Friday, September 25, 2009

Why Confess? - A Shane Neilson Post

Shane Neilson's Meniscus is due from the printer mid-next week. In a guest-blog post, he writes about the poem as act of confession.

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Why confess? Why take the personal and attempt to sanctify it in a poem? Why take what a few friends and family should know, and offer it up to a public?

The working title of my book was “My Manic Statement,” a reference to the granddaddy of the confessionals, Robert Lowell, and his “Memories of West Street and Lepke.” Lowell has been the presiding genius of this collection, not in terms of style but in terms of the confidence of utterance: I tried to do what Elizabeth Bishop said in a letter to Lowell, that Bishop might write about the events in her life but she doesn’t have the historical position that Lowell easily mines. I wanted to take a personal history and make it brittle, I wanted to make that history somehow relevant and pressing to more than just my own need. I wanted soul-excoriating poems that I could at least confirm had the ring of truth.

Many years ago, the first manuscript –drivel- I sent out to publishers was a collection of political poems, mostly about the then-ongoing war in Kosovo. One editor wrote back asking what knowledge I had of war, what legitimacy I possessed; he said it was a basic question that people would ask, how I was positioned to speak, if I was authentic. (What was understood: who was I kidding, really, a boy from New Brunswick.) I was devastated by this comment, and resolved instead to write about things I could verify; the war poems, little trinkets as I look back now, began to fall into the shadow of the only tumult that I really knew, and the only experience I could ever have.

But that doesn’t mean I’m left with a confidence. People have read my manuscript and said, “I think I now know you too well,” which means that there is the cringe factor in the confessional; but what man has not grieved, or longed, or succumbed? A man of serial failures and dogged persistence? One might say, “That’s just biography”, but I like to think that instead it’s authorship: these are the only things known to me, and are therefore the only things I can adumbrate, the only poems I could ever write, and the fantastic, odds-defying nature of the survivorship is the ringing back and front story of the collection, that it was written in spite of an unusual adversity. Rilke said in “Archaic Torso of Apollo” that “You must change your life” but as someone familiar with the confessional I know that the opposite is true, that my life changed me, and the very stuff of poetry is an investigation of states, of crossroad moments, of blunderings. Why not compose statements-in-poems that attest? That wrangle and pratfall? That “say what really happened?”

And then there is that great redeemer, love. It validates, and the book can be read as an in extremis love poem. The “I” of the book, used, I admit, as a function of the bondage of self, is rescued when the “I” looks at the cost: mounting, unmanageable. “I” becomes a love letter, a recognition that I owe all of this kingdom to “you.” Lowell broke the rules here, populating his poems with juiced biography, presenting one of his wives unfairly as a contrast; all of my use of the personal pronoun is an admission of culpability, a springboard to launch into reflection and not pronouncement.

But confessional, yes. A manic statement.

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