Thursday, October 04, 2007

Questions of Personality

In an entry dated September 30, John Gallaher poses an interesting series of questions, all centered on the matter of the writer's personality. Gallaher writes:

"Sometimes one reads a book of poetry and gets a feeling that the poet is the poetry. It’s an old fallacy, of course, encouraged by the 'I.' Sometimes, though, we meet a poet after reading that poet’s work, and find that the poet is exactly what we would expect from reading the work. And sometimes not.


"The question for me rises out of the production of the work itself: what part of the poet’s personality does the poet write from?

"What part of my personality, and how much of my personality, do I compose from out of? And why? Toward what end?"

One can hardly mention the words "personality" and "poetry" in the same sentence and not recall T.S. Eliot's admonition at the close of his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent.* There, Eliot rejected Wordworth's argument that poetry was "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings from emotions recollected in tranquillity," writing:

"It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting. His particular emotions may be simple, or crude, or flat. The emotion in his poetry will be a very complex thing, but not with the complexity of the emotions of people who have very complex or unusual emotions in life. One error, in fact, of eccentricity in poetry is to seek for new human emotions to express; and in this search for novelty in the wrong place it discovers the perverse. The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.
And emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him. Consequently, we must believe that 'emotion recollected in tranquillity' is an inexact formula. For it is neither emotion, nor recollection, nor, without distortion of meaning, tranquillity. It is a concentration, and a new thing resulting from the concentration, of a very great number of experiences which to the practical and active person would not seem to be experiences at all; it is a concentration which does not happen consciously or of deliberation. These experiences are not 'recollected,' and they finally unite in an atmosphere which is 'tranquil' only in that it is a passive attending upon the event. Of course this is not quite the whole story. There is a great deal, in the writing of poetry, which must be conscious and deliberate. In fact, the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him 'personal.' Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things." **

While I find myself (by dint of personality, I suppose) allied with Wordsworth on a daily basis, as a poet, I am more often informed by Eliot's way of thinking. I am suspicious of the very emotions and impulses that impel me to write poetry, and my work reflects a constant struggle toward the resolution of these conflicts. I prefer to think of my "poet-self" as a soul-at-work rather than as a "personality," and in my work, the notion of "persona" has far greater currency than does that of a personal-self. I have been quite deliberate about this, and many of my poems (even though written in the first person) are written about historical events or in the (largely imagined) voices of historical figures, in an effort to shift the reader's attention away from that man behind the curtain, the poet-self who is desperately struggling to manipulate the buttons and wheels and keep the illusion going.

This is almost certainly not as elegant a formulation of the poetic task as Eliot intended, but it is what I set out to do in my more recent work. Around these "non-personal" poems, I have arranged a body of poems which do seem to be written in the persona of "the poet-self" (read "Greg Rappleye," if you wish). That poet-self is a middle-aged white American male, he is sometimes funny, sometimes lost; he knows a specific geography but stumbles into others, he is often confused, too often equivocal, most often non-heroic. He is seldom tranquil. However true these traits may be as a reflection of my actual personality and location on the planet, I am in no sense trying to tell the truth about this person. Through accumulation, through the speaker's obsessions, through the poet's recurring motifs, preoccupations, and metaphors, it has been my intention to gather the whole into a sort of false-memoir, a sheaf of sworn affidavits from an unreliable witness that, in their cumulative effect, are truth-telling in the extreme. My goal (beyond the satisfaction I find in making beautiful objects) is a kind of spiritual redemption for this poet-self, hard-earned in the real world, at least insofar as that "real world" has been reenacted within the body of the poems. Why redemption? Because I am interested in speaking with God and am building (I hope) a poetic persona adequate for such encounters. I am not that interested in the glorification (or even the explication) of my own personality. And I find that I am most interested in the work of other poets, of any background and any poetic style, who are on this same quest. Were my primary concerns otherwise, I suspect that I would not be a poet. Perhaps these obsessions represent the final triumph of Wordsworth and the romantic impulse in my work. I suppose such a reading depends upon one's attitudes toward prayer, religion, the spiritual, the profane.


*From The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism by T.S. Eliot (1922).

** Emphasis added.


Blogger brian salchert said...

I have often, though not always, used "I"
to refer to my personal-self in a poem,
but it is usually a self engaged in
some kind of self-examination.
At times I have been hyper-confessional. Aspects of this are
self-deprecation, humor, and uncertainty.
Though I'm not into automatic writing--
I never know when I might revise a work,
not matter how many years ago it was written--
I have lately been more willing to go with
whatever comes into my consciousness.

Because I feel similarly yet had never seen it so,
I like your "soul-at-work" thought.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Jim said...


This is wonderful. I have learned quite a bit from your honest introspection.

9:22 PM  

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