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Autobiographical or Original?

I am finding it increasingly more difficult to identify whether a poem is autobiographical or not.

In truth I err toward the "not" as I have had many comments myself over the years, about work that I have submitted, and due to those comments have felt obliged to clear up the confusion.

My recent piece "Embrace" was autobiographical and I was quick to identify it as such.

We all know poetry is one of the most cathartic forms of expression. One look at new member profiles (of which I see every one) is testament to that.

So I suppose my question is... "should we indicate whether poems that we add to WOL are autobiographical or not.

Tue, 9 May 2017 11:39 am
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I think that should be up to whether the writer of the piece wants to confirm or not. I would say that almost all poetry is autobiographical in one sense, in that we draw on what we know. You can tell when something isn't because it lacks truth, it doesn't have the essence of reality in it.
Tue, 9 May 2017 11:59 am
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The comments surrounding Wolgar's piece together with my own experiences on WOL led me to produce this thread, without knowing your almost immediate response Laura.

Whilst I am inclined to agree with you, I do think commentary is sadly skewed if the reader empathises to much with the sentiments of the piece, with the knowledge of authenticity.

Too often the (poet) becomes more important than the (poem) and thus objectivity is seriously affected.

I do not agree that you can always tell one way or the other!
Tue, 9 May 2017 01:52 pm
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Interesting this,
I think the test lies in how universal is the emotion we are trying to express - (The less personal detail of the actual occasion the better)

Catharsis works best when the poem shows that it comes from the heart...and not the psychiatrist`s couch.
Tue, 9 May 2017 04:44 pm
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Graham - it occurs to me to ask you why you even need to know in the first place.

Harry - that kinda corners off certain experiences and feelings that may only be experienced by a deeply unlucky minority, no? Could you expand a little more on your last comment please, as I am wondering whether this is referring to the poems that Graham is referring to.
Wed, 10 May 2017 01:18 pm
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Laura-perhaps because the general supposition is that all harrowing poems are autobiographical and as such elicit automatic sympathy from the reader.

One could say equally well written but non-autobiographical harrowing poems are meritous due to their fictitious construct?

Whilst I would always support poetry as a vehicle for catharsis, I for one would prefer to know if the piece was autobiographical or fictitious in order to moderate my commentary accordingly.
Wed, 10 May 2017 02:03 pm
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I started a discussion a short while back on catharsis in poetry which didn't get very far but hey-ho - your question here Graham seems to be covering much the same ground in some way so I'm pleased to see it discussed.

I consider most of my work to be autobiographical in some degree - it certainly draws on personal experiences and usually things I have had some experience of. This is part of what I wrote:

'Personally I try and avoid cathartic pieces nowadays. One method for exploring personal subject matter I employ is to write in the third person and develop a story around a fictional character. There is often a bit of me and my own experiences thrown in but without the obvious confessional first person tone.'

I don't consider it necessary for any writer of poetry to point out whether or not the recipe includes autobiographical ingredients however it is concocted and presented. I also do not think poems should have explanations attached except in rare circumstances where a word or subject matter might need further clarification but even then what is Google for?

Laura, I have to agree with Graham that the reader cannot always tell one way or another. What is fictional writing if it doesn't contain 'the essence of reality in it'? A writer has to make the reader believe in the story in order to make it work. In effect it's a lie or a con or a mash up of truths and fictions drawn from all quarters of the real and imagined. Well that's where I like to position my writing and where I aim for.

I posted a poem called 'it' a while back. It wasn't meant to catch readers out but it had an effect which made me feel quite uneasy afterwards. Graham, you commented at the time along the lines of this discussion. Without blowing my own trumpet it was written in the first person and I would guess almost impossible to guess it wasn't true. Here's the link to the poem and subsequent comments.

Wed, 10 May 2017 02:22 pm
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Graham – authenticity does shine through I’ve found. Unless it happens to be Stu, who writes with incredible authenticity about stuff I’m almost certain isn’t about him or doesn’t involve him. His imagination is one of the most powerful I’ve come across . Anyways, why would it affect your commentary? Can’t you just comment on the poem itself?

In addition, isn’t WOL a place to be free to express the kind of empathy you mention in your original post though? This isn’t an online slam, it’s not a publisher, or a snooty magazine telling us what we should and shouldn’t do, it’s not a creative writing tutor/course (spit). It’s a community of writers of all levels. If someone writes a piece that resonates with another who has the same experience, why shouldn’t they be able to express that, without fear of ‘losing objectivity’? I kind of understand what you are saying, but I don’t think rigidity on these matters is helpful, especially to new writers.

Colin – I think most poets start out by writing cathartic pieces, indeed, it’s what pulls us in, the urge to express our deep hurts in a way that you can ‘codify’ and so it not be immediately obvious that it is about oneself. I’ve written loads of cathartic pieces in the third person for just that reason.

Totally agree with the second paragraph of your previously posted comment, however, I have bent a little on explanations over the years, on some occasions.

Wrt to ‘it’, if I’d read that, I really wouldn’t have thought it was about you. It’s too bald, too out, too open – the very fact that you use ‘I’ makes me think it’s not about you. It seems much more like a vehicle for you to explore an atheist’s mind in light of their own death.

I never usually get embroiled in discussions on here btw, as they tend to just go round in circles. I was drawn to this one for obvious reasons though.
Wed, 10 May 2017 03:49 pm
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I think the 'it' poem is interesting as it highlights what *might* happen if enough people believe the content. Fake news and all that. Your reaction to reading 'it' is also interesting and I wonder, can you actually be so sure having previously read my explanation above?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not necessarily disagreeing with your judgement or trying to persuade you that 'it' delivered on whatever it was meant to, but it seemed an appropriate example to quote in the context of this discussion.

Wed, 10 May 2017 04:17 pm
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Oh yeh, take your point completely. Heh - I almost added a bit about hindsight but didn't bother. Again, take your point, but being used to your writing, alarm bells would have rung for sure if I'd thought it was genuinely authentic. If you were dying, there would be more poems about it and around it and you wouldn't have been so bald about it. Also - when people are close to death, they tend to shit themselves, mostly, not be quite so philosophical about it ;)

Anyways, it's being so cheerful that keeps us going ya know!
Wed, 10 May 2017 04:39 pm
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Due to a recent-elderly-`shit myself`` moment I have neglected my close reading a bit. (:

My comment was about poetry in general. I think I
was trying to home in on the `how` of the way the poet expresses the catharsis in the body of the poem.

Perhaps one way of trying to get at what I mean is a previous poem of Graham himself called `Sis`... (29/10/2015) where (IMO) he tells the `How` of a lad`s moment of juvenile catharsis by introducing an unusually strange combination of sounds and voices disturbing the normal tenor of his waking moments.
Wed, 10 May 2017 11:57 pm
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Of my last few poems, one is a google-derived 'flarf' elegy for a poet, one of them is a set of imaginary captions to imaginary post-war photographs and another is about the impact of watching World at War & The Ascent of Man on a young man from the North of England. Only one of them has any real autobiographical content, and then only tangentially. I think of poetry as an artform, not a public confessional.
Thu, 11 May 2017 02:13 pm
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I'm really sorry to hear that Harry, and hope you are feeling very much better now.Cheers for the clarification.

That's very nice Steven, but doesn't really answer the original question.
Thu, 11 May 2017 02:29 pm
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Well, to answer the question, I don't think it matters whether the poem is autobiographical or not. People do have a tendency to think that poetry must be about the poet, but even if it is, it exists in its own space and any criticism should be about the poem not its subject.

Of course a poem should be sincere - and if you can fake that you can fake anything...
Thu, 11 May 2017 02:46 pm
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'my question is... "should we indicate whether poems that we add to WOL are autobiographical or not"'

So your answer would presumably be a No, then?

My degree centred around Barthes' Death of the Author so it's bread and butter to me. I agree about the poem existing separately, of course, but I also see the other side to that. I think most people ARE drawn to that, hence the popularity of biogs and autobiogs. Folk want to know where the inspiration comes from.

Thu, 11 May 2017 02:57 pm
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And that's fine if you're giving a reading. If you're looking to get some critique, it's how the poem comes across to the reader who doesn't know the back story that matters.

In the crit group I go to, we've just started a rule where you're not allowed to give any reply to feedback until everybody else has responded. I think that's a good rule, even though you might want to say, "no, no, that's not what I meant..." If what it meant means that much to you and people aren't getting it, then it means you've got some more work to do.

(Sorry about all the means there...)

I suppose on writeoutloud people might be reading the content of the poem first and assuming it's autobiographical, but that's actually frustrating if what you want is to know if it works or not. Like with the cancer poem alluded to above, is it a good poem, does it need improvement? is what a workshop should be looking at, not whether the poem is factual or fictional.

Sat, 13 May 2017 10:23 am
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Bang on Steven. The same should go for WOL but of course it cannot be policed like a live event.

My overriding issue is that commenters can become all mushy and sympathetic immediately if they think the piece is Autobiographical. They lose sight of the quality of the writing and become empathy-ized to the point of blindness.

If there writer is swift to own up etc, forget any serious critique.
Sat, 13 May 2017 02:04 pm
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I think that sometimes some autobiographical information (within the body of the actual poem) is essential to the understanding of the poem.

But, although many of the great immortals suffered greatly, they`ve all had the decency to die on us (so we can let the posthumous sympathy rip).

On a social blog like this the sympathy is inclined to become too personal and do a disservice to the universal generality of the poem.

I think Steven`s:`It`s how the poem comes across to the reader who doesn`t know the backstory that matters` puts the whole thing in a nutshell.
Sun, 14 May 2017 10:36 pm
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Agree with most of your post Steven, but I guess we also have to look at whether the poet actually wants critique or whether they just need to post it out and get it out of their heads and onto a page. Speaking for myself only, and with reference to my last poem, I wasn't after critique. I've only ever written about the subject once before, and found it the hardest thing to do, cos it plunges you right back into it all again. I'll admit I didn't sleep very well for a couple of nights after writing that poem.

When I first joined WOL, I kept being asked for explanations of my poems, and because of my academic background, I resisted and got quite annoyed by the insistence on one interpretation alone, when for me the joy was always in the not knowing, in the ambiguity.

Overall, I am happy not knowing, but sometimes you just pick up on it.
Mon, 15 May 2017 09:51 am
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I defy anyone to know whether any of mine are autobiographical or constructed from imagination - I hardly know myself half the time. I do have moments of private satisfaction when people assume I'm telling a true story rather than one 'made up' - and some of my stuff is both - I just stick down what comes to mind - and hey ho 😃
I'm presently trundling around doing three; one is pretty true to the events, the second follows on and is just a whimsy and the third "Shirley Died Today" (put on on here recently) rounds off the trio - grown men cry when they hear it - and that is a good thing 😃
I don't really analyse me stuff - it's pathos rather than logos for me.

p.s. I just remembered a very interesting snippet from (I believe - and I could be wrong) Fay Weldon - she said, (paraphrased) "As a writer I inhabit a thousand universes at the same moment - in some I am me and in others..."
Mon, 15 May 2017 02:16 pm
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I don't think it is anyone's business whether a poem is autobiographical or not.

If a poet clearly states that it is, there must be a personal reason - justification, background authenticity, the need for empathy, a search for poets of similar interests or experiences - friends.

But - unless so invited into a poet's own circle - the poem should never be assumed to be personal. It's a poet's job to write about 'the world' in a personal way, a practised craft, the universal encapsulated into the individual, from many sources.

There is much angst expressed on this site. If any reader feels compelled to pursue a poem back to its author, sympathetically, there may, or may not be, rewards of internet friendship.

Just be sure that is what you want.

Wed, 17 May 2017 05:04 pm
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I think I agree, Cynthia 😃
Thu, 18 May 2017 12:08 am
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