The Limitations of the Poetic Self

Why not write about yourself? many prominent poets today will argue. After all, poetry can be the most intimate of the written creative disciplines. To be honest, writing begins within one’s consciousness, one’s perception of the world. But were your poetry to begin AND end with you, you’ve done the writing of it a disservice. You haven’t plumbed its depths; you haven’t sought out the universality in your poetic urge.

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For instance:

In Robert Frost’s poem “Birches,” were he to have taken a more personal approach, such as:

“I prefer not to think of their branches

bent with age, leaves downcast,

like my thinning hair, wind

stripping them, the way the years

have sapped my strength…”

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Not bad if I do say so. But do you see the limitation this approach takes? Sure, it approaches the birches from the poet’s own situation in a good way. But is this a universal approach, the way the best poetry must do?

But look what Frost does:

“When I see birches bend from left to right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.

Ice storms do that.

You see the difference? The more complex imagery, the bending of time in one complicated thought? In the supposed example, the poem hugs the poet’s physical self, his/her specific situation. Of course neither set of lines is complete, but Frost’s sets the stage for a complicated take on his stand of birches, not the simpler, less potentially universal intertwining of self and the thing perceived.

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