 to win a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry (having been a runner up in 1986 and 1987).  In 2007, Charles Simic was named the fifteenth Poet Laureate of the United States.   His other awards, including the Wallace Stevens Award, and publications of poetry, non-fiction, and translations are too many to list here (but easily found with an internet search, or at the library).
     And to think it all started at OPRF, in Chicago-land.  Well, almost.  Simic grew up in Belgrade, Serbia (then part of Yugoslavia), during World War II.  As refugees, the family moved to Paris (where Charles began studying English) and eventually to the U.S.  The Simics arrived in Chicago in 1955.  

     In his memoir a fly in the soup, Simic credits teachers at OPRF for encouraging his literary bent and his love for poetry.  During his high school years he began writing poetry in English, as well as becoming a painter.   “My school was no joke,” he writes in his memoir, “One had to study, do homework every night and be prepared to answer intelligently in class.  My classmates were mostly children of professional people and had the confidence and ability of well-brought-up young people…I think I was the only foreigner in the school, and so I was a curiosity.”
     But what is it about Chicago that makes writers?  And “tough” writers at that: Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Algren, Sandburg, Dreiser, Richard Wright, Royko, Norbert Blei, even Simic.  Certainly not just a suburban high school.  Maybe it was the midnight el rides coming home from work or college night classes.  Maybe it was the late-50s Chicago literati with whom Simic spent time, as all good 20-year-olds do, drinking, smoking, listening to jazz, and watching sunrises. 
     “In those days,” Simic describes, “much more so than today, radical intellectuals came from working-class backgrounds.  They worked with their hands, or they were union officials. Children of immigrants, they had plenty advice for a newcomer like me…you ought to be writing poems about old Polish ladies who sweep the downtown offices at night.”

     Charles Simic has been called an American poet with a Serbian accent, he describes the “Chicago effect” in a fly in the soup:
Chicago gave a better sense of what America was than some small town or New York would have.  Its mixture of being, at the same time, very modern and very provincial is a national characteristic.  Add to that the realization that so much of our national prosperity depends on cheap labor.  Immigrants and blacks kept Chicago humming. I like the anarchy of the city.  There were dives and strip joints a few blocks from the monumental Art Institute…Chicago was the garage sale of all the contradictions America could contain.  A rusty water tower on the top of an old warehouse would look as beautiful as some architectural wonder along the lakeshore.  Every notion of aesthetics one previously held had to be revised if one were to appreciate the city.  My greatest teachers, in both art and literature, were the streets I roamed. 
So, your Poet-At-Large roams the streets still.  You come too.