CONFESSIONAL POEM

writing the confessional poemIntroduction

Few writers live sensational lives, and 'confessions' are apt to make the most boring of poems, interesting only to author and psychiatrist. But equally limited are poems that deal only with hand-me-down observations and responses, that make no effort to probe what is ugly or disturbing in our recollections.

Starting

Back in the starting a poem page we suggested recasting a criticized piece as a story:

I can't remember. We didn't come much -
Just kids then, you know, hanging about.
Even when Dad died and I did my bit
Again at the gravestone she was still a blank...

There is no rhyme, but the stress rhythm (four beats to the line) imparts a certain neatness and singsong quality.  Suppose we want something closer to a slice of life. An obvious strategy is to keep rephrasing the piece until — as actors say — we find the right voice. Is this the answer?

I  can't remember. Not much. We came
On Sundays, most times. On Mother's day -
Yes, that was it. Then Dad died.
I stood at the gravestone; still a blank...

No: the piece is neater than ever. Worse still, the phrases are not merely lining up:

I can't remember. Not much.
We came on Sundays, most times...

they are destroying the natural delivery. A good reader would want to know where the Not much fitted in. Is it an afterthought on I can't remember, an introduction to We came, or simply a fill-in, a way of stitching the lines together through alliteration on m? Better phrasings might be:

a) Emphasizing reflection:
I can't remember. Not much, I think...

b) Evoking some resentment:
I don't remember, and I don't think I should.

c) Simply denoting some mental block:
I don't remember. Never could. I think

d) Reflecting on his/her response
Best forgotten. I never thought, once

If we wanted to sketch more of the family history, we could write:

e) Foster-care background:
I don't know — she died. Then Dad, they said

f) Sibling difficulties;
I was the oldest. I cared. They didn't, couldn't.

Let's choose the energetic d) and add another three lines:

Best forgotten. I never thought, once
in the years after, till, as I say,
on an ordinary Sunday that past came back
of us, the family, on the other bank

which generates:

of the stream which divides, and goes on dividing,
pouring down gradients into hideous grins,
or pools by long meadows, into stilled reflections
that with the days unalterably become ourselves.

The breeze hardly ruffles the enchanted mirror
but I see myself trembling in my schoolboy cap
and a face biting, gnawed at by shadow and asking still
for the parents who stare there straight ahead.

Whatever was prescribed it was not this changeling
this torment of questioning, who never trusted:
was tangled up in the shadows which in the evening
lengthened into doubts until the day was shut.

He played with other children tentatively, never won.
Had trouble in spelling, reading and if later bookish
was not absorbed by stories but seeming distanced
into a police state, an inhabitant of his own believing.

He was afraid of himself, his shadow, could not imagine
how people got through in their raffish pleasures,
was appalled by their laughter, the towering bodies
of sunlight that fell thickly through the dusty trees.

He knew the names of birds, trees, the woodside flowers,
local scraps of history that happened years ago,
even the rocks and the rivers, he knew their story,
but not one his classmates or his family dates.

Yet when they died he was beside himself, came
to the gravestone with its square-cut shape
again and again, looked round for reasons,
would not be comforted or even speak for days.

The unutterable boredom of their tidy lives
he seemed to be feeling for the first time, holding
what they had suffered in losing across the handle
bars as he peddled in blazer on his tiny bike.

They found him blubbering about being always lost,
of the child who sees everything but cannot believe
that this part is real, continues, will always continue,
whatever the accommodations, at whatever cost.

So the poem has changed, fallen into some subterranean river that has taken it in unexpected directions. Moreover, as is so often the case, the lines come easiest when put into the third person. Many do-it-yourself guides to poetry advise starting with the concept, the idea of a poem, and then fleshing it with words that seem natural to the occasion. Fine, but our approach has been to create a stanza that starts burrowing into memory. There are no rules: whatever works.

Second Draft

Great licence is allowed the confessional poem, but it cannot be maudlin or obscure. Our next step is convert the whole into a single, third-person viewpoint, again with personal recollections in mind. The essential need is to dig deeper into the experiences, not for catharsis, but to place understandings in a larger setting. Since we are not far from it in the first version, we employ rhyme and pararhyme to tighten the lines:

The Little Bike

Recessed in the mind but not quite forgotten:
a family on the far bank, with a child in tow,
far out at elbows, loitering and stopping
to stare moodily at the water, without place to go.

Ineluctably the river goes on severally dividing,
pouring down gradients into hideous grins,
or shunts into lush meadows, stilled water sidings
where identity with himself slowly begins.

A breeze hardly ruffles the enchanting mirror
but I see a face stretched into theirs instead,
into darkness at noontide on the dreadful river,
of the parents who stay looking straight ahead.

Whatever was prescribed, it was not this changeling
this tempest of questioning, this autistic child:
who was tangled with shadows which in the evening
lengthened into doubts as the streetlights smiled.

Tentatively he played with the other children,
but was always himself, and if he read
was not absorbed by the stories but only willed them
to be thunderclouds stretching out far ahead.

He was afraid of himself, his shadow, could not imagine
how people got through in such raffish ease,
was appalled by their laughter, felt the contagion
of sunlight that fell thickly through the starchy trees.

He knew the names of birds, animals, wayside flowers,
local scraps of history that happened before humans came,
even the rocks and the rivers, he knew their story,
but not his parent's birthday or middle name.

Yet when they both died he felt the first regretting
of something cut out of the indulgent haze
that was himself, but not wholly, not even setting
himself in that role, though he could not speak for days.

Shut up in a small house with shadows from that cut-down candle
of people he did not know and couldn't now like,
he felt for the first time, balancing across the handle
bars, the weight of things passing as on that bike

he peddled more furiously and knew the torment
of trees and rocks falling, his wild kingdom lost
into the plain day's ordinariness, and not the ferment
of how much it had hurt them, what it would all now cost.

Third Draft

What do we think — too wordy, a rhythm insensitive to the content, imagery that is over-predictable? Suppose we compress, break the metre, make it pause on or point up the phrases of interest:

The Little Bike

The family is on the far bank, mixed in with the dividings
of a river into inlets and mudbanks. A lopsided pain
hangs with the boy stilled there in the water sidings
as though the turnout of bike and blazer would explain

How it all rusted into a speckled mirror,
how the face now reflected is of them instead:
a nosebleed of dread onto the noon-sparkling river,
the parents who stand there looking straight ahead.

But there he still plays with the other children
hesitantly, never winning, an autistic child
much tangled up with the shadows, which each evening
lengthened into doubts as the streetlamps smiled.

So lived the boy who knew each rockface, quarry,
what was in history before the woodlands came,
even the clouds and rivers, he knew their story,
but not his parent's birthdays or middle name.

But when his father died he grew beside himself,
and seemed to shift out of that bewildering haze
of whoever he was, from attack by stealth,
and could not be comforted, nor speak for days.

When his mother too failed he put out the candle
for people he did not know or would have to like,
but felt for the first time in balancing, on handle
bars holding, the weight of days passing, as on that bike

he peddled more furiously as through the torment
of rocks and trees falling came a kingdom lost —
into the patience of others, far from the present
where he couldn't now hurt them, or share the cost.

Fourth Draft

Is that an improvement? Technically, as verse, most certainly. Some good lines:

hangs with the boy stilled there in the water sidings

a nosebleed of dread onto the noon-sparkling river,

Unexpected turnings:

                                         a kingdom lost —
into the patience of others

And neat finality:

where he couldn't now hurt them, or share the cost.

But where is the emotion of the previous effort: the rawness, the uncomfortable self-honesty? We have to return to that third draft and stop evading matters by adroit phrasing:

The Little Bike

Lost into the mind but not wholly dispersed
is a family on the far bank, a child in tow —
who is locked into doing whatever is worst:
loitering on his bike, no place to go.

Ineluctably the river runs into its several dividings,
pouring down gradients into hideous grins,
or shunts into lush meadows, stilled water sidings
where identity with himself slowly begins.

A breeze hardly ruffles the enchanting mirror
but the face there expanded is of them instead:
a nosebleed of dread onto the noon-sparkling river,
the parents who stand there looking straight ahead.

Whatever was prescribed, it was not this changeling
this tempest of questioning, this autistic child
so tangled with shadows which in the evening
lengthened into doubts as the streetlights smiled.

Tentatively he played with the other children,
but was always himself, and if he read
was not absorbed by the stories but only willed them
to be things he'd discount in the time ahead.

Afraid of himself, his shadow, he could not imagine
how people got through in their chattering ease,
was appalled by their laughter, felt the contagion
of sunlight that fell thickly through the schoolyard trees.

He knew the names of flowers, each wayside quarry,
what was in history before the woodlands came,
even the clouds and rivers, he knew their story,
but not birthdays of parents or a teacher's name.

Yet when parents both died he felt a slight regretting
in something cut out of the indulgent haze
that was himself, but not wholly, not even setting
himself in this context: wouldn't speak for days.

Shut up in a small house with the flickering candle
illuminating the past that he didn't now like,
he felt for the first time, balancing across the handle
bars, the weight of things passing as on that bike

he peddled more furiously as through the torment
of rocks and trees falling came a kingdom lost —
into the patience of others, far from the present:
how much it had hurt them; what all could now cost.

 

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