The Self and Not / Not the Self:
The Use of the Personal in Lyric Poetry
The Self and Not:
As I wrote the poems in my first collection, Full Cry, over eight years or so, I often drew from the well of what I was experiencing and remembering: emotions about childhood and church, the full flush of unrequited love—or should I say crush—and the contentment found in the right relationships. Whenever I wrote, though, I did not feel like I was merely transcribing my experience on the page; something transformative happened in the making of art. I thought often of Louise Gluck’s amazing essay “Against Sincerity,” in which she argues that using the “actual” events as they were, honestly and sincerely, doesn’t equate to artistic “truth”:
The artist’s task, then, involves the transformation of the actual to the true. And the ability to achieve such transformations, especially in art that presumes to be subjective, depends on conscious willingness to distinguish truth from honesty or sincerity. …
To recapitulate: the source of art is experience, the end product truth, and the artist, surveying the actual, constantly intervenes and manages, lies and deletes, all in the service of truth.
A poem’s truth, in this view, has nothing to do with how closely it clings to the experience itself—the poet may need to invent to reach that truth. So, when I wrote about my mother and our nearby parish, I fudged the details: I’d never seen her hum at the kitchen window while doing the dishes, the church’s clock only chimed on the hour (not the quarter-hour), and it never rang the Angelus, a particular prayer meant to be prayed at noon. Also, this scene never happened: “The caretaker took me/ up narrow steps to the windy opening, the bells// discolored, not gold.” But I needed to see the bells, their rusted color, to echo my mother’s hair, which became “more pallid after each child.”
As I worked on these poems, using the triggers of experience, I became fascinated with the intimacy of the lyric address, an I addressing a you. I loved reading such poems—I could be just someone overhearing the utterance—or imagine myself as the speaker, or the beloved receiving the words. The lyric address felt like that in a letter, in which people write about a current state of mind and mail the note off, knowing that the situation may have changed by the time the letter reaches its destination. A poem felt that way, too: The state of mind I’ve conjured here, the emotion I’ve performed—it’s a mirage, temporary. As I say in “I’ve Been Collecting This to Tell You,” “If I scribbled some note and put a stamp on it, / it wouldn’t be true by the time it arrived.” I’m sure others read my poems about the experience of desire and think they are “true” (in the conventional sense, not Gluck’s), but to me, they feel like performance, using the raw material of life but altering it, unrevocably.
Not the Self
In my interest in the lyric address, I came to the courtly love tradition—the troubadours, Dante, Petrarch, the Renaissance Brits like Wyatt and Sidney—because they were ostensibly writing directly to someone, for a particular purpose, in “real life.” However, as I read more, I realized that the women addressed in the poems weren’t actually the audience, that writing a sonnet to Beatrice brought Dante into contact with the key writers of his day and created a lasting friendship with Guido Cavalcanti, another male writer.
As I studied the tradition during my PhD courses and exams, I found myself getting inklings of ideas for a creative project that both participated in and troubled “courtly love,” finding a place for a female poet to speak. Now a happily married woman, I had to perform as the lover seeking an unobtainable beloved; while I could draw from my earlier experiences, it felt more and more like masquerade.
And then I started writing as Petrarch’s Laura and imagining what it must have been like for Dante’s wife, Gemma Donati. I satirized parts of Andreas Capellanus’s The Art of Courtly Love (De Amore), mentioning that a contemporary courtly lover might “use condoms” and avoid girls with spray tans. I wrote a sequence called “Courtly Love (for Courtney Love)” in which I explore the 1990s grunge rocker as feminist, victim, lover, mother, griever, and performer, while also critiquing the courtly love tradition. I mentioned S&M, drug use, had her say, “I’m a good lay./ I sing a good lay.” Things I wouldn’t want to read out loud if my parents or grandparents came to one of my readings. Though I know you haven’t met me, let me assure you: I’m a good Midwestern Catholic girl who was once told I had an overdeveloped superego. I don’t normally write like this. But these poems feel like some of the most “true” I’ve ever written, the most authentically committed to their art.
What’s the takeaway? Be wary of your use of unedited experience in poems—the artfulness of it matters, and the most artful move might be to lie. (And then, in postmodern work, to interrogate yourself and that lie.) Realize that even when an I addresses a you in a poem, it is not direct address; it’s letters on a page, delivered after the fact, perhaps not even to that addressee. Write a poem to someone you couldn’t possibly speak to.
And find your personae—they may be voices that sound like yours; they may not. You may need to spend a year or so reading and researching in order to inhabit them. You may find pleasure in assuming the disguise.
Lisa Ampleman is the author of the poetry collection Full Cry (NFSPS Press, 2013), winner of the Stevens Manuscript Competition sponsored by the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, and the chapbookI’ve Been Collecting This to Tell You (Kent State UP, 2012), winner of the Wick chapbook competition. Her poems have appeared (or are forthcoming) on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, and in literary journals, including 32 Poems, Cave Wall, Cimarron Review, Image, Kenyon Review Online, Massachusetts Review, Natural Bridge, New Ohio Review, New South, Notre Dame Review, Poetry, Spoon River Poetry Review, andSugar House Review.
Lisa holds a BA from Beloit College, an MFA from George Mason University, and a PhD from the University of Cincinnati. She was the Mona Van Duyn Scholar in Poetry at the 2013 Sewanee Writers Conference and is the recipient of two Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prizes. She is a Mullin Scholar at the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC from 2013-15.
Lisa has also taught at Fontbonne University in St. Louis and served as associate editor of the Cincinnati Review. She is currently an associate editor for Tupelo Quarterly and lives in Ohio.