Confessional Poetry, Private Language and Suicide
Sometimes I come across poetry and literary writings that sound incredibly beautiful, like an abstract painting that has been painted with words, but beyond that strong aesthetic over-whelming feeling, I don't grasp anything, and I am left asking "What does it mean?" And often when I try to ask the fans of that poetry, "Well, it is truly beautiful, but what does it mean?" I just fail to get any satisfying answer. Many of the answers tend to revolve around the theme of "It cannot be explained. It's something you have to feel." Most of the time I just shut up in humbleness, and accept my inability to feel. At other times, I am just silently pissed. Either the poet is speaking in a language that makes sense but which I cannot understand, or it is all just a string of pretty words with no meaning underneath. How do you even distinguish between the two?
Yes, my mind is strongly rational, and it always tries to make 'sense' of things. And I accept that I may not be able to make sense of something on my own, that is why I am always eager to ask "Tell me, show me, teach me, how it makes sense." But what am I to make of the response that 'it cannot be explained'? How can something that actually makes sense cannot be explained?
Earlier in the year I learnt about a type of poetry, Confessional poetry. Confessional poets deal with the matters of their intimate personal life. Among the recognized confessional poets, I have only been exposed to Sylvia Plath somewhat, though I have not read her in detail. There are some lines in her poem Elm that go as:
I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
Scorched to the root
My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.
I really liked these lines, because they are incredibly beautiful. The aesthetic beauty of the expressions is over-whelming. But my mind kept nagging me, "What does it mean?" So I kept searching online, and eventually I came across a comment on a forum which said that these lines are about Sylvia Plath's experience of undergoing Electro-convulsive Therapy as a part of treatment for her severe depression. I don't know whether it is true that the poem is actually about ECT, but in a flash, suddenly, the lines made sense. I could understand them.
These poets are talking in an extremely personal language, in metaphors that are so intimate that they make no sense divorced from their lives. It is like an attempt to create what Wittgenstein called a Private Language “The words of this language are to refer to what can be known only to the speaker; to his immediate, private, sensations. So another cannot understand the language.” (I say attempt because Wittgenstein goes on show that a true Private Language is not possible.)
I do not wish to say that this sort of confessional poetry is without value. Confessional poets have created masterpieces, no doubt. But what I wish to say is (to the poet): What is the point of publishing something that wouldn't mean anything to anyone apart from you? If you present the reader with just the poem in isolation, how do you expect the reader to make any sense of it? It would simply be reduced to pretty-sounding senseless words, or else the reader would ascribe any meaning to it of his own fancy. When you are writing something that only makes sense to you, then I believe you also ought to explain to the reader how to interpret it. To write a coded confession without revealing the relevant biography is like abandoning the poem. It is like throwing the poem at the mercy of the post-structuralists and agreeing with them that, yes, 'the author is dead'. But you, the author, are not dead; you are deliberately committing suicide.