When Is It a Poem? (and Not Just Something that Happened): Poetry & Autobiography

A Poetry Squawk
By Jason Schneiderman
Author of Primary Source and other books

autobiographicalWhen my mother read my first book, she said, “You were paying closer attention than I thought.” Then, over the years, before she died, she expressed her amazement that I was so comfortable revealing so much of myself.

When my older brother read my first book, he picked up on his one cameo in the whole collection, and tried to set the record straight: “I didn’t tell you that the word gullible means how strong you are; I said it was the sum total of a person’s positive qualities.” I told him that my memory was the same as his. I changed the detail because it made it a better poem.

Novelists are often assumed to have pulled their narratives from headlines or autobiographies (c.f. Philip Roth’s inability to set the Wikipedia article straight for The Human Stain), but the reader knows that novelists are making their own world, regardless of source material. Memoirists are expected to just recount what happened, with some license for hyperbole (I’m looking at you, David Sedaris), but not too much.

Poets end up in the middle. Because we work in persona, if we’re doing our job right, the reader feels an intense intimacy with the speaker of the poem, and how can that speaker not be the poet? Anyone who has tried to run a workshop will know how terribly difficult it is (but how necessary) to delineate between speaker and poet. Have you ever been in a workshop where you find yourself saying, “I think the speaker of the poem needs to break up with the boyfriend in the poem, because the boyfriend in the poem seems not to be as into the speaker, even though the speaker seems in denial about the ways the boyfriend in the poem is actually kind of a jerk.” I have. Not my proudest moment.

Readers also have to remain skeptical on both sides of the equation. You can’t assume that everything really happened to the poet, but you also can’t assume that everything didn’t. You have to stay in this gray space, where the speaker is and is not the author. I used to enjoy poetry gossip because it clued you in to who was being autobiographical and who wasn’t. Now I guess you just ask the poet on Facebook—if you want to know. Which much of the time, one doesn’t need to.

Since I have to offer some advice here, my basic rule for what makes a good poem is roughly the same as my rule for what makes a good memoir. If it’s a meditation on a theme, good. If it’s just stuff that happened to you, bad. My favorite memoir is Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, which is a meditation on what it means to be disfigured. Dave Egger’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a meditation on grief, loss, and responsibility for about eighty pages, and then becomes just stuff that happened to him (an unsuccessful audition for The Real World is a hard fit for a meditation on grief, loss, and responsibility). Grealy omitted the fact of her unblemished twin sister because readers would have seen her as a parallel version of her without cancer; the other Gwyneth in a literary Sliding Doors.

In Marie Howe’s masterpiece What the Living Do (Cornelius Eady, I have your copy, and if you want it back, let me know), a number of the poems seem to transcribe conversations with her brother before his untimely death from AIDS-related illnesses. Consider the ending to her poem “One of the Last Days”:

One of the last days, I told him, You know how much you love Joe?
That’s how much I love you. And he said, No. And I said, Yes.

And he said, No. And I said, You know it’s true.
And he closed his eyes for a minute.

When he opened them he said, Maybe you’d better start looking for
somebody else.

It’s almost impossible not to attend to the prosody of the poem—the omitted quotation marks, the sentences that start with “and”, the pacing and the lines. But it also proves, I hope, my earlier point about the double skeptic mind of a poetry reader. Starting with the assumption that this must be factually true, which is why it is so moving, is an insult; similarly starting with the assumption that this must be made up, or embellished or constructed is also an insult. The power of the poem lies in a messy nexus of craft, theme, history, biography, and love. There is no centrifuge that can pull these components apart, and thank God for that.

Consider this passage from Carl Phillip’s famous poem, “Singing”:

late, this morning: Don’t blame
me, if I am everything your heart
has led to.

Here is that moment where, as a reader, I don’t care if that’s factually true or not. If Carl Phillips actually heard that on the morning he wrote the poem is entirely beside the point. The thematic encapsulation is so perfect, only the most literal of readers would demand to know if Phillips actually overheard that line. And now that I’ve conjured this imaginary literal reader, it breaks my heart to think that he could be unmoved by this poem without knowledge that it actually happened.

Before I met my husband Michael, I had only written explicitly about people I knew a handful of times, only to be told some version of “That’s what you think of me?” Michael encouraged me to write about him, and we’ve had something of a love affair across five books (two of his, three of mine), and everything we’ve said about each other is true—but partial. When I was listening to Michael read poems about me at a reading in Atlantic City recently, I was deeply moved, but almost in the way that I would be if I weren’t me. In fact, the host asked me if I’d like to read a poem that evening, and I was honored, but I declined. I didn’t want to interfere with the version of myself that Michael was about to create.

My mother thought that I had revealed a lot more of myself than I actually had. For me the most embarrassing poems are not the ones that deal in autobiographical fact, but the ones that reveal my thought process and desires. I feel truly naked as a thinking and feeling being, not as a guy to whom things have happened. I’m rarely interested in biography, and while I don’t believe in the universal human subject, a poem cannot help but traffic in experience that is larger than authors themselves. To write autobiographically, experience has to be a mode of inquiry, not an end unto itself.

Jason Schneiderman is the author of Primary Source (Red Hen Press, 2016) winner of the Benjamin Saltman Prize; Striking Surface (Ashland Poetry Press, 2010), winner of the Richard Snyder Prize; and Sublimation Point (Four Way Books, 2004), A Stahlecker Selection. He edited the anthology Queer: A Reader for Writers (Oxford University Press 2016). His poetry and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry, Poetry London, Grand Street, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, Story Quarterly, and Tin House. Jason has received fellowships from Yaddo, The Fine Arts Work Center, and The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.  He was the recipient of the Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America in 2004, and a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award in 2011. He is Poetry Editor of the Bellevue Literary Review and Associate Editor at Painted Bride Quarterly.  Jason Schneiderman is an Associate Professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, part of the City University of New York.