Over the last few months, I have been producing new poems at a prolific rate, and I am approaching enough to create a worthwhile collection. However, one of the things I have noticed about most of my poetry is that it is extremely personal. Much of it has to do with specific moments and situations from my past, and some of it has to do with people with whom I have shared a deep connection, for good or ill. The question then becomes…should I publish such deeply personal work?
The appreciation of poetry, or any other art, is an odd thing, and people vary wildly in their tastes. I am almost omnivorous, myself, and am capable of enjoying and appreciating many diverse forms of art. That’s not exactly the point. This isn’t about enjoyment, per se. What I want to discuss is whether the genre of “personal” or “confessional” poetry really has a place in the literary world; in a phrase, should it be published? It is at this theoretical level that I wish to have this discussion. The question becomes: what is the proper subject of art?
It seems to me that, despite various theoretical schisms, movements, and schools over the years, many people still work from the point of view that art is attempting to explore, reveal, and express universal truths within the human experience. It can then be argued that there are very few truly “universal” truths about anything, and that, if anything, the most universal truth about the human experience is its idiosyncratic, extremely subjective nature.
To a certain extent, the “style” or “approach” I use in my work, both poetic and prosaic, is based on this philosophical stance; I focus on the radically subjective aspects of experience and attempt to bring out what it would “be like” to be in a particular, usually unusual, situation. In this way I attempt realism, though in effect it becomes a form of surrealism, because I feel that the radically subjective, when presented realistically, becomes the surreal. People’s perceptions are inevitably idiosyncratic and unique to them. The structures of our bodies and minds, though encompassing many similarities, are never identical. Every single one of us is living in a universe unique to them, expressed in categories, symbols, and objects that differ to some degree from those of the other people around us. Thus, the real, raw, and subjective account of any event will always be characterized and, to some degree, surreal. At least to others; my “real” is your “surreal”, and vice-versa.
To my thinking, all experience is rendered unique and worthy of artistic investigation and elaboration by the movement away from the objective. We do not live as a spectator to a movie, and literature/art that attempts to present life in that fashion is doomed to failure. It lacks a certain primal vitality, and for a very good reason: it lacks an agent. It invites the audience to perceive rather than participate. I believe that instead art should be an invitation to participate in a certain relation, which is revealed in some way by the artist. That relation may be of any sort whatsoever, thus the proper subject of art is anything, so long as it is presented in such a way that the relation is revealed and made accessible by the artist. In this sense, I do not mean accessible in the sense of “easy to read” or “easy to understand”; some relations are extremely complex, and I would argue that any truly human relation is necessarily complex, though that complexity may merely be implied, rather than revealed.
Some the simplest images when pantomimed, the classic “boy meets girl” for example, become profoundly complex when explored through a specific love affair explored in all its exactitude. Just compare Lolita to The Idiot. Both novels, of course, are “about” many things, but it is at least (at very least) an exploration of love. To some degree, one can say the great flaw that distinguishes the bulk of the clichéd and soulless “romance novels” and “romantic movies” out there stems from its lack of idiosyncrasy. In the attempt by Hollywood and publishers to create a “product” universal in its appeal to “customers”, by trying to hard to be “accessible”, they create only caricatures of human beings have caricatures of human relationships. It is the lack of the subjective that makes these “products” such artistic failures (although I doubt if many of them were ever considered “artistic attempts” in any real sense, so perhaps they aren’t failures).
So in light of this philosophy of aesthetics, I believe that the extremely personal becomes the universal. Thus the extremely personal, confessional forms of art are not only justified, they are a necessary niche within art, a place that we have to be willing to go, at least some of us. However, this is not an argument for “realism” in the sense of the mundane, quotidian, slice-of-life style prevalent in some corners of the artistic world, or rather, it doesn’t have to be limited to that. The fantastic is as approachable in this sort of extreme subjectivism as the mundane; what I am referring to is not the choice of subject for a given piece of art, per se, but a stylistic or methodological choice to create a work “from the inside”. My poems, in their apparent form and content, are “about” extremely idiosyncratic aspects of my existence, but I would argue that the eternal themes of art, the universal aspects of human existence, are instantiated within that extreme subjectivity.
In a sense, I am still arguing a type of realism, but I am also arguing a form of expressionism, or rather, I am saying that expressionism, taken to its natural conclusion, is the only “realism” that is truly possible. Other attempts to be “objective” end up either so bland as to reveal nothing, or privileging a particular view of reality as THE view, a type of bias that I consider the basis of propaganda, not art. I am making a metaphysical claim, as well as an aesthetic one, that such “eternal themes” as love, justice, good, evil, compassion, cruelty, life, death, pain, and so on only exist as the set of all instantiation of that theme. “Love”, and all other possible semi-platonic “ideas” or “forms” that art attempts to deal with, exists as all of the experiences, acts, and expressions of love (or other idea) that have ever existed or will exist. So if we really wish to reveal truths about these universal themes, we must do so through revealing instantiation, or imagined instantiation, of those themes. That’s all we have. We can’t say anything about life, death, love, hate, or anything else without talking about the instantiation of those things within our experience. There is no “view from nowhere” that we can access to talk about fear, or justice, or even what it’s like to simply exist; there is only our own, individual, limited, and embodied view from ourselves.