Following a trail on the web a few years back, I came across an interview (www.thereviewreview.net/interviews/ten-bad-poems-every-good-one-conversation-washing) with a poet I didn’t yet know, Kathleen Flenniken, formerly Poet Laureate of Washington State. And there, in response to the question “Is there a poem you are a little embarrassed to like?” Ms. Flenniken says:
“Not so much a particular poem, but I feel defensive about one genre of poems that still speaks to me—the first person lyric grounded in everyday experience. It’s unfashionable, but it’s what brought me to writing.”
A familiar little chill crept down my spine. Ms. Flenniken seems to be struggling between attraction and her sense of what is going down. Perhaps that same feeling is what leads a number of poets to use third person or second person in their poems, even though those poems are sometimes simply “first person lyrics grounded in everyday experience” with a pronoun shift. I admit to a similar impulse, at times, to the instinctive or deliberate use of “you,” “she,” “they,” or even “we,” as opposed to “I,” or the avoidance of pronouns altogether. I also admit to related impulses such as connecting the personal to history and politics, or writing by means of the portrayal of objects, without persons at all—which can make a poem feel, well, more “objective.” These impulses stem—at least in part—from an unease similar to the one that seems to lie behind Kathleen Flenniken’s statement.
So, why does she, and why do I—both readers of contemporary poetry—feel this uneasiness? Perhaps the plethora of poets, poetry readings, poetry workshops and poetry programs today has made some versions of the “first person lyric grounded in everyday experience” seem too easy, too artless—just the sort of thing anyone who decided yesterday to call herself a poet can write. Perhaps the subjects of such lyrics have begun to seem too predictable. Perhaps the tide has finally finished turning against “confessional” poetry—an archetypal twentieth-century version of first person lyric grounded in everyday experience—and especially against less-than-artistic versions of it. Here’s Marjorie Perloff (an academic critic I don’t always trust, whose championing of the “new” in poetry can seem only intellectually motivated), in one of her updates of Pound’s Don’ts:
“Don’t take yourself so seriously. In the age of social networks, of endless information and misinformation, “sensitivity” and “the true voice of feeling” have become the most available of commodities.” (Poetry, April, 2013)
Perhaps “Language” poetry (although only one poetic school)—with its theoretical killing off of the Author—has made the first person lyric grounded in everyday experience seem unsophisticated or naive.
One does indeed see journal submissions policies that disallow familiar subjects, such as “family” or “dogs” (Guilty. Guilty again. Though I thought in new ways!) that appear in such “everyday experience” poems. One journal (in which I’ve appeared a couple of times) announced a lack of interest in “poems about family members” or “poems with an overabundant ‘I.’” One wonders when the “I” is overabundant, or appropriately sparse. Are two “I”s o.k., but three verboten?
One understands this impulse behind such statements on the part of the editor inundated with first-person poems about the death of the family dog; it may be impossible to pay attention at all when the poem she’s reading has the same done-to-death subject as ten previously encountered. A sexy (read “unexpected”) subject may have the virtue of waking her up. But does the apparent subject of a poem and its grammatical “person” finally matter as much its effectiveness and artistry? Does a passable poem whose apparent subject is somewhat unusual beat out a striking and moving poem about a common subject (such as John Updike’s “Dog’s Death”)? The exclusion of “poems about family members” seems even more draconian since it covers so many possible relationships at the center of human experience. One wonders if the editor of the unnamed journal mentioned above, who loves metaphor, imagery and sound (and published a highly imagistic poem of mine concerning an unidentified-as-such family member!) would have turned down a poem as good as admired contemporary poet Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do,” because it’s in first person and about her brother, who died of AIDS? Would he have turned down a poem as frank, witty and humorous as Beth Ann Fennelly’s “Latching On, Falling Off,” from Tender Hooks (Norton, 2005), because it is a visceral first person account of of the experience of new motherhood?
There’s no question that readers may appreciate range and variety in a book of poems or an issue of a poetry magazine. And yet, sometimes, of course, intensity of focus is another kind of genius. Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap (winner of a 2013 Pulitzer), in which every single poem is about her husband’s leaving her is a sterling example. In any case, I find the idea of prohibiting specific subjects, or indeed grammatical persons (or “too many” first person pronouns) somewhat silly, even if I understand that editors who create such prohibitions are probably making a guess about what might stem the tide of crappy poetry in their virtual or real mailboxes.
On Kathleen Flenniken’s current website, poems involving extremely apt and fresh metaphor let the reader in—whether in first person or not—and attract me as do people who are not completely self-involved. These poems seem to extend away from the self into their characters, subjects and highly imagistic language, yet they have the conviction of deeply felt personal experience—whether literally that or not. (There is even a poem that seems to validate the “I”: “And by ‘you’ I mean me” http://plumepoetry.com/2016/04/compare-the-movement-of-swallows-2/). Some of these poems strike me as “personal” in the manner of the great lyric tradition, e.g. in the way a first-person poem like Roethke’s “I knew a woman, lovely in her bones” might be called a personal lyric. Here, for example, is Flenniken’s “The Sound of a Train” (from Verse Daily), with nine “I”s and three “my”s , but these pronouns don’t seem “overabundant” to me!
The Sound of a Train
I first heard it in the mornings.
I’d scan the hibernating garden and sky,
sure there were no tracks nearby.
Then other hours, other trackless hillsides.
Once along the leaf-brown lakeshore I heard
a train’s wail — the very breath of grief. I turned
and saw a flash like a stag in the trees
before the dark scene stilled. Then I knew.
My mother and father were aboard.
My parents ride through the living world
and watch for me. If I could find their tracks
I’d wait patiently, the way I used to
at boarding gates, with lop-eared flowers
from the garden, hungry for stories
of their holidays away. But the ghost train
leaves no tracks. It never stops. Its stations
are unknown to me. My parents can’t disembark
or catch my eye or say how good it is
to be together again. Another whistle announces
they are near, side by side, gazing out
at the world. I listen to them passing by.
What travelers they are.
What a heart-breakingly beautiful, accurate, and subtle controlling metaphor this is—with its ancillary metaphors like that “flash like a stag in the trees”—for a common, indeed nearly universal, human experience.
–First appeared in a longer version on the site of The Press-Enterprise, www.pe.com, May, 2013
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Judy Kronenfeld is the author of six collections of poetry including Bird Flying through the Banquet (FutureCycle, 2017), Shimmer (WordTech, 2012), and Light Lowering in Diminished Sevenths, 2nd edition (Antrim House, 2012)—winner of the 2007 Litchfield Review Poetry Book Prize. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Calyx, Cider Press Review, Cimarron Review, DMQ Review, Hiram Poetry Review, Natural Bridge, The Pedestal, Poetry International, Valparaiso Poetry, and The Women’s Review of Books, and in more than twenty anthologies; they are forthcoming in Ghost Town, Rattle, and other publications. She also writes creative nonfiction, which has appeared in Under the Sun and Hippocampus, among other places, and the more occasional short story (Literary Mama, Madison Review, and others). Judy is Lecturer Emerita, Creative Writing Department, University of California, Riverside, and an Associate Editor of the online poetry journal, Poemeleon. See the most recent interview with her, by John Brantingham, in Ghost Town (http://ghosttownlitmag.com/interviews/), and her recent self-interview (http://thenervousbreakdown.com/jkronenfeld/2017/06/judy-kronenfeld-the-tnb-self-interview/). And please visit her website at http://judykronenfeld.com.