Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Here's a link to an article I've been mulling over lately. It's by Jason Schneiderman, a guest blogger on the Best American Poetry site, and it details his distress about the memoir phenomenon--and, particularly, about poets who turn to memoir. He seems to see this as a betrayal of the poetic mission.

Several readers (including myself) left comments on his post, though I'm not sure that I'm any happier with their arguments than I am with his. The whole topic seems specious: I mean, prose and poetry are different. They do different work. They make the writer and the reader think in different ways. And it's not a new phenomenon for poets to write in other genres: look at Coleridge, at Swift, at Sidney.

Great writing is great writing, and crappy mediocre writing is crappy mediocre writing. As far as I'm concerned, that's the dividing line.

Dinner tonight: soupe au pistou, homemade melba rounds, apple-cabbage slaw. (This soup is a good choice for piano-lesson night because I can start the vegetable base before trekking off to the north and then quickly reheat it and add the pistou finish, which is basically mashed-up garlic, Parmesan, and herbs.)


Jason Schneiderman said...

Hey Dawn,

Thanks for reading the post and caring about it. The comments page at BAP has become so frought that I think commenting there would be falling into a tar pit.

In my post, I had wanted to put the emphasis on my sadness that poets get more attention for memoir than they do for poetry-- that poets get advances when they write memoir (frequently)-- they get reviews, they get readers. Of course it's structural-- the general reader buying books prefers to buy prose, preferably "true". It's a sticky wicket-- I want more attention for poetry (and for myself!)-- but I also want poetry to refuse to compromise itself and to stay staunchly unpopular. I had wanted the post to be about my sadness about the poet's outsiderness at the same time that I treasure that outsiderness. I wonder if you would agree with my assessment that memoir is a highly popular genre, and that the memoirist is a cultural "insider." Having written a memoir, you have more authority on this than I.

I realized in thinking about this topic, that I do greatly enjoy memoirs that are personal meditations on a subject. I adore Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face because it's a meditation on beauty and disfigurement. I loved Susanna Kaysen's Girl Interrupted because it's a meditation on what it means to be sane. Personal experience that gives one insight into a subject has been the foundation of many a memoir I've loved. So I'll temper my mistrust.

I also wanted it to be about the experience of knowing people with memoirs and feeling odd about reading them. Which I still do. Though I suppose I now have to read the memoir in question. Which I'm quite sure I'll like. He's a great writer.

And since no one's called me out for writing against memoir in a memoiristic vein, I suppose I'll do it myself. These blog posts are my first venture into the blogosphere with any real audience.

Thanks Dawn!!


Dawn Potter said...

Jason, so nice to hear from you. I entirely sympathize with your "market wince." Yes, it is endlessly hard to accept the fact that people will buy my prose but not my poems. I resisted writing my memoir (which is about poetry, just to confuse matters even more), partly because I was afraid it would in some way dilute my ability to write poems. But what I found is that it required me to come to grips with a different aspect of my intellect. It made me think about new things in a new way. It had no impact on whether or not I continued to write poems, and in some ways it deepened my poetic work.

I don't read much contemporary poetry or memoir, and I don't have a teaching job that requires me to keep up. Because I'm stuck in the past, I don't have much of a grip on how memoir is being taught or sold in the academy. My guess is that my cluelessness preserves me from some of the anxiety you are undergoing.

All best, Jason, and thanks for pressing me to think about this.

charlotte gordon said...

You know, in the old days, writers felt no tug between "memoir" and poetry. The split we feel would not have made sense to them even in a formal sense. I know you know all this already, Dawn, and am so glad you took on Jason. But I still want to chime in: Coleridge wrote memoir-y poems, as well as those great essay/poems and tea conversations. One of the post-modern prejudices we have inherited is suspicion of "the personal" and this is linked, I think, to the upswing in women's writing. More women writers. More memoirs. More "women" poets.
Besides, the idea of poetry being "staunchly unpopular" goes back to modernist snobbery. Can you imagine the Irish bards wandering around hoping that no one would listen to them? Or Shelley saying, I want to stay an "outsider" ? or Byron? Or Shakespeare? Poetry has gotten separated from popular culture for lots of complicated reasons that have more to do with class than a claim to "outsiderness." The only claim to outsiderness of the pre-Eliot poets was the claim that they were Priests and gods and better than everyone else. But that was one reason why they thought everyone should read them. And everyone did.