The Personal In Poetry

Recently I asked an acquaintance whether, in her opinion my poetry “is to personal?” She responded that poetry is, by it’s very nature personal and that my writing does not, in any case fall into the category of overly personal poetry.

The above conversation started me pondering on what a poet’s work says about the writer. The first point which must be made is that the mere fact of writing about a topic does not imply that the poet has any involvement in it. For example he may write about boxing or stamp collecting without ever having participated in either activity. One must be careful therefore not to draw erroneous conclusions that A must be somehow involved in Z merely owing to A expending much ink on Z. Having entered the above caveat, it is undoubtedly true that much poetry is personal and by immersing ourselves in the poet’s work we gain an enhanced understanding of both the poet and his poetry.

In his poem, “Aubade” Philip Larkin describes waking at 4 am, looking around his room and thinking about death, from which none of us can escape, try as we might to hide from the fact of our own mortality. Larkin’s poem is intensely personal, “I work all day and get half-drunk at night …”. Larkin describes religion as a “moth eaten brocade” and his lack of religious conviction adds to his fear of death. Larkin’s fear of the grim reaper is intensely personal and the brilliance of Aubade lies in the manner in which the poet communicates his dread of “unresting death”. (For an interesting article on the poem please see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/anwilson/3554550/Philip-Larkins-almost-perfect-poem.html).

Ernest Dowson’s Cynara is another profoundly personal poem. In it the poet describes his encounter with a prostitute,

“All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,

Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;

Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;

But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,

When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:

I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion”.

Dowson’s hedonistic lifestyle, “I called for madder music and stronger wine” is an attempt to escape from the memory of Cynara, the poet’s unrequited love interest. Despite Dowson’s attempts to blot out the recollection of Cynara she remains ever present, a kind of Banquo’s ghost at the poet’s parties. Dowson’s life was cut short (he died at the age of only 30). Yet he left behind the wonderfully moving and personal Cynara.

In conclusion it can be seen that poetry can (and frequently) does reveal much about the poet. Indeed it is virtually (perhaps entirely) impossible to write poetry without revealing something of oneself. However, as pointed out earlier in this post we should not conclude that writing about a subject necessarily implies that the writer is somehow a participant in the matter being described.

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