The other day, when I should have been grading, I listened to Billy Collins at Emory University (watch him here: http://youtu.be/bRlftnvHO2A), and was interested to hear him describe how he does not write poetry that describes his life, but that he has created a poet's "persona" to act in the world of his poetry, which is not him; otherwise poetry would "approach memoir."
My question to myself is what's so wrong with poetry even acting as memoir? Two years ago Natasha Trethewey was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States. One reviewer of her book *Thrall* published that same year (and which I read last night) wrote "One of Trethewey’s great gifts as a writer is her ability to take her personal history and connect it to the histories and memories of a people." I consider this one of the greatest objectives for a poet--to find one's place in family and in history, which is an act of memoir.
Poetry can do many things for the writer and reader of it. Capturing the deeper truths in the poet's own life seems to me to be as (or even more) valuable as creating an poetic avatar to act out the stories on the stage of the poem. Mr. Collins, I think, is being ever so slightly disingenuous--BUT it is not mine to judge. I do know that I have sought to use things from memory and from life to spark many (but not all) poems, and for me these can be some of the best writing experiences because they capture and validate individual experience.
What do you think? How closely should a poet shave it before she gets down to the bone of her own reality and history? Does the poet do himself a disservice by using personal history and details in his work? Does this lead to "confessional" poetry (as if that's a terrible thing)? Or does it allow the poem some measure of authenticity? Does the personal life, history, experience of the poet isolate the poem or allow it to more easily connect with the readers' experiences?
While you're thinking about these questions, I will just close with this little poem I scribbled the other day for no other reason than that it conveys something about my childhood.
Happiness in his mind ended
with the theme from “I Love Lucy.”
Time to go to school. Leave the bastion
of the empty house, walk up the street
to where it T’s with Victoria Road,
and wait for the yellow bus, high as a galleon,
monstrous with its rattle-roar.
He knows a fat potato in the exhaust pipe
will kill the engine, but not the day.