Virginia Poet Laureate Answers Questions # 3

SmithRon3BooksQuestion from Margaret Mackinnon on the Shenandoah site:

A lot of poems I read from contemporary American writers focus on the personal lyric moment (producing what I think of as the small neighborhood poem). Many of your poems draw on history and seem to involve research. Could you say something about the poem as research project, as opposed to the poem as confessional moment? Do you think we’ve perhaps exhausted the confessional poem? Or does the poem based in art, history, or research actually become a more effective vehicle for the personal story?

Ron Smith (answered in May, 2015):

First, I’d like to preserve the more etymologically obvious meaning of “confessional.” To me, the confessional poem is an admission of sin–which I take to be a humiliating transgression against either divine law or, more likely, against family and friends. The confessional poem forces the reader into the role of confessor. In this category I place some the more embarrassing poems of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sharon Olds. Such poems are not merely personal, they are excruciatingly so. They present themselves as revelations of misconduct in which the properly private becomes shamefully public.

But most people nowadays seem to take the word confessional to mean factual and autobiographical. As a reader I approach a poem’s here-are-some-personal-facts-from-my-life implication as an artistic strategy, not a literal state of affairs. When Dickinson tells me that a bird came down the walk and bit an angleworm in halves, I do not assume Miss ED of Amherst, Mass., saw this with her own eyes. What difference would that make? The personal lyric (like most good song lyrics) is, more likely than not, made up, a song rather than a bulletin.

With either definition, I feel strongly that whether a poem offers a truly confessional moment or not is usually none of the reader’s business. As Sam Goldwin might say nowadays, If you want to convey mere personal facts, appear on Tabloid TV. Good art is less about the artist than the audience. Of necessity, the worthy poem has to be more about the reader than the writer. The poet is channeling our experience, not flaunting his own.

Margaret, thank you for writing. I know your fine poems. Like you, I want a bigger neighborhood. In fact, I want a neighborhood as big as Saint Emily’s, who is clearly not always speaking in her own voice (whatever that might be). For instance, she was never once “a Boy and Barefoot” as she says in her “[A narrow Fellow in the Grass]” (#1096).

The phrase “poem as research project” sounds terribly artificial, but I know what you mean. The complex historical poem (let’s call it) is, at least in my case, a way I’ve found to make poems out of an essential part of my life. Most days I am only marginally myself, because I’m reading. Because I am, as Schopenhauer said, thinking with someone else’s head. But that’s as much my experience as watching the blue jays trade trips to the feeder. It’s simply a way of honoring my experience as a reader, as, say, the short nature lyric honors my experience as an observer.

And this is true even when I have made it all up for the sake of the imagery and the music and that shadowy thing that lies behind them both.

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.