The above wooden block was given to me by a former roommate. It is currently functioning as a structural bridge between a novel and a work of philosophy on my bookcase.
Recently, I attended a reading by a colleague and friend of mine, Jared Demick, who has just released his first volume of poems, The Hunger in Our Eyes. In the ensuing discussion of Demick’s work, a question posed by an audience member led to the following factoid appearing in our campus newspaper: “Demick said that his book was split about 50-50 between historical and character pieces, and works about personal life.” It was suggested to me that evening that the dedicatee of one series of poems, who was present in the audience, had requested that these were not read. Despite my close friendship with the dedicatee and my delight in such poems’ absolute grasp of her lovable character, I assumed I could understand: these poems were too personal, too intimate, for a public audience. The confessional female poets of the 1960s and on—such as Sylvia Plath—embodied the feminist principle, that the personal was political. But it did not, of course, mean it was no longer personal. How might it have felt, how might it feel, to read poetry that exposed not only the poet’s self but often their thoughts and feelings toward those around them? It’s hard to like Ted Hughes when Plath so ardently describes him as a vampire, after all. Taylor Swift is the most recent iconic female writer whose body of work is explicitly and often uncomfortably confessional, particularly in its references to her romantic partners. She gets flak for this and it certainly feels like a patriarchal response: Woman. Put Your Emotions Away. It’s Unseemly.
We would not revel in the lyrical if we did not assume its truth value—this pain, this love, is real and it can speak to mine—but the difficulty of demanding and receiving such exposure of an artist’s self remains. I still stumble in returning to a paper I wrote about Marianne Moore, ironically regarded as a most impersonal poet, in which I tried to articulate how my personal experience shaped my reading and to wrestle with the effacement of the self in a form of close reading that might seem to resist the seductive power of literature. I cannot divorce my emotive and intellectual responses to literature; I chose a career path that allowed reading for pleasure to become a remunerative means of employment. But how can I, as a scholar, balance the apparent tension between subjective sentiment and objective analysis? In the first-year writing classroom, I always find myself exhorting students to use the first person in their work, to own their arguments and readings. In doing so, I come up against the “personal” and its most demonic incarnation “personal opinion” as a weapon to both discredit and to protect a writer’s work. A reader can dismiss a claim as the writer’s “personal opinion” while a writer might refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of a reader’s dissent by stating that, why yes, it is “personal opinion”, invoking the twenty-first century rhetoric of freedom-of-speech-no-offence-intended-everyone’s-entitled-to-their-own. Victorian liberalism has a lot to answer for.
Why and how does the personal signify a particular sense of truth? For some, it appears to be the only truth, particularly in an aesthetic context that demands absolute biographical realism (AKA “write what you know”, or How Jo March Was Convinced To Stop Writing Popular Fantasy). Yet for others, it remains singular, individual, and thus lacks any potential to inform us of anything else. The personal can thus invoke a sense of the bounded self, or even part of the self, which our more visceral response to “oversharing” actually suggests as fallacious. When what we designate as the personal reaches beyond the private journal to a public forum, its real threat is that it thus exposes everyone else whom the words of an “I” can implicate. The beloved, just as much as the lover, might feel a sense of possession over the emotions expressed in a love poem. And a critic again and again asks readers to accept the claims and arguments being made. When I tell you, all of you, how I see the world—as one of structural inequality and faulty thinking—I am demanding that you consider the ethical import of your role in forcing that vision upon me. You might decry the necessity of getting personal as you would if I insulted your physical appearance or, god forbid, your mother. But, trust me, this is personal.