Why an Autobiographical Poem Is Not Autobiography

by Tina Blue
March 31, 2001

          In two earlier articles ("Analysis of Poetic Strategies in a Free Verse Poem by Rebecca Henry Lowndes" and "Further Analysis of Rebecca Henry Lowndes' 'Song for a Seeker'"), I analyzed some of the poetic strategies used by Rebecca Lowndes in her poem "Song for a Seeker," to demonstrate why an effective free-verse poem is poetry and not just funny-looking prose.

          I also promised in those articles to deal with a couple of other points raised by that poem. One of those points is the fact that a poem, however autobiographical in its origins, must not be mistaken for autobiography.

          I won't pretend that it isn't often helpful to know the details of a poet's life, since those details may very well show up in his work, and we might better understand the significance the poet ascribes to certain events and images if we know something about his life.

          For example, in "One Art," which is about "the art of losing," Elizabeth Bishop writes, "I lost my mother's watch . . ." (10) . Knowing that her father died when she was nine months old, that her mother was committed to a mental institution when Bishop was four, and that she was raised by her grandmother, we can understand that despite the poem's flippant tone and the seeming insignificance of the loss of a watch, what she is describing is deep, genuine grief. The watch itself becomes a symbol of the time she never got to spend with her mother.

          But even autobiographical poetry does not merely recount the poet's life. Those details will be redrawn and reshaped wherever necessary to fulfill the aesthetic and thematic demands of the poem.

          If the actual details of the life are incompatible with the requirements of the poem, the poem's needs will inevitably take precedence over mere truth, sometimes without the poet's even being aware that he is reshaping truth in the image of art.

          Furthermore, "truth" and "memory" are surprisingly flexible for most people. No matter how honest the poet, no matter how determined to present what actually happened, he is bound--as we all are--to offer instead a fictionalized version of events.

          Life imitates art at least as much as art imitates life, maybe even more so. The way any person sees himself, his relation to others, and his place in society and in the human drama is significantly influenced by the patterns made available in his culture's mythic and literary tradition. That tradition reaches different people by different routes, and though the nature of the route will determine surface manifestations, the tradition's deep structure will remain recognizable.

          For example, the tradition of the outlaw as Romantic hero can be found in westerns, in the Godfather trilogy, and in certain gangsta rap songs and videos. Young people, seeking a mold to pour their sense of alienated self into, might choose to be the "outlaw," but if they do, their choice of image will depend on what their cultural exposure has provided as models.

          In "Further Analysis of 'Song for a Seeker' by Rebecca Henry Lowndes," I pointed out that the love story in her poem is modeled on those in the courtly love tradition, and presented in images appropriate to the legendary, fated loves belonging to that tradition.

          Lowndes might have thought that she was describing what really happened when she met her husband-to-be and as the love between them grew, but of course she wasn't. She was describing a sacred quest for love and meaning and its entirely unexpected success, achieved when all hope seemed lost. Does that sound like autobiography to you?
          Throughout both articles on Lowndes' poem, I always refer to the poem's "I," its speaker, as the poem's persona--never the poem's author.

          The word persona comes from the Greek word for the tragedy and comedy masks worn by actors in classical Greek drama. (It is also the root for our word personality, the mask we wear when we interact with others.)

          If the poem's persona plays a role within the poem that seems to be that of poet to the poem's materials, then we can call the persona the poet, but still not the author, since even the "poet" within the poem is only a fictionalized projection of a poet's relationship to the poem.

          Nor should we refer to the poet within the poem by the author's own name, unless he explicitly names the poet-persona after himself. But even then, the persona is a character who is a poet and who has the poet's name--not really the author himself, even if there is a very high degree of overlap between the poet-persona and the actual author.

          I would not use the word "poet" to refer to the persona in "Song for a Seeker," because the persona's role in that poem has nothing of the poet's function. She is a seeker, but not a poet in that poem.

          It is difficult for some people (sometimes even for the authors themselves) to disentangle the poet-as-author from the poet-as-character in the poem, especially if the poem is written in the first person ("I"). It is doubly difficult if the events in the poem are based on real events in the author's life. (Notice that I say " are based on," not simply "are.")

          I always tell my poetry students not to "lock their knees" when they are trying to understand poetry. We need to stay loose and not allow ourselves to get locked into simplistic one-to-one equivalencies.

          Do you remember wiggle-pictures? They were little novelty toys with pictures that would shift back and forth between two different images as you moved them.

          Think of a poem that way. Even as you see it from one angle, so that certain aspects become evident, don't forget that a very subtle shift in perspective would reveal an entirely different picture. And poems are far more complex than wiggle-pictures. Every slight shift can bring a whole slew of unexpected effects into the foreground.

          The autobiographical details in a poem may seem prominent from one viewing angle, but from another they may not be apparent at all.

          The fact that Lowndes' poem is based on events from her own life is more interesting than relevant. The poem's meaning and effect would be essentially the same if we had no idea who wrote it, or if it were written by someone who'd never had such an encounter or experienced such a love.

          If it were possible for, say, Attila the Hun or Winston Churchill to have written this poem in a moment of romantic whimsy, the poem's persona would still be precisely who she is and the love story precisely what it is--whether we knew who the author was or not, and whether the author's own life had in it events that were recognizably the source for the events in the poem.
*This is the third in a series of four articles analyzing the poem "Song for a Seeker," by Rebecca Henry Lowndes. The first article in this series is "Analysis of Poetic Strategies in a Free Verse Poem by Rebecca Henry Lowndes."  The second article is "Further Analysis of Rebecca Henry Lowndes' 'Song for a Seeker.'" The next (and last) article in this series is "Literary Criticism Is about Analyzing and Understanding Literature, NOT About Criticizing It."

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