Life as an Open Book: Memoirs by (and about) Poets
Writers as a species might be the most abject creatures ever to slink down a blind alley of evolution, but for that anomalous little glitch in our programming that demands that we be heard--that claims not just a voice but a voice made concrete--set in type, if not necessarily in stone.
The act of putting one's ideas on paper is inherently egotistical, if only because it presupposes those ideas are worth communicating and that one's fellow humans should give a rat's patoot. The memoir is only the most naked manifestation of that self-regard. Yet I find there is something touchingly optimistic about the writing of a memoir. Something so baldly needy that it is endearing rather than repellent. The memoir argues that there is communicable meaning in existence and that the gap between oneself and the Other is bridgeable. In some tiny crevice of his or her brain, the writer cannot help but hope that the reader will carry forward a sort of facsimile, a figment, imperfect as it may be, of his or her self. It may not be immortality, but it is pleasing to think of one's words rippling within a reader's consciousness like broadcasts of I Love Lucy spreading across the cosmos.
Okay for all that.
The best memoirs are not the ones that trace an entire life, but those that seek to untangle the meanings from a single stubbornly knotted thread in the writer's life. And in the best of those, the writer tries to tease it out through the act of writing, so that the memoir is more meditation than narrative, more voyage of discovery than of conquest.
Below are a few memoirs by or about poets from the Harris County Public Library collection.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings / Maya Angelou
The Collected Prose; "Efforts of Affection: A Memoir of Marianne Moore" / Elizabeth Bishop
Boswell's Life of Johnson / James Boswell
You Can't Catch Death: A Daughter's Memoir / Ianthe Brautigan
You Remind Me of You: A Poetry Memoir / Eireann Corrigan
Dog Years: A Memoir / Mark Doty
Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Rebel as Poet / Wallace Fowlie (This is more a book of criticism, but it begins with a brief memoir of the author's attraction to the two titular poets).
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City / Nick Flynn
The Ticking is the Bomb / Nick Flynn
Autobiography of a Face / Lucy Grealy
The Body Broken / Lynne Greenberg
One More Theory about Happiness / Paul Guest
Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry / Donald Hall
Cherry / Mary Karr (Yeah, I know Karr is known almost exclusively as a memoirist, but she says she does them to pay the bills and allow herself the luxury of poetry).
Liars Club / Mary Karr
Lit / Mary Karr
In the Blood: A Memoir of my Childhood / Andrew Motion
Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited / Vladimir Nabokov (Yeah, I know Vlad is more novelist than poet, but this is as good an example of the genre as you are likely to find).
The Poet Auden: A Personal Memoir / A. L. Rowse
Learning to Swim: A Memoir / Ann Turner
I have managed to stave off for another week my thirty page treatise in Esperanto on the Lacanian Mirror Phase in Pope's Dunciad, but can't promise the same for next week. Suggestions for future posts, comments and bones of contention are always welcome. Thanks for reading.