Poetry, of course, can be intensely personal. The Confessionalists especially brought the writer front and center as both the hand that scribes the lines and the persona that inhabits them. This is not to say the poet was never at the center of the poem before Confessionalism came along, but the Confessionalist movement popularized, or perhaps more correctly normalized, the presence of the poet within the poem. The I was allowed to be the poet and vice versa. While in some ways, this made for a more difficult situation for those poets who wrote in first person in personae other than their own, it also opened the door for accessibility to poetry. The common experience, the current experience, was as much a part of the work as the language, and the universality of the poem was able to be more accessible.
Of late, however, and what I want to write about today, is the rise of poetry as an alternative form of memoir. While memoir itself may be falling out of favor as a term (the catchier, more correct “creative nonfiction” sounding much less smarmy than memoir, which rhymes with boudoir, and feels like it lends itself to either the kiss-and-tell, the confessions of a celebrity, or an exercise in self-obsession, however, comes across as almost clinical in some ways), it is very much a living force in contemporary literature. Thinking of books such as Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors or Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, or even the kickstarter to Dave Eggers’ career, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (That’s a title, possibly a description, though some critics would disagree), it’s easy to see how memoir permeates our common conscience today. It tops the bestseller lists right along with young adult fantasy romances, crime thrillers, and self-help books. Memoirs don’t need to be the vehicle of aged Hollywood starlets passed their prime and sinking into the mire of scandal or anonymity. They are, increasingly, the stories of ordinary people, sometimes even in not-all-that-extraordinary situations, who tell their stories well (though, to be clear, the three examples I cited are all decidedly extraordinary circumstances, though possibly even more so because of the craft with which they are told).
Poetry, too, can be a grand vehicle for telling our stories, and not necessarily in the fragmented way that we have come to expect as we cast our eyes back to the Confessionalists, who offered snips and peeks into their lives, but rarely fully-fledged narratives. In the intervening years between the rise of Confessionalism and now, many poets have stepped into the form and taken what was once thought as “confessional” into a far more concretely narrative direction. As a result, there are an increasing number of books that demonstrate poetry following a cohesive narrative path stretched over the body of many poems, each depicting details or bits of the story that, when put together, create a stronger, clearer narrative. We are not talking about epic poems here, stretching over a hundred pages. We are talking about collections of poems where each poem is a slice of the story. You can eat a single slice on your own and have an impression of a moment, and often these poems have been published separately in journals and magazines prior to their being assembled into a collection. But, if you look at the whole body, you will see much more of the story—the rising action, the climax, the fall and consequences.
Why tell our stories through poems? Why not? Poetry is as valid and capable a genre as any of the other three when it comes to conveying a narrative. But why poetry specifically? In many ways, poetry offers a therapeutic factor that may not always be present in prose, or at least as accessible. The writer in prose needs to worry about the overall continuity of a large piece as it spans an entire book. But stories are not always lived this way. Sometimes, we don’t even know our own stories in a complete, flowing, linear narrative. Often, as well, our stories play out just as much in an emotional landscape or along a plain of mood that may seem flattened in prose, or could be seen to derail the narrative thrust of something more traditionally story/plot-based. If you were to think back to kindergarten, would you remember a solid, concrete, linear experience that could be told from start to finish, or are you more likely to have access to incidents, moods, moments, emotions that, when pieced together, offer the same sense of narrative that could be accomplished in prose, but is more effective and more readable if you could show it in its pieces? To build this into an analogy of sorts—is your memory, or the story you wish to tell, better told as a film, or as a scrapbook? Would the reader you want to reach have a better understanding with that single, solid, long-form narrative, or would they understand the full impact more completely if they had the individual shots? If the latter is true, then maybe your story is something that needs to be told in poetry, or at least could be most effectively told that way.
The form I want to talk about is something I have named “poemoir.” I don’t know if this is solely my creation—surely someone else has thought of it before now, but it’s not a term I have found elsewhere. When I use the term poemoir, I use it to describe a subgenre of poetry books where the poetry contained within is centered not only around a single theme, but around a specific narrative. There are more and more of these books becoming available, and they make for some of the most compelling reading in contemporary poetry. While I could offer a list, I’m going to talk about three of my favorite books with the hope that, if you’re intrigued by them, you might seek them out for yourself and consider it to be a mode you’re interested in working in. All three of these books focus on very different stories, and they tell them in their own way—the style and voice of the poet is not subsumed by the genre. But the books are also structured and paced in a way that they make for a full-fledged, long-form narrative that goes beyond what we normally think of when we think of a poetry collection. If your standard poetry collection is an album, and a collected works is a “greatest hits,” these books would be more like operas or cast albums—structured around a narrative goal that determines their sequence, pacing, and presentation. So, rather than prattling on further, here are three of my very favorite poemoirs from the past few years, in no particular order. After each, I have included a link to the Amazon page where you can order a copy if you are interested in looking further into the title.
The Silence in an Empty House by Maria Mazziotti Gillan. Of the three I chose to discuss, this is the least linearly narrative, but the story at the core of the book is amazingly powerful, and the emotional intensity of the overall work makes it incredibly compelling. I get nervous about recommending Maria’s books in this context for fear that people will dismiss me simply because she is my mentor, but this is a book I could not in good faith ignore if I was going to write about the concept of poemoir. While she has released multiple books in the last two years (including what I think is the best book on craft that I have ever read—and my students back me up on this), this is my favorite. The bulk of the book deals with the long, slow loss of her husband, Dennis, to early-onset Parkinson’s disease, which took its toll gradually over the course of decades. While it would be easy for a book like this to be maudlin, elegiac, and monotone throughout, Maria is not known for writing easy poetry. This is difficult poetry to read, not because the language is obtuse (it isn’t) or because the concepts are so overly intellectualized that they barely seem human anymore (they aren’t), but because she confronts the loss of her husband with a brazen, bold honesty which absolves no one, including herself. While her love for him is unquestionable, she also details the exhaustion and mixed emotions that come with any long-term care situation. She’s not interested in making herself into the suffering, sainted wife or a martyr to her husband’s illness. She wants to talk about the reality of loss, the days when your thoughts are less than charitable, the guilt that follows that, the frustration and anger and love that get wrapped together and make the process of losing even more difficult and cause it to continue even after that person is gone. Yes, there are moments of celebration, moments of nostalgia, moments of the starkest grief, and moments of love and sometimes even resentment—all of those honest, real emotions that collide and mix in the non-Lifetime movie experience of losing anyone whom you care about deeply. It’s a warts-and-all view of death and dying, and even when it seems the poems may have cast their gaze away from the spectacle of first-hand loss, the themes that thread through her environmental and political poems tie back into the master narrative, illustrating, ultimately, the way in which loss subsumes and consumes every aspect of our lives—even the ones we would think they would be the farthest removed from. The intersection of these two—the poems of political/environmental outrage and the poems of personal loss—results in my absolute favorite poem of her work, “Watching the Pelican Die,” which juxtaposes the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico with the simultaneous final days of her husband’s life. Delicately, honestly, with no heavy-handed proselytizing or preaching, she ties the two events together in a way that highlights the world changing commonalities of a public disaster that had cataclysmic, ongoing effects on the ecosystem of one of the largest and most important bodies of water in North America with the private disaster that has cataclysmic effects on a woman and her family. It is the most singularly devastating poem of a collection built around brutal, painful honesty.
You can order The Silence in an Empty House on Amazon by clicking here.
Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds. Of the three books I’m discussing in this article, this book has received the most recognition, having won both the Pulitzer Prize and the TS Eliot Prize—making Olds the first American woman to ever win the most lucrative poetry prize in the United Kingdom. For some of Olds’ fans, Stag’s Leap was almost an affront to their sensibilities, as years of reading her work had made them feel as though they were a part of her family—a family that Olds showed in honest, sometimes unflattering, but always loving detail. And then her marriage fell apart in the wake of the revelation of her husband’s infidelity, and Stag’s Leap chronicles the dissolution of that marriage from the last happy days, to the beginning suspicions, the eventual revelation, the divorce and its ramifications, and finally the gradual, grudging acceptance of life as a divorcee. Once again, what stands out most is how the book defies the expectations of what a reader might predict in a chronicle of adultery and divorce. Isn’t the husband supposed to be the monster? The wife the downtrodden, holy-lit victim? But Olds doesn’t traffic in those clichés anymore than she has in any of her other writing. She’s not going to allow herself to fall into the trap of branding the story that people want to read onto her personal experience. Instead, she tells a story with no heroes or villains, just the pain of love ending while still going on. Each poem captures a moment, whether the moment of finding out or a moment of the emotional wave that sweeps over her unexpectedly at any given time. She touches on nostalgia in the way we mourn for anything we have lost, but she doesn’t glamorize it, nor does she attempt to desecrate what came before in light of the knowledge that came after. She touches on not only her own hurt, but the hurt her husband feels in the difficulty of ending a marriage that he was the first to break from—the surprising emotion of getting what you thought you wanted and not being sure that you want it anymore. Maybe fans were most offput by the fact that too much of this hits too close to home for them. Maybe it’s one thing to read a poem such as her earlier work, “The Clasp,” and identify with that moment when your anger at your child passes into brief, regretful, momentary rage, but quite another to think about moments in which you are not in love with the one you are with, or that maybe the end of a relationship, even in the aftermath of something as catastrophic as adultery, doesn’t mean the end of love for either spouse, and that they are both then left to deal with what that means. Olds discusses comforting her husband on the day their divorce is finalized with the same degree of love she has written about him with for many years, and maybe that is something we are not as willing to read about in a world where we want one or the other of them to be right and the other party to pay dearly. But real life is rarely that simple, and her willingness to put that honest, truthful vision of what real hurt is front and center in her work is what makes the book so powerful, even as some people might shy away from it. My favorite poem in the book is near the middle. “Tiny Siren” encapsulates the discovery of a picture of the mistress in the washing machine—forgotten in the pocket of a pair of running shorts—before any of the truth had come forward, and that first, vague sense of unease that is so easily placated when you want to believe the best of someone. But the tension of the poem returns ever so slightly at the end, and the parallel of the siren indicating distress and the siren as the wave-tossed seductress of the sea (or rinse cycle) is such a gentle, but clever turn in the writing that it is hard to ignore.
You can order Stag's Leap on Amazon by clicking here.
Slamming Open the Door by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. Anyone who has sat through one of my classes has probably heard about this book more than they would care to, though when they have read it, it has grabbed them just as completely as it grabbed me. It was the first book of poetry I read from cover to cover as I was gradually exploring contemporary poetics, and its impact on me was immediate. Of the three books, this is the most directly narrative in its approach, proceeding almost entirely along a linear progression with classically incorporated moments of flashback interwoven. Bonanno tells the story of her adopted daughter, Leidy, a nurse fresh out of nursing school who was murdered in her apartment one night. The book plays out as both true-crime thriller and revelatory memoir as Bonanno details everything from the first night that Leidy did not answer the phone, to the investigation, trial, and conviction of her murderer, as well as what she and her family are left with afterwards when “justice” still doesn’t overcome “loss.” Again, this is a book whose power comes from the defiance of the expectations that come with such a narrative. There isn’t just rage and grief. It’s not a police procedural. This is the story of a mother grieving the loss of her daughter with all the moments of insanity and even dark humor that come along with it. Bonanno is least forgiving of herself, describing her appearance at her daughter’s funeral as “Jackie Kennedy without the pillbox hat, if Jackie were fat and had taken enough Klonopin to still an ox” and at points reflecting not only on the love that had passed between her and Leidy, but the moments she had been frustrated, the opportunities she had missed. Most startling is the journey of her as a character throughout the book as her perception begins to shift from what she wants them to be—the feelings she is sure she should have—to embracing a starker, more troubled reality that our emotions are not always logical, not always easy to place. In a book full of stunning poems, for me the biggest highlight comes early in “How to Find Out,” which takes that universal moment of a parent worrying that they haven’t heard from their child and walks the reader through the jocular dismissal of certainly ridiculous fear to the worst possible outcome. In the many, many times that I have read this poem privately or shared it in classes or with friends, I still have trouble not tearing up when I read it.
You can order Slamming Open the Door on Amazon by clicking here.
These are just three of my favorite examples of the marriage of poetry to memoir, the joining of personal narratives to the passion of poetics. I hope that you will seek these books out and take the time to appreciate the craft and care that has gone into them—the precision with which the poems are assembled to communicate not just the events, but the real, intangible effects that arise from them. If this is a mode of writing that interests you, once you’ve read some of these examples, the next step is to start thinking about what stories you have to tell. What are the stories of your life that would best be communicated in verse?
(Thank you to Michael Klein for catching my mistake in the original posting of this article. Mark Doty was the First American to win the TS Eliot Prize. Olds is the first American woman to win the award.)