Private and Public Wars
Writing about web page http://www.newwelshreview.com/backissue_details.asp?issueID=19&issueNumber=72
Pascale Petit, ‘Private and Public Wars’, The New Welsh Review, 72, 8-14.
In her essay, ‘Private and Public Wars’, Pascale Petit considers the difficulty in writing about subjects such as 9/11 and she notes:
If the subject is handled with imagination and flair the critics welcome it. It is permissible to publish verse containing distressing graphic images: a headless rider (Ciaran Carson); a face exploded flat into a wall (David Harsent); a bunker-ceiling hung with charred children’s hands (Robert Minhinnick); a bagful of ears emptied on the floor. (Carol Forche). (8)
Petit then thinks about the charge of self indulgence and its implication, ‘that the poet’s subject is not universal’ (8). However, Petit suggests that ‘private wars [...] are waged more than we like to admit in our first world country’ (8).
Petit considers the charge that confessional poetry ignores ‘artistry’ in favour of ‘sensational subject matter’ (10). Yet Petit identifies another purpose for poetry, ‘to communicate what it means to be human’ and she argues that, ‘most of us suffer major trauma at some point in our lives’ (10). She recalls Wilfred Owen’s famous dictum about poetry and pity.
Petit wants to discover why there is a ‘difference in status between the poetry of private and public wars’ (10). She wonders if T.S. Eliot’s call for the extinction of personality is partly a reason or whether it simply the difficulty of the task in writing about trauma that discourages poets. She also considers the view of some critics that, ‘the subject matter overpowers the craft and fails to transcend the raw pain’ (10). She also notes defensiveness about the privacy of home and the need for, ‘masks of respectability and distance’ (10). However, Petit turns to an argument first put forward by A. Alvarez that, ‘when confessional poets remove the mask they speak as society’s representative victims because their personal crises reflect a larger social and cultural breakdown’ (10).
Petit notes that, ‘in most of Africa and Latin America’, trauma is sometimes an everyday thing and Petit believes that as long as suffering exists, the poet has a responsibility to write about it (10).
Here are the poets that Petit considers to be confessional:
• Robert Lowell,
• John Berryman,
• W.D. Snodgrass,
• Plath and Sexton,
• Theodore Roethke,
• Sharon Olds,
• CK Williams,
• Charles Wright,
• and Maria Howe.
However, Petit notes that many poets dislike the category and British writers would rarely describe their poetry as confessional. There are British poets though who have confessional elements to their work and Petit suggests the following:
• individual collections by Selima Hill;
• Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters ;
• Craig Raine’s A la Recherche de Temps Perdu ;
• and Hugo Williams’ Billy’s Rain .
Different poets have reacted differently to the label. Some poets accepted it like Maraia Howe and Robert Lowell, while others resisted it such as Charles Wright who prefers the term, ‘impersonal autobiography’. Petit touches on Plath noting how that poet made ‘the personal into her own symbolic language, a new mythos’ and she regrets the fact that, ‘one of the disadvantages of confessional poetry is that its sensational content can attract too much attention so that the quality of the writing is neglected’ (11).
In contrast to critical disapproval, Petit believes that the reading public like confessional poetry because it offers, ‘full-blooded poems about feelings’ (11).
Being over-concerned with aesthetics at the cost of content could be viewed as self-indulgent – the poet writing to another poet about poems, the lifeblood squeezed out. On the other hand the aesthetic qualities of confessional poems shouldn’t be overlooked.
In order to show this, Petit briefly analyses a poem by Sharon Olds, entitled ‘The Girl’ and she points out the importance of, ‘language and rhythm coupled with […] dynamic lineation’ (11). The problem for pets like Olds is, ‘transgressing socially imposed silences’ and Petit quotes Olds who says: ‘Is there anything that shouldn’t or can’t be written about in a poem?’ (11) Petit analyses a few more Olds poems and notes that while Olds explores the violence in the personal situation of the family, her themes can extend to the world.
Petit notes that she is labeled a confessional poet. She states that, ‘what I appear to have written are poems about abusive parents, and an attempt to transform the harrowing material by interfusing it with Amazonian and Aztec imagery’ (13). However, Petit suggests another purpose to the poems suggesting that at the heart of her poetry is, my belief in the essential goodness of people, and a need to imaginatively recast close family relationships which challenge that belief’ (13). For example, Petit places her abusive father in the context of Amazonian tribes, ‘the cannibalistic Yanomami and the headshrinking Jivaro/Shuar’, which ‘raised ethical questions much debated by anthropologists’ (13).
Again, none of their practices were gratuitous, but possibly neurotic responses to cultural and survival demands. By placing my father in this primitive setting, I could better understand his behaviour.
Petit now relates an anecdote about how at a conference in Lithuania, a delegate stated that a poem in which Petit gradually reduces her father’s power and renders him weak and helpless, might be helpful to Lithuanians who suffered at the hands of the KGB. Although Petit writes about a specific personal experience, it extends to people in other walks of life and with different experiences.