At the moment, I am looking through my window with an unfamiliar mixture of dread, fascination, and fear, wondering how in the world it is possible for it to still be snowing. It seems as though the sky would’ve had enough by now. Apparently not, and so I distract myself from the fresh layer of snow which is covering the last fresh layer of ice, which covered another layer of snow, which covered another layer of ice, by blogging.
I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this on the blog yet, but this year, I have the great blessing of teaching my dream class — specifically: Lovers, Sinners, and Saints: The Confession throughout the Ages (I should mention that since I am currently teaching my dream class, this makes it a reality. I have therefore had to replace my newly-non-dream-but-instead-reality class with a new dream class: Pop Literature. It would involve sixties song lyrics (“Ball of Confusion,” “Eve of Destruction,” the “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag”), rap lyrics (who’s to say that Jay-Z and Lil Wayne aren’t the new Troubadors?), and, of course, Valley of the Dolls). We started the semester by reading Rachel Zucker’s “Confessionalography: A GNAT (Grossly Non-Academic Talk) on ‘I’ in Poetry,” which is a wonder of an essay: it’s easily digestible because of her sense of humor, and yet it raises some of the most serious questions not only about little-c-confessional and big-C-Confessional writing, but about what it means to craft a work of art in general.
In particular, Zucker devotes her energy towards explicating the difference between autobiography and confession, which is an issue I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about as of late. According to Zucker, the purely autobiographical is impossible in poetry. This does make sense: a poem is an act of telling, and the second we attempt to tell someone else a fact, the fact is no longer a fact: it requires context, explanation, a spin to make it comprehensible to others. I think that this is also an important distinction for poets — particularly, dare I say, young poets — as it stresses that the importance here is the crafting of a piece of art, the telling of something to someone else. In other words, just saying that you’re expressing yourself isn’t enough — it isn’t just the story, but how the story is told, and the author’s attention to how the story is told, that makes something a poem. I often hear of teachers telling students that if they’re expressing themselves, it’s poetry. This has always barbed me, for some reason, and I think that Zucker’s explanation here is a good one. She compares this kind of expression to the expression of breast milk: you get it out just to get it out, and then it runs down the sink, useless. It’s the container — the bottle — that makes it usable. It’s the container of a story and/or emotion, then, that makes it art.
Moving from this, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between autobiography and confession, and wondering if there really is that distinct of a line between the two. I wonder if the confession in an autobiography might actually be in the gaps. In my Catholic school catechism classes (yes, I am going here — hold on, there is a point, I promise), Monsignor Wade taught us about two kinds of sins: sins of commission, or action, and sins of omission — the “what I have done and what I have failed to do” idea. This kind of sin is, technically speaking, I think, committed when one fails to do what they ought to do. I always conceived of it more in terms of truth: you committed a sin of omission, I thought, when you didn’t tell all of the truth.
And this is where the confession may be in autobiography: in what is not said as much as, more than, or in contrast to what is said. Take, for instance, the autobiography of a man who usually makes me want to tear my hair out, but to whom I’m very grateful at the moment, as I’m typing on the computer with the heat on high in the midst of an ice storm: Benjamin Franklin. In his Autobiography, Franklin does mention some disgruntlement with his brother, but he doesn’t mention the reason behind this. However, Jean Fritz’s What’s the Big Idea, Ben Franklin?, one of my all-time favorite children’s books, reveals that Franklin basically bragged about money until he drove his brother crazy. Franklin barely mentions his wife, Deborah Read (except to brag about how much money he ended up making), who took care of his business operations. These omissions make up a kind of confession: what he was ashamed of, what his great faults were, no matter how great of a man he was.
Or take, for instance, one of my personal favorites, Bette Davis’ “autobiography,” This ‘N That. The opening of the chapter about the filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, one of my all-time favorite movies, goes like this:
Feud is a Hollywood word, a wildly overused Hollywood word. Did Bette Davis and Joan Crawford ever feud during the filming of Baby Jane? No!
Like, dislike — these were not words I ever applied to Miss Crawford. Until we were cast as the costars of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? I knew her only slightly. . . .In truth, I did not know her any better after the film was completed.
Here, Davis denies knowing Crawford, and certainly denies any major disagreements with her. However, the above passage is quickly followed by passages along the lines of this one (I am, incidentally, making an executive decision not to post the passage about Joan Crawford’ “football” falsies, though it is amazing):
It was known that Joan was overly fond of vodka. She continually drank Pepsi-Cola on the set while working. Her fourth husband was the chairman of the board of Pepsi-Cola. Joan spiked her Pepsis with vodka. . . .Alcohol in the body exposed to heat makes one perspire freely. . . .It was in Joan’s contract that the stage had to be kept at a certain temperature. Members of the crew wore lumberman’s jackets. In southern California. In August. On a soundstage.
And here is a confession of omission: though she never comes out and says it, we know exactly how Ms. Bette Davis feels about Ms. Joan Crawford. The “container,” here, is important as well: the cadence of the prose changes to highlight Crawford’s sweaty, Pepsi-covered predicament. A confession of omission indeed.
Which brings me, as most things, you probably have by now realized, do, to that topic which has been a great inspiration of both poems and confessions: love. It seems to me sometimes that love, and poetry about love, is built on omissions, and on decisions about omission: what do we tell, and what do we leave to be found out?