How would you describe your inner life?
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Querulous, loud, lots of cross-chatter made up of niggling doubts, rampant guilt and neurotic, nagging voices. I write every day but it's not enough, not good enough. So I push harder. I try to make amends for spiritual and moral shortcomings in my morning meditations. Vow to try to be kinder, more patient and tolerant of others. Pledge myself to the services of Light and Wonder. Ask for guidance and advice, praying hard that above all else I be allowed to find a few words, ANYTHING, to write down, convince myself that at least I've written SOMETHING...and then maybe I'll be able to sleep that night. Because those same querulous voices become truly intolerable when the lights are out and I haven't written a damn thing of note that day--no matter how much a critic may savage my work or an enemy my reputation, NOTHING comes close to the abuse these voices inflict on me as I lay, helpless, head pressing deeper and deeper into my over-heated pillow.
I pray, I meditate...and sometimes I'm actually forced to creep out of bed and sit with a pad in my office, scribbling an idea, a concept I can pursue in the morning. Some nights it works... others are sleepless and interminable. Those voices just will NOT let up. Jeering, contemptuous. They know all my weaknesses, exactly how to hurt me, slash at me until I'm leaking from a thousand cuts.
This is one writer's pitiful existence. Perhaps not typical but certainly more typical than the jet-setting, best-selling author who parties at the Playboy mansion, has the profile of Pierce Brosnan and marries a news anchor...
My constricted world isn't nearly so glamorous. Composing stories and novels and poems and plays is hard bloody work with few rewards. It can be a pretty vile and disheartening existence at times. This is not the kind of testimonial to the writing life you read in WRITER'S DIGEST, squashed between an article on how to write like J.K. Rowling and "20 Tricks to Writing Books That Sell!".
Real life is far more mundane...and scary. "The terror of another ordinary day" as the great Don DeLillo puts it. The awful press of expectation, racing time, trying to squeeze everything in...until the futility of it all makes you break down and laugh...or cry...or just...break down...
Oh, I know that experience! How does this make you feel? Do you go along with it or feel like an outsider?
Interesting. I must concur. As frightening as the inner life can be, "real" life, that is to say everyday life of bills, work, network news, etc. is far more scary.
One of my favorite books, which gets little attention, is The Creative Process by Brewster Ghiselin. Brilliant observation of the process, in mathmeticians, science, music, writing, poetry, invention.
In many instances, he describes how the composition, or the answer, (Einstein's E=mc2 ) miraculously appears when the person has taken their mind off it, and is completely relaxed.
There are anecdotal instances of this happening quite often.......the VOILA! moments that define a great creator came, in their own words, "almost by accident".
Hope you get your groove back, geneg. It's there, unless your subconscious has totally disappeared.
But, there are billions of creative people out there, mentally ill and not.
It's just that some people, in a manic state, for instance, tend to experience life in an altered way. And this behavior is more "obvious" to the observer, because, of course, mentally ill people are more carefully and sytematically "observed" when in treatment.
I imagine van Gogh "saw" some swirling things that helped his vision in painting Starry Night, but there are also perfectly normal people who hone their conscious and subconscious minds to tap into their deeper creative side.
I imagine that for some schizophrenics, that process might come a bit more involuntarily or something.....However, it is not necessary to have an illness to *do* this... and it certainly doesn't have to be alcohol or drug induced.
Anyone can do it, using the right techniques.
I bring this up ONLY because I meet so many young people who describe themselves as artists, who think they have to be tortured, or depressed, in order to be creative. Modigliani slurping up alcohol off the street from broken bottles, blah blah blah. I always thought this was a very dangerous message to send....that they somehow have to be deeply unhealthy.
You don't have to be tortured to create, but some tortured people do create as a way to survive: I think Van Gogh was one of these, Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton as well.
It's the tortured souls who write or do art as a way to survive that I'm interested in most. I think there is a lesson in that for everyone: art makes us feel right about things, it gives structure and meaning to all that we feel and do, it makes us feel truly alive.
I went to an exhibition of southwestern native art here in Dallas several years ago. Each picture was wildly psychodelic, Native American analogs of Hindu art almost, if you imagine the detail, busyness, and bright colors of Hindu Art, this was certainly a cousin. At any rate, each one of the works had one or more peyote cacti. In the center of each was a peyote cacti from which the painting itself seemed to emmanate. It was very interesting.
My inner life is beautiful. It's taken a lot of work, I think. I used to suffer pretty serious depression, but through intense study and practice I've changed some cognitive and spiritual behaviors. For example, instead of fighting my nature I work to accept it. Now I go inside stories I'm creating, I dream up schemes, I seek creative solutions, I break down mental barriers. I'm always studying and learning new ways to use my brain. My mind is my playground.
My challenge is trying to integrate my inner and outer lives. And writing is TOUGH. But I could have worse problems.
My mind is my playground, too!
i'll have to ask each of them and get back to you.
I spent a lot of my youth feeling bored and disconnected, so now that I am into the second half of my life, I often feel rushed, as though I ought to be cramming a whole life into the portion I have left.
You seem to be able to organize information effectively and quickly. I can't. It takes me a long time to figure things out. Some people can go straight to the heart of a matter; I have to take the labyrinth.
Kierkegaard's argument is essentially that because truth is subjective (not relative!) any grouping of people automatically becomes a lie. I think, though he doesn't address this, that, at its core, his argument addresses verbalization. Our thoughts and feelings, so long as they are not pronounced, belong to us and are our own. But, as soon as we begin to speak or write or gesture, we are suddenly entering the dramatic realm: all speech is a dramatic utterance, all writing too. So, the only time when we're not being dramatic, or putting on some sort of Yeatsian mask, is when we're alone with ourselves, when we're immersed in the "inner life."
So, for me anyway, the inner life is the true life, the life that lets me remember that to be is to be alone, God or no, as I alone make my choices. Whenever I'm in public, I become irresponsible, or less responsible, because I'm no longer a autonomous entity, I'm part of something bigger, over which I don't have control.
But, what's my inner life like? I would tell you, but it would be a lie.
However, when I am alone and writing a poem or a story, my inner life manifests itself onto the page. That is when I can speak my truth. At that time, and no other.
How did you get so smart JMatthews? (smiles)
As for the blogging thing, I've had several over the past few years, on and off. I get excited and start a blog, and then decide that it's immoral because I'm not working on myself, not pushing to better myself as a human, because I'm wasting my time. But, recently, I've decided that my blog, if I can let it be whatever it is, without worrying about who reads it or what they think, can actually be not only therapeutic but also bolstering to my personality, as it helps me to chronicle my behavioral patterns and to articulate, to whatever sad extent, my ideas and feelings. Also, being manic depressive, it's a must for me to have a routine, and blogging is a routine (if worked at it could become a ritual even, I hope). So, if blogging, by being a routine, keeps me among the living, immoral or no, lie or no, blogging I'll do.
In my own head, though, "lie" has never seemed right for what I do. Because the necessity of being "authentic" is so much a part of who I am, the notion of telling a lie doesn't set well with me (smiles). It is purely a matter of temperament, I think. But the statement is still valid. I just prefer to think what I'm doing is selecting, shaping, exaggerating, and imaginatively incorporating material. (smiles). Writing fiction is a release for me. But as soon as I try to write non-fiction, I freeze. I feel like I'm telling lies, because when I describe something I panic and think, "That's not how it was." Non-fiction purports to the "the truth." That puts too much pressure on me.
How strange that a person who needs to be authenthic finds her true release, her self, her reason for being, by writing "fiction"!
Do you prefer "manic depressive" over "bi polar"? What role do you think it plays in your writing life? Do you identify strongly with other writers who were manic depressive?
Like I said, start a new topic if you are willing to discuss this further. My interest stems from the fact that I teach and have students who are manic depressive or have episodes of depression. Also from the fact that the writers I tend to love the most were either manic depressive or had depression (Roethke, Wright, Dickey, John Clare. Richard Brautigan, and others).
I am still trying to make up my mind about the blog. I know I will either have to transform it or quit. The original reason I had for starting is no longer relevant.
Feel free to ask questions: I don't mind.
And yet at the same time, I find I do not always have full access to my ideas until I begin writing or talking about them. The process of articulating forces me to consider facets of my ideas that would remain dormant and unexplored if I never engaged in the discipline of speaking or writing about them -- even while the original dilemma of being unable to express them in all their fullness remains.
Various Native American tribes consider mountains (or certain mountains) to be sacred. In contemplating this idea once, it occurred to me that one can never know the essence of a mountain. While contemplating it from a distance, one misses the experience of walking on its boulder-stewn paths, seeing its wildflowers, touching the bark of its trees, smelling the scents of pine and earth, etc. But walking on the mountain allows us to experience only the tiny portion of it within our immediate senses, so that we cannot experience its majesty or the way it relates to sky and cloud and the surrounding landscape. It is perpetually a mystery.
Truth in general, it seems to me, is rather like that. But its paths are still worth walking, and its majesty is still worth contemplating.
Do any of you read the cartoon strip Sylvia? Alas, my local paper stopped carrying it. It was wacky and wise, and I always loved the ones about the woman who lies in her journal.
Anyway, a lot of people talking about mental illness, and mentioning it as part of their inner lives, so let me tell you what my "stable" inner life looks like.
It looks like terror.
Everything is strictly regimented. Morning pills, evening pills. If I forget to take one kind of pill, I end up with a feeling like electrical shocks going through my bloodstream. If I forget to take another, I could end up with a fatal rash. If I forget to take a third, I won't sleep. And if I forget the fourth, I'll get my period, and that just plain sucks.
I can't buy anything without questioning myself. I bought a pair of shoes today. Am I manic? Now I have to watch VERY CAREFULLY for the next few days and make sure I'm not losing it. I just wanted a damn pair of shoes, and now I have to worry about it.
I can't quit smoking because I'm afraid of messing up the perfect chemical balance I've got going right now.
My writing's suffered immensely since going on my meds. I can't get into the world of my story like I used to. It's sort of a good thing, I guess, because a story would suck the life out of me - all I could do was write and sleep - I was cranky all the time because I wouldn't have a clue what people were talking about because whatever was going on wasn't happening in the world I was inhabiting. But I liked it. And now I'm on the outside, I can still write, but there's the terror again:
I don't think I'll ever be as brilliant as I was when I was off meds. So I'm constantly wondering, just a little bit, if I wouldn't be better off just being bipolar again. I mean, maybe thinking about suicide every day for ten years is the price you have to pay for the little flashes of brilliance.
But all of this said, it's a lot quieter in my brain than it used to be, and sometimes I sit down and think, "It's nice in here," but I don't mean in the room - I mean in my head.
By the way, my inner life is of the former. No mental conditions, no talent.
I think it was Wordsworth who said something to the effect of: Poetry is emotion recollected in serenity. I think it might be hard to write really well without enough serenity in which to recollect the crazier times with a certain amount of clarity.
"The spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility" is Wordsworth's phrase.
While I understand the need for distance which gives perspective, I'm not convinced one must be tranquil to write: I find when I write I'm excited, near frenzied. Of course, we've seen Wordsworth's method work; my own doesn't deserve quiet so much credence.
I know that Theodore Roethke rode this carousel again and again. For him it was a matter of knowing when to reach for the gold ring. When he was full-blown in his manic or depressive state, the writing didn't go very well. There was a point in between where he was absolutely transcendent in his observations.
Margad, I didn't know you fought depression. I know that is hard. I was depressed for about two years after some surgery that I had, and, like you, I was terrified that I had lost my ability to write.
As soon as the depression started to lift, I started scribbling long stories out by hand while taking long, long, long baths. I feel that writing these stories restored my mental health.
Thanks for coming up with the correct Wordsworth quote, JMatthews. I'm constantly discovering occasions when I'd like to be able to quote it correctly, and what he actually said is much better than what I remembered.
Another of my writing friends talks about writing as an almost physical sort of labor that leaves her sweating and exhausted. Clearly, everyone's method is a little different. I find writing leaves me more refreshed than otherwise, though it sometimes feels exhausting while I'm in the midst of the process, if the writerly vision and/or the words aren't coming easily. And sometimes it's hard to turn my brain off afterward, so I have trouble going to sleep. My favorite experience while writing is what Stephen King so eloquently described as "falling through the hole in the page." Being able to have that experience is probably the one single most important reason why I write. Though oddly enough, the work I struggle over generally turns out better than the "hole in the page" work.
It's a good point you make about depression often being self-indulgent. I think almost all mental illnesses are (schizophrenia and other pathological problems aside). I'm usually wary of talking about my mental health too much because I always start to feel it's becoming a role to play: the sick guy. The problem is that most of my life I've denied I'm sick, and the denial, I fear, leads to the disease governing me. So, it's a catch-22. I've always liked Dickey's description of Plath and Sexton as poets of "gabby agony," (even though he had a huge crush on Sexton and made inappropriate phone calls late at night), and I don't want to fall in the trap of a woe-is-me narcissism. But it's also very dangerous for me to ignore my moods because they often spiral out of control without constant vigilance, and sometimes even with it. So, I guess, the trick is to find a middle ground, but where is that?
I identify with "falling through a hole in the page," if it means what I think it means: a kind of going through the looking glass into the world of the imagination. That feeling is like no other and it's where I most like to live. Second to that is direct sensory experience, but I need the latter in order to be able to describe the former.
As someone who enjoys the works of artists who have had mental illness and who also enjoys the so-called "confessional works," I am very interested in the line between "confessional literature" and self-indulgence.
I've read with interest your work that you've posted here and at your blog JMatthews, and I wouldn't describe it as self-indulgent. The quality of the thought and the power of the images makes it connect with this reader.
I understand what you say about telling too much about yourself. I constantly struggle with that. Of course, I actually asked you if you would be willing to share some of your experience here, and I'm very glad that you are doing so.
I think, for me, the line between confession and self-indulgence lies in the relevance of the confession to the art. When the confession feels gratuitous, a confession for a confession's sake, I think it's self-indulgent. But when the confession, or in Dickey's case the exuberant machismo, is contextualized in such a way as to become integral to the art I think it transcends woe-is-me egotism. At their best, Snodgrass, mid-career Lowell, Plath, Sexton, Olds, etc all get beyond "gabby agony," but, at their worst, they all succumb to it, just as Dickey sometimes goes so far over the top that, if I weren't glued to the page by the energy of his language, I'd find a number of his poems laughable. Allen Tate's letter to Lowell after the publication of Life Studies has always stuck with me: "But Cal, it ain't POETRY." I think Tate was wrong, and I love Life Studies, but there's always the danger of crossing the line between art and whining.
In my case, I haven't minded writing about my mental health on LT so much because there's been a forum, and my opinion has been asked. And I don't mind writing about it on my blog too much because I told myself that would be the blog's function for me. I guess my fear is that I'll start to think or act as if manic depression is an excuse. I don't want to excuse myself or lower my standards.
Thanks, Theresa, for your kind words about my work. It's reassuring to know I haven't gone off the deep end and begun writing a personal, cryptic code, which I've been worried about doing lately.
~"for me, the line between confession and self-indulgence lies in the relevance of the confession to the art. When the confession feels gratuitous, a confession for a confession's sake, I think it's self-indulgent"~
makes so much sense. I would love it if you would speak more, perhaps with examples, of how the confession is relevant to the art.
Again, I know I can never fully understand what you are going through, Jim (I think it would be offensive for me to day so), but as a fellow artist and human being I am interested in you and your process for making art. I hope we will continue to talk. I am enjoying the discussions very much.
margad and all: are any of you interested in reading Mother Teresa's letters about her doubts? I have pre-ordered the book from Amazon. The idea of reading her letters excites me. For an icon like her to talk about her doubts that way gives me hope for myself, for us all.
A letter-to-the-editor appeared in my local newspaper this morning pointing out how much more valuable Mother Teresa's faith was because she allowed herself the vulnerability of doubting it, and how her humility made her a far more effective and powerful force for good than if she had run around advertising that she was certain of the truth.
Romanticism, in a backlash against a perceived poetic distance in Augustan poetry, started to use the “I” much more frequently, and with a much different sense of what it meant to be an I. While the Augustans reverted stylistically back to the classical period, a period in which man’s fate was determined by gods, or in their case God, the Romantics’ sense of the self, to my mind, is that the individual is the authenticator of experience. There is a role reversal between the self as being at the bottom of the great chain of being, to being at the top. I see this reversal in a poem like “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” in which Wordsworth (or is it he?) floats over the earth. The eye of the poem looks down on the earth from the heavens; in other words, the self has been abstracted from its traditional role and has become the eye of God. One might note that the daffodils are compared to the stars, which I take to be the ultimate sign of role-reversal: the earth is the heavens, and the individual looks up by looking down.
So, the self-oriented universe, an extension of Descartes’ cogito, lies at the heart of Romanticism. One way to think of this is as the stratification of the individual, an event that coincides with the rise of democracy. Divine authority, Divine right, etc, are thrown out the window and the common man is exalted. The risk here is that the common man is, as often as not, at best average, and so the mentality lends itself toward exalting mediocrity.
When the Modernists repudiated Romanticism, a key point was to denounce the cushy attitude and the rampant bathos that derive from a me-centric universe. In his “Revolt Against the Crepuscular Spirit in Modern Poetry,”, Ezra Pound writes, “ ‘Is it better to dream than do?’ Aye and No! / Aye! If we dream great deeds, strong men, / Hearts hot, thoughts mighty. / No! if we dream pale flowers, / Slow-moving pageantry of hours that languidly / drop as o’er-ripened fruit from sallow trees.”
This is to say that the revolt is against poets “palely loitering.” The modernists, well, at least the “High Modernists,” wanted to escape the soft mentality, the sort of “I’m ok, you’re ok” reverie that Romantics tend to risk, the spirit of which, Pound nails it, is crepuscular. It’s neither light, nor dark; it’s in-between; it’s unsure; it’s soft. So, in order to avoid this crepuscular spirit, Modernism turns toward impersonality, toward hard-eyed Aristotelian attempts at unity, or, in the case of Eliot or Tate, parodic monologues of disorganization designed to draw the reader in and then display the faults of the modern sensibility. Later Frank O’Hara will write a mock-manifesto called “Personism” to revolt against what he perceives, as the Romantics perceived in the Augustans, as a chilly removal of the poet from the poem.
Personally, I don’t buy O’Hara’s cavil. The truth is that one can only be, to a small degree, personal in making art, as one cannot fully, nor even mostly, put one’s self on the page. So, one shapes the pieces of the self on the page in order to make it art. But O’Hara and others in the Fifties (Ginsburg, Ashbery, Lowell, even Warren) start moving toward the idea of inclusion, that is to say, they begin to privilege the world over the world of the poem.
One way to think of this is that, for Yeats or Ransom or Eliot, each word was selected for its unity with the rest of the poem. Yeats spoke well of this when he described the effect he wanted as being that of a Chinese box snapping shut. For this type of poem to work, one privileges the poem: if “apple” is better than “orange,” it doesn’t matter if the fruit was actually an orange, you write “apple.” But, in the fifties, even while Eliot is the poetic champ, these other writers are working out in gyms on the outskirts of town with busted windows.
And, with Howl in 1955, and Some Trees in 1957, Life Studies in ‘59 and Heart’s Needle in ‘60, we see the current of American poetry moving away from Yeats’ box, away from privileging the poem, and toward privileging the recalcitrant stuff of experience, that is to say, the world. The tidy shape of the poem, which ends usually in a paradoxical closure designed to open the poem outward to the world, is replaced by a poetry more muscular, more invested in presenting experiences as they were than in shaping those experiences (of course shape was still an issue, but it became a secondary issue).
One of the implications of this shift is that of authenticity. In the fifties and sixties, in the aftermath of the bomb, poets seem to have decided, by and large, that the tight little lyric was no longer relevant, no longer representative of the world they lived in, which was increasingly disorganized. Their poems reflect this disorganization.
And this, for me, is where I draw the line on Confessional poetry. When the authenticity of the experience becomes more valuable than the unity of the poem, that is to say, when the “truth” becomes more important that the cohesion of the art, when the becomes less a poem and more a confession, the poem is self-indulgent.
There are great risks in such a shift. For one, if we privilege “the way it really happened” over the art, we’re no longer making art so much as writing journal entries with line-breaks. Secondly, this shift seems also a move away from fiction, which seems to imply that the fiction itself could no longer contain the truth. While this may or may not be the case, such a move seems to me a pandering to the empirical world of technocracy. The empirical identity, as described by Hume, is unified only in the way that “a fagot of sticks” is bound together, contrasting itself greatly from the unified Cartesian identity. So, by breaking down poetic unity, poets, who ostensibly are working at cross-purposes with empiricism, seem to be embracing it with open arms.
Nevertheless, I’ve come to a working definition of self-indulgent poetry: a poetry which places primary emphasis upon personal experience and secondary emphasis upon the shaping of that experience into art. I think this definition is functional: it allows for personal writing, no matter how personal, so long as the experience itself is transformed into art. To do otherwise seems, to my mind, futile, as it’s absolutely impossible ever to represent an experience as it “actually happened” on account of subjectivity on the one hand, and the limitations of language on the other. So, for me, it makes much more sense to create a poem for a poem’s sake, to generate new meaning with the poem instead of attempting to force one’s own emotion onto the page.
In any event, to illustrate my point as best I can, I have a few examples. While I think it would be much easier to pick a lesser poet and point out weaknesses, I feel that would do little for my argument. So, I’m going to dive in a great deal over my head, and write about work about which, in all likelihood, it’s imprudent for me, underling that I am, to reproach.
From the grand-daddy of them all, here’s a poem from Lowell’s Life Studies.
Poor sheepish plaything,
organized with prodigal animosity,
lived in just a year—
my Father’s cottage at Beverly Farms
was on the market the month he died.
Empty, open, intimate,
its town-house furniture
had an on tiptoe air
of waiting for the mover
on the heels of the undertaker.
of living alone till eighty,
Mother mooned in a window,
as if she had stayed on a train
one stop past her destination.
I usually teach this poem because I find its images to be truly wonderful as images. But, if I dig too far into the poem, the images seem only marginally function. Still, let’s first talk about some aspects of the language. Early on, the poem seems to attempt a conceit. We see heavily biblical language with “sheepish,” “prodigal,” and “Father.” From the first lines, we can gather that the Father is the shepherd, and that the cottage could have been part of his flock, but it was organized with “prodigal animosity,” that is, it was never made a place for the Father to truly live, more like a place to visit, an impermanent address. But already, we run into a particular that seems gratuitous, “Beverly Farms.” While I’m sure Beverly Farms is a lovely place, I have yet to make any connection that suggests Beverly Farms is any more pertinent to the poem than anywhere else. Here we see “authenticity” taking the fore, and compressed unity relegated to the hinterlands.
But, to keep going with the poem, we see the cottage is for sale the month the Father died, suggesting the place isn’t very important to the family; it’s not an ancestral home, which, perhaps, begins to justify the anonymity of “Beverly Farms,” though I don’t think it goes so far as to salve the sore thumb.
Next we see a staccato, paradoxical line: “Empty, open, intimate”. There’s something disturbing the linkage between empty and intimate. How is something empty intimate? Well, one might guess that something empty is intimate to SOMEONE who is empty. So, we can probably guess that Lowell feels empty.
The emptiness is expressed in that we haven’t witnessed Father rise to The Father fulfilling the religious language early on. Instead, we have the ironic contrast that this father is certainly not the eternal Father, though he has perhaps been aggrandized by his son to be perceived as such, but, instead, is already dead, and so the language speaks backwards, that is, it points out the emptiness either of the religious language itself, and consequently religion, or the emptiness of deifying a mortal man. In any event, we can presume the speaker feels empty because his father has died, and his own beliefs have come into doubt.
Now, the poem continues, “its townhouse furniture / had an on tiptoe air / of waiting for the mover / on the heels of the undertaker.” This is a fairly complex figure. The townhouse furniture, emphasizing perhaps the transient nature of this house in the family’s life, has an “on tiptoe air.” This is a striking image. The furniture seems to be sneaking around, uneasy. But why? Well it’s waiting for the mover. Is this The Mover, the First Mover, or is it just a guy in a jumpsuit? We might assume the former as we see this waiting is “on the heels of the undertaker.” So, the furniture is waiting for God after death? If Lowell intends to create a correspondence between the Father and this furniture, it fails to register. So, I take this as being another instance of his emptying religious language of its religiosity, that is of extracting religious connotation from the language itself. But what about that foot imagery? The furniture is on tiptoe while we’ve just seen the undertaker’s heels: so far as I can follow the image it presents us with the equivalent of a step: heel to toe.
At this point, I think we have to ask, what is this furniture? Why does Lowell bring it into the poem. There is the possibility that he’s using it as a projection of himself, or perhaps of mankind: we’re all transient, waiting to be taken out of the world, and we’re especially conscious of our own mortality after someone close dies: our own death feels a step away. This reading might explain the sort of bizarre personification through synecdoche. Ok, so there might be, however dubious, an outward push, a push away from the personal toward the world.
What is at stake here is this, if one does not push outward from an individual experience, one alienates the reader by taking away common ground, be it experiential or emotional. The poem has to rise up from the experience toward, for lack of a better word, the universal. I’m not sure I buy that Lowell’s done this by anthropomorphizing furniture, but I’ll give him till the end of the poem to prove me wrong.
“Ready, afraid / of living alone till eighty / Mother mooned in a window, / as if she had stayed on a train / one stop past her destination.” I like the seeming contradiction of “ready, afraid” as a line, which, while syntactically resolved by the next line, gives us a brief moment of pause to consider that often being afraid and being ready are not mutually exclusive. In this case, what is the mother ready for? I’ll come back to this question.
For now, let’s look at the poem’s motion. It moves away from the furniture and toward the mother, who’s just stepped on stage. Mother is “afraid / of living alone till eighty.” I might quibble with the relevance of eighty, as opposed to seventy-five, since the number isn’t governed by any sort of regular metric and seems arbitrary, but the sensation feels common enough. Then we see that “Mother mooned in a window.” I’m intrigued by the word, “Mooned.” Moon is a word with lots of connotations. There are “moonies,” but it seems unlikely Lowell thinks his mother looks like a cult figure, though not impossible. The moon also governs the tides and is traditionally assumed to influence women’s behavior, usually with a sense of fickleness. So, maybe the mother is preparing to change.
I also can never forget that the moon supposedly governs the poet too, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the linkage is “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet.” Well, Mother’s the lover, Lowell’s the poet, and possibly also the lunatic, so there could be a linkage here of Lowell to his mother, in that both of them are looking out this window and feeling, as the last line suggests, that they’ve exceeded in time the amount of life they thought was their destiny. Well, this last seems to exclude Lowell: not many sons expect to die with their fathers. So, we’ll have to go with the “mooning” as pertaining to lunar influence on women, or we can assume it’s just an interesting word, included gratuitously. I give Lowell the benefit of the doubt. So, the mother appears to have outlived her destiny, suggesting she probably believed or assumed she would die with her husband. Now that she hasn’t, the train of her life is on its way to a foreign town where she’ll be alone; life has carried on without her husband, and her life will change as the tides do.
So, we can say now that “ready” goes toward the mother’s being prepared to move on. But the image of the train contrasts this readiness, unless the mother is ready to get off at the next stop. Do we take this to mean the mother is ready to die? If so she isn’t leaving the life she’s known, the, to stretch it, shelter of the father.
The language here, to my mind, is not paradoxical but irreconcilable. It may be that I’m not reading the poem well, or that I’m just not able to think as rigorously as Lowell: I don’t doubt that. But, it seems to me that the poem simply refuses closure to the point it loses clarity; it’s compositional principle seems to privilege the actual experience instead of the poem. The images are striking, but they point in too many directions: reading the poem is like driving down a road where the signs contradict each so much one can’t help but get lost and, in frustration, exit the road as soon as possible.
But, before we get off, what does the title have to do with the poem? Well, the material house is for sale, and, while the Lowells certainly weren‘t destitute, the loss of a house could signal a material sense of displacement and, perhaps for the mother, a sense of material urgency. This doesn’t seem good enough: what else is for sale? Lowell has stripped Father of religiosity, but the poem still has a religious mind: the poet is searching for a God where, the poem suggests, there isn’t one. So, in this case, in addition to the house, Lowell and his mother are for sale, both materially and spiritually, in that they are looking to be at home somewhere new. I’m not sure I, pardon the pun, buy this.
The mother, afraid of being alone, very well may be looking for someone new, and Lowell may be looking for a father figure, but the terminology turns her into a prostitute and Lowell into a slave. While I don’t doubt Lowell can be so dark as to strip religion of meaning and yet still look at the world religiously, that is to say treat the loss of Father as the loss of The Father, I just don’t buy the extravagant assertions put forth if he’s done so. But, for the title to signify more than it does superficially, the poem must have made such a claim.
To my mind, this poem is self-indulgent. It’s language is dense, but density is not a substitute for shapeliness. This is not to say I don’t like the poem: I do. But I also see philosophical and social implications in the composition that bother me. One might ask, who is the audience of this poem? It doesn’t feel like a poem to a particular person; it feels like it’s addressed to anyone, to everyone. In this way, we see that the poem is more than writing that privileges the personal, it also invites any and everyone into the personal; it is a public display.
For a confessional poem to succeed, I think it has to have an extra push to include us in its experience: this poem doesn’t so much move to include us in the emotional experience as to announce to us that Lowell’s had an emotional experience. I suppose the confessional poems I think work best are those that create a sort of allegory out of personal experience, that create a mythologized self we become invested in and live vicariously through, that is to say, a confession of a man in a mask.
A good example of this is Plath’s “Blackberrying.” While the blackberries are not inherently imbued with a particular meaning, they are presented in such a way that the poem applies meaning to them, and the poem itself is an examination of the validity of this application. (For the sake of brevity, I won’t include the actual poem, but just say a few words about it.) Largely, I think that the poem’s functionality lies in the present tense; it’s use of the present, along with its lush imagery, invites us to participate. And that’s a good term for the poem, participatory. It includes us, lets us play along.
So we walk with Plath down the “hooks” of the path, and we reach with her the sea at the end of it. So we, along with Plath, attempt to apply meaning to the natural world, and our inclusion is critical to the final image which in fact points in the other direction and says our attempts at such applications are futile: “a din of silversmiths / beating and beating at an intractable metal.” The poem, though personal and anecdotal, is shaped in such a way that it reaches beyond the personal and toward the universal, and its final image, unlike Lowell’s, seems the inevitable conclusion of having submitted the experience to what Warren calls “the fires of irony.” Lowell’s image is a good image: Plath’s image is essential to the poem and completes the idea in such a way that the completion reverberates back through the poem and activates all its parts, while Lowell’s poem feels, to me, more slapdash.
I’m sure there are holes in this argument, but this is the best I could do to explain my position without spending a great deal of time composing a formal essay.
What you are getting at, when you talk about the words and images serving the poem rather than autobiographical accuracy, is meaning, I think. If I go to the grocery store and buy an apple rather than an orange, it may be because oranges are out of season, because I happen to prefer the way apples crunch, or any number of relatively trivial circumstances. What we look for in poetry is a larger, deeper sense of purpose (or lack of purpose). Depending on how it's used, the image of an apple can serve as an allusion to the Garden of Eden, the poisoned apple in Sleeping Beauty, the cliché "rotten to the core," or any number of ideas. It doesn't serve the poem (or story, or novel) to throw in an apple if the overtones of meaning it has don't fit the meaning of the piece - and heaven forbid that the poem/story/novel has no particular meaning! I suppose that's part of what I was getting at when I spoke of clarity. But I hadn't really thought the idea through that far.
When I spoke of "confessional" writing, I was thinking of memoir rather than poetry. There was a spate of memoirs a few years ago by people who had been abused children, and a backlash later from readers who declared themselves sick and tired of reading about abused children, and charging that it was self-indulgent for writers to moan about their rotten childhoods. I think as long as people have rotten childhoods (or suffering of other kinds), it's worthwhile for them to write about it - if they can do it with an honesty and clarity that communicates something valuable to the reader: meaning, as in Sylvia Plath's poem. Plath is one of the poets I don't find boring.
In memoir, I suppose it might be important to be precise about whether one bought an apple or an orange at the grocery store, lest smaller inaccuracies tempt the writer to introduce larger (self-indulgent) inaccuracies. But if the apple-buying expedition has no meaning in terms of the larger whole, it can and ought to be omitted.
JM, I ordered the Williamson book.
I like Wilbur's and Strand's poems, and I also like W. S. Merwin. His latest Selected Poems is spectacular.
I fear my approach is better than my delivery. There are some poems on my blog, though, if you'd care to look. I've got it linked in my profile. Thanks for your kind words.
Bravo! I should have read this before I even tried to enter into this colloquy--because all we are doing , even here, is performing with personae. Kierkegaard was right; and, pursuant to Sartre, it's a series of "bad faiths". As Wittgenstein would say. "So much better not said" or something like that. All we seek is affirmation of our hoped for mask.