What is memoir in poetry? We read prose memoirs and see how lives are stretched taut around themes: a chronology of water, a debilitating illness, a drug addiction, a nomadic childhood, a strange religion, insomnia-driven thinking. Themes become umbrella girding; living, the fabric that fills it out. But where does poetry fit into memoir? We could think about the confessional in poetry and say, yes this is the place where poetry and memoir meet. Plath on suicide attempts: “I have done it again. / One year in every ten / I manage it–” or Lowell, “My mind’s not right…I myself am hell.” Depression and mania are easily encapsulated states of being, but all poets write their lives, confessional or not. When Simic writes, “My mother was a braid of black smoke,” we assume he’s not writing fact-truth. Maybe he’s writing dream truth or metaphor truth. Maybe he’s just writing, and I’m extrapolating.
I started thinking about this when a poem of mine called “Man Builds a Guitar” went up online recently. It’s basically a persona poem in Jack White’s voice. I wrote it after watching the documentary It Might Get Loud and not being able to shake Jack White’s weird tinkering and instrument making from my head. So, it’s a persona poem, but it embodies themes and emotions I was thinking about at that particular moment in time. When I say, “I heard everything disappearing” what I meant was that my marriage was over and life as I knew it was evaporating in front of my eyes. I’m using the imagery of my childhood in the South and the sounds that take me back there to get at the particulars of silence-after-a-storm. This is a memoir poem even though it’s a persona poem. I mean, I don’t know Jack White, but I know me.
Matt Hart has a poem called “Sailing the Gut Boat,” that begins, “I made you a thing with no tongue / and gallons of new-fangled fog. I made you / a thing with nothing and nobody—not even / a surrealist screaming into an atlas….” Hart reminds us that you can fashion people and events into whatever you want (a nothing, even) on the page, but the truth of them still remains behind that fashioning.
Or take a short couplet poem, “Future,” by Emily Kendal Frey: