Have I Ever Told You About My Love/Hate Relationship With Confessional Poetry?

The art
of confession’s to focus attention on what’s
confessed while leaving the secret

mutations untouched. I once put the hose
of a vacuum on my penis and turned it
on. Honesty makes me feel so clean.

–Bill Hicok

Some of you know I started out as a poet. Some of you might have surmised as much from reading my books, which generally treat plot as a back-door lover, to be treated with suspicion and kept in ecstatic servitude. There’s training to be had in poetry just like there’s training to be had in fiction, but the training in poetry tends to be more like acting class: find your deepest, most horrible, painful, darkest experience and drag it up for the joy of the crowd, who is really only there to see real, honest tears and breast-rending. Kind of like NASCAR fans.

It’s like the Xtreme Sport version of Write What You Know.

In the days before I got the bright idea to start writing novels, I ran that particular obstacle course. I dutifully ate the scorpions and walked the highwire, dredging up my childhood abuse and past relationships and anything else that seemed suitably dire to please a professor. It really makes for an alarming personality type: someone who has lost all notion of appropriate social filters, and views their private pain as public discourse.

You know, a blogger.

The thing is, I never learned my lesson, even when I turned away from what I had always been taught was “real” Literature, the literature of displayed agony, and started writing about monsters and pirates. And honestly, I think it makes me a better writer. Most literary rules are better off bent, and combining the ritualistic self-flagellation of confessional poetry with genre tropes makes a much more delicious cocktail than either the bucket of emo-blood or elven mead alone.

Because you have to write what you know. And most of us know two things: what we’ve read and what we’ve done. What we’ve read is speculative science and folklore. What we’ve done is starve for love, bloody ourselves black for parental approval, take stupid risks for stupider reasons, get lost the dark of life and maybe, if we were lucky, found our way into the light again.

Cue the old “you got chocolate in my peanut butter” ditty.

A lot of contemporary fantasy fails to satisfy me because it does not have the creamy center of genuine emotional experience. Most contemporary realism fails to satisfy me because it lacks a crunchy exterior of awesome. It’s not enough to create a magical world, you have to show me the hand of god in that world, and the author is god. If there is no emotional core, I don’t care how many tribes of elves you’ve invented. The fact is, none of y’all know what it’s like to be a young, blond farm boy dreaming up at the stars when a wizard shows up to dump the fate of the world on your shoulders and also hands you a crown and a girl. Life doesn’t work like that. The best books serve two masters: they show us what life could be like if everything was different, and they make us recognize ourselves with a start. They make us say: yes, that’s what it’s like.

To strike that balance, you must be like unto a World of Warcraft heroine: wear sparkly, leathery, fantastical armor that nevertheless shows all your secret parts.

You may not know how it feels to cast magic missile, but you do know what it’s like to irrevocably lose someone you love. To be abandoned. To be betrayed. To find joy and grace at the end of suffering. Those things are universal, and a legion of poetry professors exist to help you dredge up the details of those experiences. So use them, not the generalized LIFE ISSUES(tm), but the genuine and specific things that have happened to you–let it hang out, let your fetishes and your griefs and your hoary, bloody innards fall all over the page. The best writers can’t fool anyone. We know what they want, what they’ve never had. No one ever thought Delany was a straight, monogamous guy. Stop caring who sees your private places–or care, and teach yourself to be an exhibitionist. Readers are sadists–they’re there to see the wreck, and they want to see you cry.

You have to put your penis in the vacuum cleaner. Honesty will make you whole.

And then put in the dragons.

29 comments on “Have I Ever Told You About My Love/Hate Relationship With Confessional Poetry?

  1. Amal says:

    “To strike that balance, you must be like unto a World of Warcraft heroine: wear sparkly, leathery, fantastical armor that nevertheless shows all your secret parts.”

    *flails* SO MUCH OF YES.

    I’ve never heard the “you got chocolate in my peanut butter ditty,” though. Sounds vaguely dirty. Awesome post all around, though.

  2. Amal: Meaning, you’re mixing two things that in fact are delicious together. It’s…a long chain of references, but the kids yesterday said: “you got your peanut butter in my chocolate!” “you got your chocolate in my peanut butter!”

  3. Berni says:

    Amen. That is true about so many other things as well. As a church musician, one of the things that drives me nuts is when I hear other church musicians sing, and I get the impression that the words don’t mean anything to them, as if they’re nonsense syllables. In pop music, singers must make you feel the sentiment of the song. I don’t know why liturgical singers can’t sound joyful when they sing alleluias and sorrowful on the sad stuff. All art needs to make a connection or it has failed.

  4. Berni: honestly, I think organized religion encourages empty word-mouthing without genuine feeling. Humans will generally do the least necessary to fit in, and church usually accepts the least necessary as equal to genuine effort.

  5. Yes, yes, yes. This is very much the kind of speculative fiction that I want to read (and write). For me, something about the crunchy fantastic exterior makes the painful truth at the center easier to swallow and digest. Perhaps–a spoonful of magic…

    (Also, this has given me another way of looking at the fact that my poem about being a queer teenager in a Christian fundamentalist high school was the one most enthusiastically received by my poetry professor…)

  6. Catherynnye: I definitely agree about organized religion, we Catholics do repetition like nobody’s business. I also really enjoyed your post. I’m working on writing the truth of things, then I’ll learn to add the dragons, or in my case, zombies.

  7. Aaron Leis says:

    Tony Hoagland has a nice essay called “The Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of our Moment” (online at: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/feature.html?id=177773) which deals with some of the problems contemporary poetry has run into with both Confessional writing and what he terms “Evasive.” Narrative, he argues, has been given a bad rap over the last few decades since it’s mainly been a vehicle for overly sentimental Confessional poems, while the “Evasive” poetics that has arisen in its place, doesn’t allow for any real emotional entrance into the poem.

    Hoagland’s argument interests me greatly because very early in my own writing I turned _to_ narrative in an attempt to obscure my confessional tendencies. I have to start with my experiences, but I’ve always felt that, by myself, I’m probably the least interesting speaker a poem could have. Much better to adopt a voice and see what correlations I can find to bridge my experience and the speaker’s world, and where they can’t be found, to see what interesting lies there are to be told.

    This topic’s a large part of the preface I’m writing for my dissertation, so it’s nice to read another take on all of it.

  8. I love ‘the crunchy exterior of awesome’ but I am grateful I don’t own a vacuum cleaner. Extreme stuff but inspiring.

  9. “But doctor, Cat Valente TOLD ME to do it. She said it was important to make me a better artist…”

    “Well, I confess that the sexual tension you experience over the next six weeks of your physician-mandated abstinence will likely assist your art. In the future, I suggest just practicing a little willpower instead of using a vacuum cleaner.”


  10. JM: Of course, for women writers, it’s a metaphorical penis, and so we experience all the artistic beenfits with less chafing. Jealousy is clearly what keeps us from literary respect.

  11. Lola says:

    I just told my poet friend about this article. I can’t wait till she gets to the end. She’ll love it.

    This explains why I’m good at fantasy. I obsessively wrote just such poetry in high school. It was probably awful but I definitely got to that inner core of suffering that’s now pretty easy to dredge up. I also think I’m naturally overemotional. That helps. Great essay though.

  12. Adam says:

    Confession–though a genre of poetry (Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath…)–is hardly required to make poetry, as becomes very apparent once you begin to read poetry, contemporary or otherwise. I write this not to start a fight, for I find this blog to be very intelligent and enjoyable, but because too many people do nurse the notion that poetry is either “difficult” or that it is what they wrote in their journals when they were 14–too often poetry is seen as the realm of the “creamy center of genuine experience”–this is dangerous becuase it leads to what poets call–with derision–sentimental poetry.

    What you’re saying about being honest, well that applies to all the arts. Good art is honest, even if honestly sarcastic, or honestly absurd. Honesty isn’t the whole answer–there’s more to good art than being honest–but it’s a component I find lacking in much of the fiction and poetry I read.

    You are right, of course, that poetry can be valuable to a writer in terms of improving prose; more fiction writers should read and write poetry, though most shouldn’t publish any of it.

  13. David Keck says:

    Hey Catherynne (friend of your editor here and also a writer of things shelved in the fantasy section). And you are quite right that the poetry leaks through in your work. (Oh, just here and there, you know). Its lovely headlong stuff. Characters and scenes all discombobulatingly and convincingly mythical.

    When I’m working, my poetic compulsions just scramble the narrative flow. I remember one editor complaining that she was too old for all the “suddenly here” and “vividly there” stuff. Like navigating by flashbulb, I think.

    Still. Fight the poetic power!

  14. My poetry
    lacks all knowledge
    of verse,
    or scheme.

    But my pain is

    It must
    as I’m compelled
    to write
    bad oh so bad bad bad beyond bad
    poetry about it.

  15. Bear says:

    ooooh… is that vacuum cleaner thing REALLY necessary? couldn’t we use something else instead? :)
    joke aside, it’s a great post “you write what you know” – sounds like “law number one” in a writer’s decalog! thanks!

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