Friday, June 10, 2011

June 10, 2011: True Confessions

One of the great benefits of an AmericanStudies perspective, at least in my own career, is that it allows us to view texts—including works of literature—through many more and often more productive lenses than might otherwise be the case. For example, for many years I found little value in poems that would be categorized as overtly confessional poetry—works, that is, in which the author seems to be writing directly of his or her own identity and experiences, turning his or her life into poetic images in a nearly one-to-one correspondence. The most famous such author, and one about whom I’ll have more to say in a future post, is Sylvia Plath, at least in some of her best-known poems (such as “Daddy” and “Lazy Lazarus”). But there have been many late 20th and early 21st century poets who have produced similarly confessional works, and from a New Critical/close reading perspective, such texts can seem too simplistic, more like autobiographies rendered in verse than complex poems worth extended analytical extension in their own right.
That perspective was and is pretty much wrong on the merits—I’ve since spent weeks at a time, in multiple semesters, teaching Plath’s Collected Poems and have found new elements and themes each time I’ve done so—but it also misses the other important meanings that poems can have and work that they can do. From an AmericanStudies perspective, a confessional poem can be a very unique, intimate, and successful way to connect to another American’s identity and experiences, to gain access to a life that might be (or seem) entirely distinct from one’s own. They’re not the only works that can provide such access of course—personal narratives/memoirs can do so at much greater length; documentary film can marry words to visuals in striking ways—but they are perhaps (when they succeed) the most immediate and intense, the most able to capture in a powerful image or metaphor, coupled with a revelatory turn of phrase, the emotions and thoughts of a human consciousness as it grapples with complex and evolving and genuine experiences and influences. If you’re trying to teach a course on the 1980s, say, and are looking for ways to help your 21st century students understand what AIDS meant in its first decade of existence, how it impacted the first generation of Americans stricken by the disease, there are few texts better than the confessional poems of Mark Doty (1953- present).
Doty had begun publishing poems, on a wide range of themes and topics, in the mid-80s; but when his partner Wally was diagnosed with AIDS toward the end of the decade, Doty turned his poetic lens very fully to that still mysterious and very fatal illness, and more exactly toward its emotional, psychological, social, and physical effects on both the patient and his loved ones. A poem like “Faith” (1995) does not dissemble about that focus, referring to Wally by name, highlighting the effects of reading that “vacant / four-letter cipher” at the doctor’s office, addressing directly contemporary advice about keeping a “positive attitude” in the face of the disease; yet if I try to pin down the poem’s message, try to paraphrase what Doty is trying to represent through its extended use (both metaphorical and literal) of his dog Arden, I can’t do so. The image and text escape any single meaning, just as, of course, do the disease and relationship and lives to which they connect. That dense and multilayered poetic identity is perhaps even more clear in Doty’s “Turtle, Swan” (1987), and specifically in the poem’s concurrent but distinct, overlapping but ambiguous and evolving, portrayals of the titular animals, real creatures glimpsed near Doty and Wally’s home who become slippery yet vital images of their own identities, love, and potential futures.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the initial medical discovery of HIV and AIDS, and of course in many ways we know a great deal more about the disease than we did in those early, fearful, and much less hopeful years. Yet for those of us fortunate enough neither to have the disease nor to have known well anyone dealing with it, it remains far too easy to feel at a significant distance from it, unaware of what those four letters really mean. Easy, that is, until we read Doty’s poems, which bring AIDS and its meanings home very powerfully. I confess I haven’t been the same since I read them. More tomorrow, the long-awaited next guest post!
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Doty’s “Faith” (which is as you’ll see the first part of a longer poem called “Atlantis”):
2)      And his “Turtle, Swan”:
3)      OPEN: Any texts (in any genre) that have opened up identities for you?

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