Trust the Poem or the Poet?

0185Recently I reconnected with the work of a poet whom I have known for many years, Betsy Sholl. She and I went through the same MFA program, lived in the same community, belonged at times to the same writing groups. I have read her poems in great gulps, but not until recently did I study their effect on me. When I read her work deeply, I want more depth and texture in my own work. Hooray for Betsy. She’s doing one of the most important things a poet can do–inspire others to discover what they like about good poems. And she’s inspiring me to work harder at the truth, which is our job description.

Without knowing it, though, she also taught me to question my ability to read a poem for what it is not. A poem is not an extension of the poet, but a stand-alone creation. Knowing her as well as I do, I concluded that her work is autobiographical. It’s believable, given what I know of her life. It may begin with her direct experience, but it can and does go beyond that. The opening lines of her poem “Pink Slip” (in Don’t Explain) did not fit with what I know of her life, so I couldn’t quite “get” the poem. I asked for her help. Oh, that’s a persona poem! Well, duh! Now it works very well.

Then I went through a brief loss of faith. If I cannot believe what I see on the page, cannot tell if she’s speaking directly or not, then what? Can I trust her? It doesn’t matter. All she’s asking is that I trust the poem. That I recognize that the writing on the page has an integrity all its own. Where she was when she wrote it might be interesting, but is not vital to the way the poem moves. Had it been anonymous, would I still value the poem? I would. Lesson learned.

4 responses to “Trust the Poem or the Poet?”

  1. Yes, true that we can’t read a poem as autobiographical and your example may be a good one. My experience with this happened years ago when I read a woman’s chapbook that had to do with incest, etc. I asked someone about it–I wasn’t going to ask the author–and he said no, she was writing a persona chapbook. But it seemed to me that the subject matter and tone implied it was personal and, moreover, was more ‘powerful’ if one assumed it had ‘really happened.’ In other words, I felt the author was using the ‘dramatic/shocking’ subject to win (unfairly) the audience’s interest, not to explore the subject.


  2. Thanks for joining this discussion, Robert. I think you last sentence is extremely important. Our job as poets is not to manipulate, but to explore, for sure. It took me years to figure out that cute and entertaining were not enough. Exploration calls for risk and sweat (even if it’s metaphoric) and those who ignore this element of poetry do themselves and the art a disservice.


    • Having spent a great long while among critics who literally despised any effort to connect a poem with the poet–poem as artifact, alone and of itself, and how could it be otherwise, they would say, since many readers may know nothing of the writer (and some of them would add “should” know nothing of the writer–I found that attitude freed me tremendously, and I do truly hope that the personae in some of my poems say nothing more about me than perhaps my skills in (sometimes with horror) observation.

      But I love the topic, since it revived in me the whisperish voice of the prof who taught me most about the schools of criticism.


  3. And speaking of whispery voices–welcome, friend. I would contend, no, I will contend, that the poet shows through the curtain, however anonymous she tries to be. And where, I ask, are the poems of which you speak? Why do you not share your wealth, eh? Good to hear from you.


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