Memoir and Poetry
By Honor Moore on 8.28.09
Back in the mid-eighties I wrote a poem called “Memoir” for a friend who had died of AIDS. It seemed the perfect title for an elegiac poem that combined memory with dream and imaginative vision, so much so that I took it for the title of my first book of poems. When Memoir, a collection that drew on love, dream, memory, and family, was published in 1988, the title was seen as evocative and original. Memoir was an obscure genre—the earliest I remember reading was Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, in which the author’s prose was poetic and metaphorical and in which her narrative drew on myth and cultural history as well as autobiographical incident.
In the more than three decades since, the memoir has become an area of contention. A genre that offers a uniquely rich terrain for a writer has become suspect, cluttered with personal narratives that are often not literary as well as masterpieces like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Diana Athill’s recent Somewhere Near the End. There have been so many books caught out as lies that the first question one faces as a memoirist is some version of, “Is it true?”, the ensuing discussion your explanation of the difference between changing the facts and remembering an incident a bit differently from someone else.
Photo by Mzelle Biscotte on Flickr
On the road for my recent memoir The Bishop’s Daughter, I was often asked about the use of imagination in memoir. It’s akin, I would say, to arranging a bouquet of flowers, making choices; you position on dream or memory as you would one color or shape felicitously next to another. Or to the way that, in writing a poem, you draw not only on fact, but also on memory, dream and reflection—your first loyalty to making a work of literary art that evokes in the reader not only an experience but the aura of feeling and emotion surrounding it. Writing a poem, I begin with an image or a shard of language. In the case of my poem “Memoir,” I was driving and pulled over to the side to write the poem, remembering my dear friend J. J. Mitchell, in Paris years earlier. In the case of The Bishop’s Daughter, it was the image of my father coming to me, a giant silhouette against the Easter morning sun in the open doors of the cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan.
Why not a poem? My clever answer is that my enormously tall father would not fit into a poem, but, in fact, I have written poems into which he fits quite well. As I was beginning The Bishop’s Daughter, I was finishing Red Shoes my most recent collection, and there are two poems, “Exactly Perpendicular” and “Gnostic” which draw on the dream of my father. If not a poem about him, why not a collection, all about my father? I once wrote a sequence of elegies for my friend Inge Morath. The sequence is called Beauté and makes up the third section of Red Shoes. Inge was a friend whose death was sudden, shocking, and too soon. At first I planned a short memoir, but then I heard her Austrian accented voice saying, “But darling, you are a poet!” Okay, I said and began to write poems that were very interior, from the pain and this sudden loss, the loss of a friend I had lived alongside of for two decades. These poems were short lined, fragmentary, and I wrote them waking up in the early morning, out of loss. Some months later, I realized I also wanted to celebrate her life and her great work as a photographer, and so I wrote some much longer and long-lined poems that took in more of the external world we shared; still another kind of poem drew on her photographs. Altogether, you might call the sequence a memoir.
But the story I wanted to tell about my father and me felt both too unwieldy for a book of poems and more like the story one might tell in a great expansive novel. I wanted to speak about the intertwining of public and private, to set out a world comprised of the history of the tumultuous times my father and I shared—he as an activist and a man of the church when the church was changing; I as a daughter becoming a woman in the era when the situation of women was changing. I wanted to write a book that was epic and sweeping but which would also chronicle the impact of the public on the intimate. The rich terrain that memoir offers allowed me both.
Last night I went to sleep at 5:30 pm, exhausted from moving to a summer rental. Before I fell asleep I set a pad of paper by my bed, certain I’d wake up at 8 or so and write something or other. I awakened at midnight to the wild silence of the country, and wrote a few lines:
A small house on a stretch of cut grass, beyond it, the ocean, that blue through trees, azure ribbon, the rooms small, anything you would need, chiffonier with unmatched drawer pulls. Others to Venice, or London — for me quiet near the water, a rented cottage with unmatched chairs, a stack of red placemats…
Will the lines become a poem or sentence in the next prose book? I don’t know. But I love having two roads I know how to travel.