Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton pretty much revolutionized poetry in the 1950’s with their confessional style. It was a revelation at the time, almost a revolution that the interior life of a woman might be worth setting down onto paper. Somehow, it is always brand new when a woman has something to say that other people want to hear. See Jane Austin and Virginia Woolf.
Among the female poets that I know, and I know primarily female poets, there is this ongoing struggle with subject matter and legitimacy. The things they want to talk about are domestic in nature, the devil in the details, so to speak. And they (we) struggle with what exactly poetry means, what it should do. In the broader context, I think poetry is like photography. It is an emotionally- accessible, endlessly subject to interpretation bit of documentation about how it was right here, right now. We’re social creatures and what one of us says is important takes on a bit more importance for everyone.
Let’s stick with this photography metaphor for a minute. Back when photography was a brand new option, it was borderline revolutionary that someone might choose to spend time and resources documenting someone of African descent. As disposable as we may think of an image as being today, each time a black person was depicted in photographs, it was a small step in the direction of equality. As much as we now deplore the early representations of black people in movies, having someone of African descent on screen at all was a political statement. And those political statements were added onto each other layer by layer. The very first photograph of a black person was a shift in the heading of a giant cultural ship. It changed everything, even though the person taking the picture couldn’t possibly know the ramifications.
Poetry shares similar traits. Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath dedicating ink to what it was to be inside their skin was a beginning. From Sexton and Plath, we got Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Tori Amos, and now Sara Bareilles.
See, this all started at the Sara Bareilles concert last night. I like Sara Bareilles. She’s got an amazing voice and lyrics that generally don’t insult the intelligence. But I was sitting there – admittedly not in the best frame of mind – thinking about the necessity of self-involvement for an Artist, whatever the genre, and also hating it.
I’ve stopped writing poetry. Taking photographs too, for that matter. Not entirely, but mostly. As an adolescent, I was by far the most interesting topic I could think of and I could write REAMS of the stuff documenting my angst. Now, not so much. Frankly, I bore myself. Now I want philosophy, the structure underneath the surface, the muchness at the center of everything. Which is a surprisingly difficult topic to get to in any kind of writing.
So I’m stuck between a fierce defense of the poets that I know who write about their lives and a kind of annoyance at the singer/songwriters of the world who can’t seem to broach any topic but themselves: their angst, their deserving, their hurt.
Maybe this is the difference: The poets I know are writing without judgement. They are kind of emotional journalists, achingly present in their own lives with a curiosity that has its origins somewhere before the knowledge and defense of self. They treat the facts of their lives as an anthropologist might – documenting the nuances as a third party, unwilling to speak to right or wrong. There’s a compassion there, for everything. And its done without posturing, without a wink to the audience to make sure we all know how clever this turn of phrase is. It’s the difference between feigned humility and the real thing, which is always a little bewildered to come to someone else’s notice. It isn’t that they believe themselves to be so interesting, but that these are the subjects that they can touch and taste and struggle to get right in words: mortality, laundry, fidelity, motherhood, light, shadow, laundry, love.
Which is neither here nor there, and is in no way intended to diminish Ms. Bareilles’ talent, but simply to say that there are those whose company I’d pick first: Alison, Naomi, Jacqueline, Dfiza, Miriam… Actually, honestly, I’d trade any number of nights in Ms. Bareilles’ company for one night with any of the above.