Speaking (not just) for yourself
It seemed for a long time poets should only write from their point of view. Otherwise, you run the risk of some kind of liberal-political-multicultural offense. Because in speaking for the Other, you risked appearing to oppress the Other. The result was a kind of poetic narcissism. This is a broad outline that surely over reaches in trying to explain what poets have felt over two decades. But its merits are worth considering, as I did in my conversation with poet Jennifer Moxley, author of the new volume Clampdown. Here's a snip.
Walt Whitman was large, contained multitudes and contradicted himself. By the 1960s, few American poets did what he did. The universal subject ("I") was considered a vestige of an old imperial power structure, so Whitman's "I" was no longer democratic and egalitarian but instead a symbol of white dominance in an oppressive culture. Perhaps the only redemption for Whitman came from new evidence suggesting he was gay.
Too simple? Sure, but that's more or less what happened, says poet Jennifer Moxley.
You had to write from your particular social marker and not beyond that," says the University of Maine English professor in a phone interview. "The 1960s saw poetry emerge from identity politics and from politics put into lifestyle choices."
She now specializes in those social markers, teaching classes in gay and lesbian literature, feminist literary theory and women's studies. She's found her own way in volumes of poetry like her latest, Clampdown. In it, one can sense the poet pushing back against a kind of sealed off and self-referential thinking.
"Life is untenable without a universal subject," says Moxley. "At some point, we fracture into shards of self-interest. There's no reason I should write and read about only things related to me -- a white woman from California. You want to grow and change and take risks. Otherwise, your life is the only life. That's not good. It should be a political thing."
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