This Actually Happened!
Slate has an interesting dialogue this week between poets Dan Chiasson and Meghan O’Rourke on autobiography and poetry, as part of a “Memoir Week.” What most interests me is not really the issue of autobiography and memoir, but what Dan Chiasson calls “the reality guarantee”:
But what about when writers play to the readerly preference for facts? Here we are on riskier grounds. “This actually happened!” writes Allen Ginsberg at the end of “Howl,” of a story so fantastical—a man jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge and walks away unharmed—that we might otherwise categorize it as “surreal.” But if we DID categorize it that way, it would be just another one of the marvelous, incandescent, surreal details in “Howl”—nice but forgettable. Because Ginsberg underwrites it with this remarkable assertion—”this actually happened”—(and because, importantly, he says that only ONCE in the whole poem) the bridge-jumping episode becomes, for me, the most powerful thing in the poem. It’s as though the curtain parted and the “real” Ginsberg, suddenly playing by the ordinary rules of “factual” depiction, addressed the “real” reader.
This move—let’s call it the “reality guarantee”—needn’t be so explicit as saying, “This actually happened.” There are other ways to cue a documentary response in readers, other terms of the documentary contract. The visually ingenious detail, so real it feels like a snapshot (the doilies, for example, in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station”) or the affective detail so open and attractive as to feel “artless” (as when Frank O’Hara says “fun” in the first line of “Having a Coke with You”). And there are acts of strong intimacy, like Hopkins when he tells God, “I am gall, I am heartburn,” or like Herbert’s when (in “The Flower”) he exclaims, “Who would have thought my shriveled heart / Could have recovered greenness.” Or take it further back: you mention Sappho. When Sappho describes turning “greener than grass” at the sight of her beloved in the presence of a man, or when the anonymous poets of the Greek Anthology proclaim across the millennia, “I press my lips to yours.” These moments read as “real,” no matter what cultural or historical distance intervenes, and I must say, these moments are more or less what I look for in poems.