'I have seen what I have seen': Charles Wright's 'Tattoos' and the Problem of Autobiography

2017-05-17T11:15:21Z (GMT) by Andrew Johnson
For good or ill, modern poetry is bound to the idea of personal utterance. For the ancients this was merely the characteristic that separated lyric from dramatic and narrative poetry. But over the past two hundred years significant shifts have taken place. Lyric no longer means simply the single voice singing in the first person, whether actual or merely assumed, but also autobiography. Moreover, very little poetry has been written in either of the other two main genres for generations. Most modern poetry is premised, then, on the belief that the proper subject of poetry, perhaps the only subject, is the poet's own life and experience. Nonetheless, the connection between poetry and autobiography has not always been straightforward. There are considerable tensions between the demands of autobiography and the demands of the lyric. Such tensions can be found in Wordsworth’s Prelude and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass just as they can be found in more recent successors to the tradition associated with those two monumental figures: Hart Crane’s <i>The Bridge</i>; Robert Lowell’s <i>Life Studies</i>; John Berryman’s <i>Dream Songs</i>; even John Ashbery’s <i>Flowchart</i> all bear marks of the strain. In American poetry, at least, the tensions have been highly pitched indeed. As such they have been productive of great personal achievements and laid a foundation for numerous poetic schools and cliques. This brings up the other subject of this article, American poet, Charles Wright.