Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The Persona and the Person

"Readers like to assume that the 'I' in a poem is the author - and this tends to give poets less freedom than fiction writers" - Jo Shapcott, The Telegraph, Jan 29, 2011

Dear Editor,

I like reading small press magazines—all human life is there. After a while I find I've read so many contributions by some authors that they're like old friends, the kind who send letters only when there's bad news. The frequency of heart-rending incidents makes me wonder whether tragedy triggers writing or whether writers are prone to disasters.

I feel sorry for you Web magazine editors; editors of printed magazines know authors' changes of address, and from subscription cheques can see joint accounts become single ones. The biographical notes you supply say so little - concerned readers like me can piece together these broken lives only by subscribing to many magazines. I pick one author (Tim Love) but I could have chosen many others like him who have chosen to share their personal tragedies in this way, unburdening themselves gradually, trying not to upset readers too much.

In "Autumn and After" (Summit 2) his wife died when they were childless. We read how he decided not to marry again, instead going to India where, in "New Life" (Dream 13), his mother died. Eventually he does remarry, but "Taking Mark this time" (Staple) tragically describes his wife's death when their son was only 4.

A sonnet "Wither the Love" then appeared in Poetry Nottingham. Trauma can induce formalism as the only way to keep the emotions under control (see Dana Gioia). Sometimes though, mannerism is sloughed off in an attempt to reach the heart of things through understatement (Douglas Dunn). As related in the free-verse "Love at First Sight" (Smith's Knoll 11) his new wife gave birth to a daughter who died before she was an hour old. This is the kind of tragedy from which women in particular never quite recover. So it comes as little surprise that his wife deserted him and their 6 year-old son in "The Big Climb" (Staple).

It would be easy to attribute blame to the author for driving successive spouses to despair, but as with Ted Hughes, it may be that there's something in his temperament that fragile women find attractive. Again, and even more remarkably, he recovers only to be dealt another cruel blow - "Late Night Shopping" (Staple) chronicles life with an autistic child. Perhaps the genes that help a writer produce such diversity of writing also manifest themselves in a less helpful gene diversity in offspring.

To the first-time reader his follow-up, "Rejection" (Envoi), would seem to be about failed submissions (it's encouraging to see that even he gets them!), but our worst fears were confirmed when in a 2004 prizewinner ("Being Open" on the Cambridge Writers web site) we saw him sink into a private hell of alcohol and inflatable dolls.

Now, just a few months later, we read in his biographical notes that he's married with 2 sons; triumphant confirmation to all us writers that we should never give up. I wish him luck.

Mel Vito, Cambridge, UK

(first published in Folly)

1 comment:

  1. This is exactly what I exploited in my collection This Is Not About What You Think in which I arranged poems written over the past 30+ years into 'a life' beginning with childhood and ending in old age - just not my life. Bits are of course but I often use the first person pronoun in poems and it's not me. And sometimes I use second and it is. I have a few poems written in my daughter's voice.