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Monday, December 08, 2014

Guest post by poet Richard Nester
Open House

Thanks to everybody who turned out for yesterday's jolly open house / open studio / book signing, a joint event thrown by me and painter AshleyNorwood Cooper. Take a look at her paintings!

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Guest at The Palace at 2:00 a.m.

And here's a post from poet Richard Nester. Richard has twice been a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He has published poetry in many journals, including Ploughshares, Callaloo, and Seneca Review. His first collection of poetry is Buffalo Laughter. You can find a post about the book here. Richard Nester is married to poet Robbi Nester; they have one son.

Fun in the Confessional
Kelsay Books, 2014
Confessionalism was all the rage when I started writing poetry in high school. Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath had made Time magazine. As a teenager with angst to burn, how could I not be hooked? Add history and the brew became even more potent. The Russians, Akhmatova and Mandelstam especially, lived dangerously and turned their private lives into vital political critiques. One of the first books of poetry that I purchased was Voznesensky’s Anti-worlds and the list of his translators provoked even more discoveries—Kunitz and Snodgrass. 
As a southerner, history was at my fingertips (literally if you consider the local library’s stock of Civil War lit). Faulkner said that every southern boy lives Pickett’s Charge over and over, and he wasn’t far wrong. There’s nothing like losing to get under one’s skin, an itch that can jump regional boundaries. After all, the Boston Red Sox were far more interesting before they won three of five World Series.
In fact, confessionalism had been around before M.L.Rosenthal coined the term and wrote that Lowell had gone “beyond customary bounds of reticence or personal embarrassment.” Poets had been relying on home-grown experiences, tearing into their lives and reconstituting the pieces on the
Richard Nester
printed page, for a long time. It is hard to imagine poetry more intimate than Emily Dickinson’s eyeball-to-eyeball addresses or Hopkin’s “terrible sonnets.” But there is a difference between their work and the confessionalism that Lowell created, a certain “slant”ness that keeps the reader on the other side like the glass and telephones separating inmates and visitors in prison dramas. Yeats too is a precursor as he walks “among schoolchildren” or prays beside his daughter’s crib. However, Lowell takes him to task for a calculation that he thinks verges on dishonesty as no one walks and prays “for exactly one hour.” Yeats had yet to commit himself to what Lowell called “the real skinny,” the raw truth in his view.
One problem with confessionalism in the raw is that hanging one’s dirty laundry—if I may seriously mix a metaphor—can lead to hurt feelings. Lowell got into some major personal dust-ups in which he had to invoke the supreme authority of art to save his skin. It’s not an alibi that persuades everyone, ask Elizabeth Bishop, in that it merely attempts to erase the distinction between poetry and gossip. Lowell’s poem “Dolphin” is a gloss on the emotional armor it takes to be an out-and-out confessionalist (or is it out-and-outing?)


My Dolphin, you only guide me by surprise,
forgetful as Racine, the man of craft,
drawn through his maze of iron composition
by the incomparable wandering voice of Phedre.
When I was troubled in mind, you made for my body
caught in its hangman’s knot of sinking lines,
the glassy bowing and scraping of my will . . .
I have sat and listened to too many
words of the collaborating muse,
and plotted perhaps too freely with my life,
not avoiding injury to others,
not avoiding injury to myself—
to ask compassion . . . this book, half fiction,
an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting—
my eyes have seen what my hand did.

Is that an allusion to Yeats “walked and prayed” I hear in Lowell’s “sat and listened”?
I felt a certain Lowellian spirit hovering over me recently as I moved toward completion of a poem that both named a name and arose as a meditation on an academic moment.

Facing Facts

My son’s Soc. text is full of strange fish,
commonplaces no less exotic for being familiar.
Take the principle of least interest
Now there’s a gloomy little butterfly of truth,
the plot of Alfie or Maugham’s Of Human Bondage,
alive on every teenage date I ever had. It says 
the less you love the more you run the show.
I read the postulate aloud and right away
my son said “Emily”—ouch. 
Who of us would want to live that way, 
but we do. Houdini stepping into the straitjacket
and staying there.

Richard Nester
Well, I’m not recommending my poem for inclusion in the next Norton Anthology, but perhaps you can see the similarities between its situation and Lowell’s “Dolphin.” It describes what I take to be a serious human problem, and I thought about posting it on my Facebook page. However, there’s my son and his former girlfriend to consider. I could, of course, invent a name besides “Emily,” but there’s a perfection to that name that my poor invention cannot surpass. In any case, the poem won’t appear anywhere until I’ve asked my son about it. Though I don’t plan on giving him artistic control.
Contact with younger poets has given me new perspectives on confessionalism. Denise Weuve at a “spoken word” reading said that her second book was less “confessional” than her first, a movement that had been predicted by a mentor as something that would occur naturally as she got early adolescent issues off her chest. This perspective is common, but I think demeans confessionalism as a strategy for making poetry. Confessionalism is more durable and more broadly useful than that and also less psychoanalytic.
Other perspectives have given me more fertile understandings. During a sojourn at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, I came to know a poet who washes dishes at their skid row kitchen, Arnal Kennedy. Arnal writes poems about religious faith that have the same fire one finds in Hopkins, but he covers other subjects as well from street encounters, to battlefield memoirs, to love affairs. Astonished by the range of experience in his book You Woke Me in the Dark, I asked him “how many lifetimes” he had had. His reply was that he found first person to be the most compelling point of view and used it even when the experience wasn’t his own or had been fictionalized. I suddenly felt very na├»ve, a victim of Lowell’s “real skinny” dictum. “Real” might just as well mean “compellingly told.” So I now have another tool in my confessional toolkit as well as another dodge. Oh, that’s not about you, I just made it up. Or put another way, perhaps the confessional version of Yeats’ golden bird from “Sailing to Byzantium” is not keeping “a drowsy emperor awake” so much as preventing a bored priest from nodding off. Why couldn’t I have discovered lying sooner?


  1. Terrific piece! Very intelligent. And it plumbs the depths of this subject that has been much on my mind as I complete a collection with a seriously confessional group of poems in it--my second book, not my first.
    No doubt we're thinking along parallel lines in this household.

    1. Glad you liked it! Would have been sad otherwise... Please share with your friends.

  2. The less you love, the more you run the show? Good God Richard, perfection- and eternal.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.