Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Mary Karr: Poetry Meets Memoir

In my search for poetry-as-memoir, I have encountered something I intuitively knew but hadn't quite articulated or had articulated for me:
Most poetry is memoir. 

Highly autobiographical, with lyricism that can get at feeling over fact, poetry and memoir both  prefer senses, experience and feeling. No wonder I like them both so much.

My favorite discovery so far is finding Mary Karr's poetry. I had no idea she wrote poetry. 
And here's the best part - it's really fucking good. From the collection Sinners Welcome:

STILL MEMORY The dream was so deep
the bed came unroped from its moorings,
drifted upstream till it found my old notch  
in the house I grew up in,
then it locked in place.
A light in the hall—  
my father in the doorway, not dead
just home from the graveyard shift
smelling of crude oil and solvent.  
If you read this blog regularly, you know I especially have a soft spot for how memoirists are attuned to memory - its complexity, honesty and confusion. I love that description of how a dream is so deep the bed comes unroped from its moorings. After describing this dream, we come to with a strong smelling, not dead father. Bam. Driven by sense experience right into the present moment.

I selected out the following small passages from Liar's Club, where Karr addresses memory in the same lucid way. They are descriptions of the opening memory from Chapter 1, not the memory itself. I did this here both because the chapter is full of potential triggers, and because I wanted to focus on how she talks about memory.
My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark...It took three decades for that instant to unfreeze. Neighbors and family helped me turn that one bright slide into a panorama...It was only over time that the panorama became animate, like a scene in some movie crystal ball that whirls from a foggy blur into focus. People developed little distinct motions; then the whole scene jerked to smooth and sudden life.
Wow. Here she is describing what happens in the poem above - the lucid free flow of memory or dream, floating, then suddenly pinned into place. Karr knows the language of memoir and the language of poetry have a lot to say to each other. The mind of both works in similar, complementary ways.

One of my favorite things is when prose writers say that poetry is harder to write than prose. Nicole Krauss did this in an interview years ago on KCLW's Bookworm. And Karr does it again, here in this interview with Rumpus
from an interview with the Emma Winsor Wood:
Rumpus: In your opinion, is there something about the poem as a form that lends it particularly well to posturing? 
Mary Karr: No. I think it’s a much harder form. It’s much easier to fail. There’s a great line from James Joyce, “Everybody starts out being a poet and then realizes it’s too hard.” You’re trying to get to create an entire emotional experience in a piece of language the size of your hand. Who can do that? It’s just impossible. 
Self-deception and pretense and lies plague every art form. We’ve all read dishonest news stories where the reporter has an agenda he doesn’t admit or dishonest novels where the novelist’s trying to pose as a different sort of person. Lies plague every art form; poetry’s just harder.
And, of course, lies and misrepresentation haunt memoir. We all know about that one. To borrow on Krauss' image from years ago, when we write prose, there's more room to hide, to not show what we don't know. In poetry, the sparseness makes that, as Karr says above, "impossible."

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