Sharon Olds, Gwen Harwood and Dorothy Hewett: Truth, Lies, Poetry

By | 1 November 2016

Image courtesy of Vogue.

In 2008, US poet Sharon Olds came out about her poetry, admitting that her writing is based on her own life. Since the publication of her first book, Satan Says, in 1980, when she was thirty-seven, she’d been evading questions about the biographical basis of her work. In her rare interviews, she would gently correct ‘personal’ to ‘apparently personal’ as a description of her poems and emphasise with kindly patience that they were works of art, not autobiography. Then, in her late sixties, she changed her mind. She confirmed that the man dying slowly from a throat tumour in her book The Father was her own father; that the woman who in a number of poems ties her young daughter to a chair was the poet’s own mother; that the marriage whose end is painfully documented in Stag’s Leap was Olds’s own thirty-two-year marriage. In an email to an interviewer, she explained her re-think with reference to a reading she once gave at a high school. ‘A student said: ‘If I thought you’d made up all the stuff in your poems, I’d be really mad at you,’’ she writes. ‘And I knew how he felt, and in his place I’d feel the same way.’ Far from being offended by the idea that a reader might connect her poems with her life, she had taken that link for granted. She had assumed that the reader would know the poems had emerged from her own experience, even if she had never explicitly said so. ‘It had not crossed my mind really that anyone would make up a life, make up these stories,’ she goes on. ‘It seemed so obvious to me they were being told, sung, from some inner necessity that rose in an actual life.’

It might have been obvious once, in the days when a writer’s work was seen as the sum of her life, a kind of wordy extrusion of her existence. But in this post-modern age, we are more sophisticated – and more cautious. We know that poets may write to tease, or play, or shock, to explore language or satirise cultural mores, to construct a new identity or a range of them, to win literary fame or notoriety or (implausible as it may seem) financial rewards. Even if we limit ourselves to poets who set out to speak about themselves, we know that a poem is not the same thing as a life. It is not a truth, it is not a moment: It is words on a page. It is language, which does not originate with any individual, which we fit ourselves into and which fits us to itself. In declaring her work to be the truth of her life, then, Olds appears to be speaking from within a superseded paradigm. Nevertheless, she is far from unaware of the contradictions that cluster around a confession such as hers. ‘How much can a poem reflect or embody a life … ?’ she muses, in the same interview in which she first acknowledges the autobiographical nature of her work. ‘You can want to come close, but it’s so profoundly different – the actual body, the flesh, the mortal life.’ Partly for this reason, perhaps, a finished poem does not, she emphasises, feel ‘personal’ to her: ‘It feels like art – a made thing – the ‘I’ in it not myself anymore, but, I’d hope, some pronoun that a reader or hearer could slip into.’

She knows, in other words, that a poem is not a straightforward translation of a life. Nevertheless, she wants to affirm to her readers – represented by that questioning high school student – that they can take her work as true. In a sense, she is framing her declaration as an act of kindness, a gesture of friendship. She is telling her readers that they can trust themselves to her poems, can allow themselves to respond to her work with openness, to offer their empathy, to allow themselves to be moved and changed. She is telling them that if they have a personal response to her ‘apparently personal’ poems, they will not be made to feel foolish.

Such an assurance is necessary today, when reading a poem as a personal communication from the author is often considered intellectually indefensible. With her admission, Olds is opening the way for readers to reclaim a more traditional approach to reading a poem. The risks of this approach are high: the poet and her work may disappear behind the reader’s projections, and a necessary awareness of the extraordinary materiality of language may be lost. But the rewards are also high. In the transition from Romantic to post-modern ways of reading, we’ve lost the capacity to see a poem as a source of connection, even communion, between writer and reader. The challenge now is to conceive of a poetry that can speak of and from and to the personal without being limited to it, a poetry that springs from a specific intention belonging to a specific person in a specific moment without being confined by that intention. Rising to this challenge is important not only for readers who long for some personal resonance in the poems they read, but also for writers who need a place of shelter from which to create.

When I was at university in the late eighties and early nineties, post-modernism was in the ascendant, and for a while it seemed to me that the things that had most drawn me to the study of literature had to be sacrificed. Somehow I had developed the habit of seeking behind every text a mind, a heart, a life. I would piece together a picture of ‘the author’ like a jigsaw puzzle, slotting in a flash of childhood here, a gleam of repressed passion there, and happily contemplate my idol. The academy showed me that this was not only naïve in the extreme but ethically dubious. I was treating a literary text as though it were a pane of glass through which the truth could be seen – Stendhal’s mirror journeying down the highroad. Worse, I was deeply invested in cultural values that actually denigrated me. In the tradition of literary criticism I had absorbed at school, I had learned that aesthetic value is universal and arises from moral worth. I had not wondered why the great writers were almost all white, educated, English men, or noticed that as a woman of working-class origins, and a colonial, my own moral worth could only ever be a provisional, patched-together thing.

I loved the post-modern critique as I encountered it at university. I loved its anarchic energy, its implacable rejections of received truths, its elevation of what had once been scorned and concomitant scorning of what had once been elevated. It was the energy of rebellion, of the old making way for the new, and in the crashing and burning were all kinds of unimagined possibilities. If universal values were only culturally specific values in dress-up, there was a whole world to explore – the underworld, the place of the reviled: women, the poor, the uneducated, the sexually ‘deviant’, oppressed races, indigenous cultures, non-Christian religions … virtue could reside anywhere, beauty could beam out from the most unlikely places.

In literary theory tutorials, I learned about the intentional fallacy: the belief that the author’s intentions determine the text’s meaning. I learned that my entire approach to literature had been fallacious in precisely this way. I had asked, following my teachers: what was Shakespeare trying to say here? What were Wordsworth’s main themes? What was Dickens’s view of the world? I had read the author, not the text. Now I learned that the author’s intention – declared or intuited – was only one tiny part of a text’s meaning, and of no special importance. Seeing the meaning of a literary text as originating in its author was no more valid than seeing the shape of a life as originating in the person who lives it, without reference to the material context that determines their choices. Alexander Pope’s injunction to turn our eyes away from God and towards ourselves – ‘The proper study of mankind is man’ – was revealed to be impoverished. What is the point of studying ‘man’ when he is but the plaything of forces not divine but equally powerful and mysterious? ‘Man’ is shaped by the structures of language and culture, by beliefs and ideologies and social imperatives, and by unconscious and biological impulses. ‘He’ is manipulated and constructed and reconstructed by words and images and ‘messages’, including his own, and if there is any kind of core self, it’s impossible to isolate or identify it with the compromised tools at our disposal. The proper study of mankind, it began to appear, was the structures of language and culture.

I embraced this new focus with great conviction – it made all kinds of sense to me. Yet at the same time, I continued to read books as though they could tell me something about the people who wrote them, and about myself. I understood that as individuals we are all unstable subjects, constructed in language, shaped by and shaping our culture, our families and our environments. I saw that we stitch our identities together using memory and narrative, that we create ourselves through sheer iteration, that we are neither single nor continuous. Yet I continued to hunger for the stories of other people’s self-construction. After university, I turned increasingly to poetry for moments of recognition, for spiritual companionship, for opportunities for re-assessment, for the deep childhood pleasure of rhythm and rhyme. I saw that there was no self, in the old, Romantic sense, and yet I continued to behave as though I had a self, and that this self could communicate with other selves. I increasingly saw poetry as a space in which knowledge of the self, however incomplete, however transitional, could be communicated.

This double focus remains with me. I cannot go back, cannot unlearn what I have learned about the construction of both self and text – and I wouldn’t want to. But I have an increasing urge to make space within my scholarly framework for what is personal – just as I feel impatient with, bored by, the personal response when it is un-stiffened by any wider reference. Like Olds’s high school student, I care that her poems are based on her own experience. It matters to me that, as far as possible, as far as her intentions go, as far as she could even know them, she does not ‘make it up’. But what can I, the reader, do with this knowledge? For me, it is inevitably post-modern knowledge: provisional, relative, subjective, unverifiable. How can I use it to read a poem?

It is not surprising that Olds took so long to decide to state publicly that her poems were based on her own life. She needs privacy in which to live, as do we all, and the thought of strangers, however well-intentioned, sifting through the facts of her life, making judgements about them, about her and her friends and family, coming to their own conclusions and presenting those conclusions to others without further reference to her, must have seemed intolerable. But not only does she need privacy personally, she needs it as an artist. In a seminar she gave some ten years before her ‘coming out’, Olds talks about how the gap between the poet and her ‘I’ is a space of safety in which she and other poets can explore and experiment and play. ‘I like the phrase ‘apparently personal’ because it says, when you read me your poem, I am not going to assume that every word in it is literally true,’ she explains. ‘And I’m going to talk about my poems in the same way. I’m going to say, the speaker, because then I feel free in what I do.’ This freedom is essential for the writer. ‘Say we were writing together, say we gathered every week and read each other a poem,’ she goes on. ‘If we all were absolutely convinced and couldn’t have our minds changed that anything that anyone in this room brought in that had an ‘I’ in it was absolutely autobiography, that everything in it purely happened to them … I think we wouldn’t feel as free to bring in things that were on an edge, or things that were over the edge.’ The writer would be constrained, in other words, by having to embody that ‘I’.

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