on april 18, 2009 sarah luczaj’s guest post “the lyric self” probed the question of “who is the ‘i’ in a contemporary lyric poem?” in this guest post today, janet riehl brings the question of ownership into the discussion as she now muses on and pursues it in this post.
sarah luczaj is a british therapist and writing living in poland. janet is a writer, artist, and musician living in st. louis. morecently she’s produced an audio book “sightlines: a family love story in poetry and music” which expanded upon and amplified “sightlines: a poet’s diary.” you can explore her work at riehl life: village wisdom for the 21st century; there are also videos.
sarah luczaj opens her april post with a concise literary history of the development of the personal narrator (the “i”) in poetry. beginning with the 1800’s romantic era, sarah tracks its evolution in the 1900s and on into the present. as she noted, at its best this personal style of narration offered poets a new way to express individuality and authenticity.
like sarah in her own work, when i readied my volume of story poems, sightlines: a poet’s diary, for publication, i was confronted with the issue of “revealing self and others in poems.” (the issue is not specific to poetry alone; it is also one that prose memoirists struggle with.) in my case, the i-narrator was close to the same “i” that “made the toast…did the laundry.” i wrote the literal and emotional truth as clearly as i understood it.
it was not an easy task. my older sister had recently perished in a senseless car wreck. the injuries my mother suffered required months of recuperation. in writing about the accident and its aftermath, i unavoidably probed at the raw wounds in our hearts.
the poems that spoke directly about family members and neighbors raised the question: as the author, what is my responsibility to them? do they “own” the poems in any way? are they the ultimate holders of the truth of any poem dealing with them? do they “own” the truth?
what does ownership mean?
struggling with this made me come to believe that in the context of my own work, the concept of “ownership” is amorphous. for my purposes, the definition of ownership does not refer to legally defined real or intellectual property rights. rather, it refers to ethical ownership. deciding ownership requires taking into account spiritual, factual, experiential, and aesthetic elements, as well as respect and courtesy.
so who did my work belong to? who owned the truth of any given poem or the project as a whole?
since i was writing about family and community history, there were times when i turned to my father. in his 90s now, his memory is far clearer than mine, and he can reel off dates and details like a seasoned game show contestant. in one poem titled “walking riehl lane,” the viewpoints between poet (me) and historian (my father) amiably clashed.
the poem features the freeman family, whose connection to ours reaches back to my great-grandfather’s time. one particular stanza relates the story of how charlie freeman integrated his son, dickie, into the boy scout troop. my story of meeting charlie’s younger son, jimmy, on riehl lane follows in another stanza. to improve the flow of the poem, i melded the two brothers into one character, whom i called jimmie.
my father agreed that the technique worked well in conveying this bit of history. but his historian’s heart protested. “facts! facts!” my writer’s sensibility retorted, “poetic license!” we tossed the words back and forth like a baseball until we grinned, knowing that in this instance there would be no compromise on my part. i claimed ownership of the crafting of the poem and chose not to defer to my father’s deeply felt difference of opinion.
this question of ownership-in both the ethical and aesthetic sense-is the standard i used throughout both the book and audio book “sightlines” projects.
in two poems about eight-year-old amelia, my great-niece, i’d drawn on material from her life. i asked her mother to read and discuss the poems with her. amelia suggested a few changes, which made the poems richer and more poignant. at eight, amelia wasn’t concerned about subtle emotional or spiritual undertones. facts were what mattered to amelia, and her suggestions reflected that. she owned the facts of her life. i, again, controlled the craft of the poem and incorporated her perception of reality so as to create an aesthetically pleasing whole.
in contrast, there was work i did not allow anyone to read until after publication. i knew that there were those who would undoubtedly be unhappy with some of the poems, but i wanted the work to reflect what i saw, believed, and experienced as the truth. i didn’t want their negative input before the fact. if they were upset that i hadn’t prettied up or whitewashed what our family was going through, so be it. the poems expressed my personal truth. i owned them.
the subsequent audio book included both my poems and music from my father’s youth, so we teamed up on the project. i retained ownership of the overall shape of project and my personal writing. however, i ceded ownership to my father for how his music was presented in relationship to my work. he owned the music not only because he had written much of it himself, but mainly because this music was the purest expression of his heart’s blood.
elsewhere in sarah’s post she asks, “what is the difference between writing a diary and a poem, and is it really the case that a diary is necessarily more authentic?”
“writing poetry is the act of distilling the essence,” she holds. journaling, in contrast, can include as much slush as we need to process what we’re experiencing in our lives and in our souls. we “write poems to find out what can be said about something.”
in “sightlines: a poet’s diary, “as the subtitle indicates i straddled the line between poem and diary entry. i wrote at least one poem every day in my journal, sometimes as many as three. i wrote early in the morning, in bed, tea at my side. at the sounds of slight stirring by my parents, i would rush downstairs to take over the caretaking of my mother. throughout the day i made notes in order to have material to work on later.
how did this writing differ from my usual prose journal writing? during this time almost all my journal-writing energy was channeled into the poetry. my intention was to create a book to share with others, and journaling in the poetic form suited the intimate nature of what i conceived the book to be. i journaled in poetry, later crafting the work into finished pieces.
in a typical journal entry, i might have written “i feel sad this morning,” a factual report of emotion. in the completed book that sorrow became a leitmotif running through the 90 poems. rather than using direct statement, i recorded our hearts in understated language and images.
sarah says, “this seems to be what we are doing all the time, taking people’s stories inside and being changed by them.” this was certainly how it played out for me.
as our family slogged together through our grief in the wake of my sister’s death, i observed my brother, my mother, my father, and myself. we each had our stories. i absorbed these stories and released them again as poetry. the “i” in every one is all of us and each of us. and the “i” is the real life me, telling the story as truthfully and as clearly as i could. these stories were not just for our family. no, these stories reached out to join the stories of the world-and to embrace all the families who knew grief and loss all too intimately.