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

1 November 2016

Nevertheless, when there were no specifics involved, she was happy to admit that her poetry was deeply rooted in the events of her life. In a 1975 essay entitled ‘The Creative Poet’, she argues that a successful poem is one that ‘convey[s] the emotion that engendered it’. As an artist, her central question was ‘How can I make my world, my personal interpretation of the universe, take form in the language common to all?’ Indeed, she did not always shy away even from specifics. When she was asked to talk about her life, she would often read or quote from her own poems, sometimes weaving a number of excerpts together to create a picture of her life. She also publicly stated more than once that there were poems in her oeuvre that could be read as being un-problematically about herself and her life: those poems dedicated to friends. In private letters, she is often entirely casual about the relationship between a particular poem and its engendering event. It seems clear that she believed that poetry certainly could be based on real life, and in her case, often – but not always – was.

That qualification, however, was crucial. ‘There is an ambiguous edge between art and life which can never be defined (as one cannot define the ‘edges’ of the colours in a rainbow),’ she wrote in her 1975 essay. But while there could be no ‘perfect correspondence between what is meant by the poet and what is understood by the reader’, she also saw the essence of poetry as ‘communication’. ‘I do not impose on my readers the task of understanding my private world,’ she writes. ‘I try to understand it myself and express what I have to say in poems that are an entrance gate to regions of being both poet and reader can share. To put it simply, my poems are meant for others.’

In discussing her early vow not to talk about her private life in relation to her poetry, Olds says that part of her motivation was ‘not to have the focus of any conversation there might be about [her poems] to be just on the biographical facts’. She wanted readers to talk about the work, not about her. In addition, it is clear that, like Harwood, Olds believes there can be no straightforward correlation between the life and the work. And yet she decided that it was important for her readers to know that the ‘stuff in her poems’ was real, that she had not made it all up, that the poems were the truth of her life as far as poems are capable of telling it. To satisfy her readers on this point, she was prepared to sacrifice her privacy, at least to some extent.

Post-modernism has brought in its wake a certain disdain for the personal – at least in the scholarly world. Biography, in particular, is often regarded with suspicion within academe. In the words of biographer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, it tends to be seen as ‘a kind of retrograde genre for people who [have] not properly problematized the notion of ‘the self.’’ Biographical readings of literary texts are particularly passé. It’s the work, not the life, that we have between covers in our hands, that we can parse and analyse and deconstruct and devour. It’s the work, not the life, that matters. Such attitudes have an uncomfortable, and ironic, resonance with the old values of patriarchy: a preference for the objective over the subjective, the public over the private, the rational over the emotional. It is women’s texts that have traditionally been regarded as ‘confessional’ – and men who have seen ‘confession’ as wholly negative. Despite the energetic deconstruction of such dichotomies in recent decades, it is surprisingly difficult to find an acceptable place within the academy from which to speak of the power of the personal. Yet the personal does have power, and that power, surely, does matter when reading poetry – whether as a scholar or as Woolf’s ‘common reader’.

According to Harwood, poets are those who ‘write about things that truly matter to them in the world, at the risk of making fools of themselves in public’. To be able to find in the work the ‘things that truly matter’ to the artist is no small thing. But to do so without at the same time skewering the poet, or over-simplifying the work, or taking a naïve view of language, is not easy. It requires, at the least, a nuanced understanding on the part of the reader that even the most truthful work is not simple or single, and a willingness to allow the artist to mutate before our eyes, to deny and resist our readings, to create and dissolve herself. It requires us somehow to hold biographical fact, authorial intention, and the performance that is art in a productive yet relaxed tension with each other. It requires us, in other words, to put the post-modern in the service of that which it most vehemently deconstructs – and, once again, to find a way to live with the uncertainty.

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