Good Saturday all. Apologies for the lateness of this. I nearly forgot that we have a new project for the coming week!
And that is . . . to write a poem about your first memory. By this I mean, to try to go back in time to that moment or experience before which you have no memory. I mentioned last week that such a poem might also be about when you first became aware of yourself as a person in the world—or, as Margaret put it, when you first became aware of a self.
I suppose inevitably, this kind of exercise IS about selfhood and our lifelong struggle to understand our own, to define it, to “experience” it. Put another way, we might be talking about the first time we asked the question, Who am I?
So much poetry, good and bad, dwells on this question. I think of the poems of Sylvia Plath in Ariel. Or Robert Lowell in his sonnet sequences, which are book-length, lyrical investigations into Robert Lowell.
Some poets, like Lowell and Plath, Anne Sexton and Theodore Roethke—you can name many more yourself, I’m sure—are closely identified with the idea of Self in all their writing. These four “confessionalists” are among the most claustrophobic explorers of selfhood in the English speaking poetry canon. Reading their poems is like being drawn into their psyches, seeing or experiencing them from the inside out. Their explorations are deep and tunneling, full of troubled probes.
Some poets approach Self in relation to environment, and reading their poems is like getting to know them from the outside in. Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch are two that I’m familiar with. Much poetry written by people of color is, to me, an effort to understand Self in terms of one’s skin color (literally from the outside in, but also culturally, economically, materially, societally, politically from the outside in). Two recent books, Brown, by Kevin Young, and Magical Negro, by Morgan Parker, remind me of this outside-in understanding of Self. The essayist Richard Rodriguez is another writer of color who works in this direction.
Others, like John Ashbery or Wallace Stevens or Marianne Moore, famously appear to avoid the subject all together. At least that’s the impression we often have when reading their poems: is there a real person in there?
Is this a project about biography? I hope not! In other words, I am asking you NOT to write a poem that answers that question, Who am I? (Instagram is flooded with this stuff these days, and some young “poets” are building global literary reputations by writing such self-affirming verses by the dozen.) Instead, I am asking you to travel back in time as far as you can go, to that moment when you had your first real thought, when you formed your first idea or formulated your first independent observation of the world around you, AND YOU WERE AWARE OF BEING PRESENT TO IT.
I believe that one thing that distinguishes civilized human beings from other creatures is this ability (some might call it a curse) to stand apart from oneself in order to “see” or “experience” oneself AS A SELF in the world. What this project challenges you with, then, is to recall the first time you remember having this experience.
I can’t wait to hear and to read what you bring on Wednesday!