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Autobiography isn’t valued very highly in our culture. It is often dismissed a priori either as self-indulgent and frivolous, or as therapeutic, and therefore somehow of no relevance to us. Schooled as we are in the hegemony of pathological psychology, we have been taught to distrust the autobiographer’s designs and motives, and we approach an autobiography heavily armed with irony, scepticism, and cynicism. The prevalent mode of thinking seems to be: “We’re certainly not going to let this little nobody think we care what he/she feels/thinks.” Anyone who dares reveal their inner world is automatically subjected to ridicule. And anyone who dares to stand up and defend this ridiculous person is also subjected to ridicule.

Art Durkee has some interesting comments on this subject.

In discussion with him I was referred to this.

For this tribute to Maslow and his philosophy of positive thinking Art was apparently labelled a narcissist. He found the comments so offensive that he deleted them. I don’t know whether he did the right thing there. I haven’t seen the comments. But it’s a no-win situation. No doubt he followed his gut reaction. Why carry a load of invective against yourself on your blog? Even Thomas Graves at Scarriet draws the line occasionally.

Of course, some autobiographical writing is poor, but that doesn’t mean the whole genre should be tarred with the same brush. Luckily, there are those of us who sense that a one-sided account shouldn’t automatically be treated as untrustworthy. Every word could be true. Sheila O’Malley is an autobiographer, and she writes the socks off other reviewers precisely because she is bold enough to go with her own judgments. Her blog is here.

Some serious modern philosophers would seem to be set on redressing the standing of the autobiography. Stanley Cavell, for example, with his idea of philosophy as autobiography:

“This is an idea in which the acknowledgement of the partiality of the self is an essential condition for achieving the universal. In the apparently paradoxical combination of the ‘philosophical’ (which is traditionally connected with a search for the objective and the universal) and the ‘autobiographical’ (which is conventionally associated with the subjective and the personal), Cavell shows us a way of focusing on the self and yet always transcending the self.”

See the full essay.

Thomas S. Hibbs makes great claims for Cavell:

“By turning to neglected philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, attending to disciplines outside philosophy, and insisting on the link between philosophy and autobiography, Cavell has helped reshape the landscape of contemporary philosophy. No philosopher has ranged as widely in his thinking and writing.”

Cavell has said:

“The process of composing the autobiography has provided me with some distinct reassurance, I might say inspiration, in my bid for certain lines of liberation in imagining that I am an acceptable participant in the human family.”

He doesn’t say that this was a motivation for writing his autobiography. It could just as well have been a fortunate by-product. But yes, some people can sometimes improve their mental health by writing a book. Isn’t that wonderful? I can’t see how this fact alone should detract from its artistic or literary merit.

See the full article.

Like many other writers I choose to fictionalise my autobiographical accounts. This is more acceptable, it seems. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that my writing is therapeutic. I enjoy writing poems and songs, and I know it does wonders for my well-being. I also value autobiography highly, not least for the knowledge it imparts. I intuitively believe that subjective experience is the key to a deeper understanding of the world, and this is one of my main motivations for writing poetry and songs. I often write autobiographically. And in my autobiographical poetry I try to describe events as accurately as possible. It is the events themselves that are the midwives to my poetry, so why would I want to change them?

Sometimes, however, I choose to dramatise a fictive narrative using a first-person speaker, even though it is not an autobiographical account, because it is more compelling that way. And in some instances it is impossible for the reader to see when the “I” is a fictive one and when it is an autobiographical one. I don’t see this as a problem. Autobiographers have a tendency to idealize themselves. They’re selective and press their own agendas. In using a fictional first-person speaker I can allow myself a persona whose actions I would otherwise be unwilling to embrace.

The sonnet I am showcasing today is a case in point. The speaker has mistreated someone close, presumably a girl/woman, and it has ruined his relationship to her. The episode never actually happened, and I didn’t have anyone in mind when I wrote it. But it could have happened, and there’s no way for the reader to know it didn’t happen. The narrative reflects badly on me, but I can live with that. It goes some way to redressing the imbalance caused by my omitting to write about certain real-life events that reflect badly on me.

Remorse” appeared in the first issue of an e-zine, Bringing Sonnets Back in July 2007, whereupon the website disappeared.


You advertised the flutes of birds
at dusk, their latest domicile
the forks of lightning in your smile,
the cracks of thunder in your words.
The notes they sang were sweet and clear,
each one a joyful piece of news.
“At last,” I thought, “the playful muse
my cheerful soul has longed to hear!”

What tiger was in me that roared?
That stormed across your unmade bed?
That picked your pocket, swiftly read
the poetry your heart had poured?
No later action could redress
that stripping of your nakedness.

Listen to a recording:


Now look at the vastly inferior version I would have been compelled to write if I had declined to use the first person for fear of being identified as the speaker:

Remorse (a vastly inferior version)

He advertised the flutes of birds
at dusk, their latest domicile
the forks of lightning in her smile,
the cracks of thunder in her words.
The notes they sang were sweet and clear,
each one a joyful piece of news.
“At last,” he thought, “the playful muse
my cheerful soul has longed to hear!”

What tiger was in him that roared?
That stormed across her unmade bed?
That picked her pocket, swiftly read
the poetry her heart had poured?
No later action could redress
that stripping of her nakedness.