The thought of an autobiographical poem still troubles and eludes me.
— Jill Jones
It’s not what you cannot understand that vexes
but what you won’t accept:
the plain old arbitrary and astounding fact
of definition: let X = Y, let it
stand for, take the place of — let this
An autobiographical poem, for example,
is a poem that tells the story
of the poet’s life (or part thereof), just as
an autobiographical book
tells the story of its author’s life,
not the story of the book’s life,
it’s gestation in the mind of the author
and the mysterious byways of language,
the pangs of its birth, all
the cigarettes that smouldered into oblivion,
the hairs that greyed, the wrinkles
self-doubt forged upon the brow, and then
the blocks of texts blinking
in and out of existence
on screens from bayside Melbourne
to Boston, the paper, stamped
and sliced and stitched, the bright new volumes
packed and shipped, arranged on shelves
to wink down at unguarded browsers
like street-corner harlots: ‘Buy me,
sweetheart. I’ll give you a good time.’
As for stories, they’re hypocrites, as are all words.
Hypocrisy is necessary to tell truths
and untruths alike. The story of a life
is no life – as those who try to live
their lives like stories learn.
Don’t try to pretend you do not know,
whether it suits you or not.
This is just how things are.
A poem will never tell you its story. It might
caress you or slap you in your
unsuspecting face, but it won’t tell.
It’s just as well. So many lives in one,
the tale would never end.
Not thinking, not needing
to think, I pluck the breath
from other poet’s mouths,
build my house on borrowed foundations.
No matter. We all perch
on the shoulders of giants, don’t they say?
Being humbler, I stand on the backs
of creatures my own size, steal inspiration
from brothers and sisters without compunction.
All the words are mine, the meanings
what I make them. Legally and morally
I am okay. But this line-spinning
is a trick, and tricks unsettle. Is it facile
not to start from nothing,
digging fingers into the mud
of the life around and within you?
Have I nothing to say
wholly my own?
But what is that?
I’m stuck so tight in this world, who can say
where I end, where the world begins?
And in this mess of nonsense, how you make
some fleeting, fragile sense means less
than that you make it.
Thinking now, I think
I’ll scruple less, write more,
and damn all critics.
* A technique for starting poems by writing lines in response to the lines of other poems