Further Thoughts on Memoir in Poetry

(Michel Perkins has told me that every single “I” in his book, Carpe Diem: New and Selected Poems, is a different person. Yet readers, myself included, would assume that Michael is offering his own wisdom under his “I.” He is, and he isn’t. To state his beliefs so strongly, he’s adopting a persona. In my own poems I freely embellish upon my fragmentary memories of childhood or Hoboken. Yet I fear that readers feel cheated when they learn that poetry is fictional, especially in this age of memoir. And poetry can be great memoir, as in Gray Jacobik’s Little Boy Blue. That book’s power arises from the pact she’s made to tell us the dead honest truth.

So I was fascinated by this passage from Philip Schultz’s new book My Dyslexia, an extended essay about his discovery at the age of fifty-eight that he had dyslexia when the condition was diagnosed in his son. After a terribly slow start in school, Schultz finally began reading at the age eleven by pretending to be someone else, a technique he later adopted as a writer.

I happen to be a Philip Schultz fan. In the early 1980s I took a writing workshop in his Greenwich Village apartment, a precursor to his Writers Studio that has grown into quite an enterprise. He was ebullient guy, already bald though in his early thirties, who’d had some real success as a poet, winning awards and publishing in The New Yorker. His book in the works, Deep Within the Ravine, would win the Lamont Poetry Selection of 1984. At the time, I was a fiction writer with no interest in poetry, but he was writing a novel himself and saw no reason not to mix the genres in his workshop. His poems described his Jewish immigrant childhood in Rochester in the 1950s, material similar to that of the Jewish novelists who then reigned, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Bernard Malamud. Schultz also loved the great Russian short story writer, Isaac Babel, and he loved to tell the story of Babel arriving among friends with a huge manuscript in his hands. You’ve finally written your novel, the friends exclaimed. No, Babel replied, these are my drafts for a short story. The moral that Philip Schultz was telling us was that writing was hard work.

Then life led me in other directions. And he seemed to go silent. Not until The Holy Worm of Praise in 2002 did I read another book by him. In the meantime I’d begun writing poetry myself in the early 1990s almost by chance, triggered by reading Gary Snyder’s deceptively simple poems about adventuring in the High Sierras. Until then I’d dismissed poetry as cryptic and arcane. Now I found writing it to be a shortcut around a fiction writing block that had bedeviled me since Philip Schultz’s workshop. I started by imitating Snyder, but rapidly veered off into narrative poems about childhood and other crazy experiences. Years later I finally recognized that my real role model had been Philip Schultz’s Rochester poems, right down to using “&”s to give the poem a jazzy momentum.

In 2008 Philip Schultz won the Pulitzer Prize for Failure. Not that I know him—it’s been thirty years since his workshop—but I felt thrilled for him. And I raced through My Dyslexia in a few hours. It reminded me of William Styron’s long essay about depression, Darkness Visible. Both have helped me to understand far better these almost hidden yet potentially devastating conditions that have beset several of the most important people in my life.)

From My Dyslexia by Philip Schultz:

When I first started teaching college in the mid-seventies I noticed that nearly all of my poetry and fiction students were using the same autobiographical “I” (or “me”) they used to write in their diaries, journals, and letters. These narrators were stand-ins for themselves and allowed them little or no distance from their characters. Once they understood that writers like Salinger, Philip Roth, and Chekhov used invented narrators—with attitudes and dilemmas different from their own—there was a remarkable improvement in their work. Holden Caulfield, Huck Finn, and Hemingway’s Jake Barnes gave their authors a remove in which they could “see” their characters as actors in their stories. It isn’t as obvious in poems, but the same principle pertains: the poetic “I” isn’t really the poet, it’s a made-up persona or personality possessing a perspective, distance, and sympathy for its characters that often changes from poem to poem.

In the famous Robert Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the speaker begins: “Whose woods these are I think I know.” Clearly Frost isn’t using his own speaking voice, but a persona of great focus and intimacy to set up a scene and tell a story through his masterful use of rhyme and meter. When the speaker tells us that “My little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near,” he isn’t only describing the place, he’s revealing the personality of his “I” so that the reader will identify with him and believe in the urgency of a carefully constructed narrator who tells us:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep.
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The music and wonderful simplicity work their magic, of course, but it’s the persuasive sincerity and authority of his narrator that is most memorable.

When I discovered that my most persuasive narrators were the ones whose personal agendas and attitudes were most different from my own, I started “borrowing” narrators from my favorite writers. The famous opening of Saul Bellow’s novel The Adventures of Augie March is a good example. “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted…” I always imagined this was Bellow’s own voice until I noticed how similar it is to Ishmael’s in Melville’s Moby-Dick, which begins: “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particularly to interest me on a shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world…it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…” These forthright and high-minded narrators, written nearly a century apart, equipped with outsize personalities of great brio and intellectual capacity are not only perfectly suited to their stories, they’re undeniably similar. Yes, Bellow knew his Melville as Melville knew his Bible.

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