Ticket to the River: the autobiographical ‘I’ in poetry
'Nothing is invented. Everything is invented.' Susan Sontag
‘Ticket to the River’ is a poker term. It means ‘a hand you intend to play right to the end', which is a good way of thinking about writing a poem, especially when you are considering who will be the speaker of your words, and how closely they'll resemble, or differ from, your actual real self and your actual real feelings and experiences. I am not a poker player, but I recently came across An Introduction to Poker in a second-hand bookshop, and it seemd the sort of book which might be useful to a poet, especially one who is trying - as I was at the time - to create a dramatic situation in which their poem can take place.
The working title of this article was in fact ‘The Dramatic Voice’, the title of a poetry workshop I taught several months ago, and the views and ideas that are expressed here are based on the sorts of things discussed with my students then. Before I begin, however, it should be pointed out that I taught another class recently, called ‘The Opposite is Also True’. This is worth mentioning because ultimately there is no single or best way into writing poetry: whenever you find a system that seems to work, you can be sure there’s an opposite system that works just as well. Whatever is said here therefore, could be turned on its head and still make perfect sense – a notion which in fact supports the real advice a writer needs to hear, which is to try to cultivate self-criticism, and have fun exploiting your limitations.
There is usually a moment in a Chekhov play, or a play by Ibsen, when one of the female characters moves towards a window or a door and mentions the weather. She’ll say something like “How hot it is today”, or “It’s so light, still, even though it is night”, and you will know all of a sudden that everything which until then had seemed quite normal and busy and domestic is about to tip over into some kind of intense, nervous anxiety; that all the problems lurking beneath the initial quiet scene will soon be exposed for us to see. It is a thrilling moment – a very subtle turning point – and one which I often think has a great deal in common with poetry.
This is because poems are often entirely centred around a similar kind of turning point, a similar thrilling moment in which we as readers are suddenly made aware of what is really at stake. It may happen in the final couplet of a poem or right at the start, but what the two forms really share, I think, is that sense of underlying tension towards a revelation, that subtle unwinding. And the direction of movement in a poem (like the movement of the character in a play towards the window) is often signified by a similarly subtle use of voice, a particular tone, or pitch.
In fact, considering the personal poetic voice as similar to the sort of voice we might hear coming out of the mouth of a character in a play, allows us to consider the idea that the voice in a poem – the ‘I’ – might also be seen as a combination of both truth and performance. The words that Masha in The Three Sisters says and the feelings that she expresses are no less sincere than Chekhov’s own words and feelings – indeed they are Chekhov’s words and feelings! – but Chekhov has removed them from his actual self; they have become what you might call first-person-dramatized. A scene has been imagined and a character created, and it is a kind of pretence – you could say – yet it is grounded in reality. I would go further; I would say it is reality, just of a different sort.
What this suggests is that a poet, like a playwright or a novelist, is perfectly within her rights to seek representation by making an imaginative leap from her own perspective to that of another character. Furthermore, making that leap can become one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing poems. You may argue that this is simply dishonest, and in one way you would be right. But you could also argue that deceit is as fundamental to the poet’s craft as is telling the truth. The point is this: poems can be fiction; poems can be made up. Is all fiction false? Is all fiction based on untruth?
Is all fiction a lie? No. No more than all metaphors and all symbols are merely fakes; merely forgeries. On the contrary, fiction and metaphor and simile, and so on, can sometimes offer us the truest paths to understanding.
From the point of view of the poet then, who is so often working in isolation and drawing on her own feelings, the act of seeking new perspectives can be one of the most rewarding aspects of writing, because it forces you to look beyond yourself and your world and your stifling desk, to make new discoveries – about the basic rules of poker, for example. Seen in this way, the masking of the autobiographical ‘I’ is really just one more part of the formalising process of writing poetry, along with creating rhyme or short lines. And like these, it’s a formalising which is not restricting. On the contrary, it can allow for the greatest of freedoms, and for the greatest rebellions against the conventional.*
*As an example, here is a strange poem by Christina Rossetti, in which the objects and emotions appear deeply personal and autobiographical, even though it is written from the point of view of someone who has just died.
Christina Rosetti (1830-1894)
The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept
And strewn with rushes, rosemary and may
Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,
Where thro’ the lattice ivy-shadows crept.
He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
And could not hear him; but I heard him say:
“Poor child, poor child”: and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.
He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold
That hid my face, or take my hand in his,
Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:
He did not love me living; but once dead
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm tho’ I am cold.