Much as I have never taken to biographies, I often shudder at the autobiographical poem. For me, a poem which explicitly makes the author known has always had a waft of advertisement to it. Autobiography is exaggeration, and a poem that exaggerates only ever wins half the reader’s confidence.
There is nothing wrong with writing about yourself, but it is so much more interesting when you don’t. When we write about ourselves slantways, we entice folks nearer to our little campfires. We have to write about the world and strangers directly because we are more responsible when we do. We exaggerate the lives of others less because telling their story requires imagination, and imagination has an evener hand than confession.
Though I do not think of Keats very often, his poems have put their fingerprints all over me. I think of his poems because they are helpful: their order, their language, their sentiment, their humanity. They help me think straight and feel straight. His poems are little preserves of his way of thinking, the connections he drew, the preferences he held. Preservation is, of course, the soul of autobiography; the poem is a kind of syntactical autobiography.
Some folks think in the forms, rhythms, and language of a poem. We call it poetry because if we called it, “pretty thoughts that I organized for others,” who would be interested? We act like poetry is a calling; we treat our poets like priests or we hope to be treated like priests. But it isn’t a calling; it is the residue of internal patterns. Which I find endlessly more charming and encouraging than any mystical mutterance.
All biographies are autobiographies. It is the biographer’s ethic and penchant and history that is the final revelation. Biographical criticism, in particular, would be improved if critics included in their works pictures of their father and mother. If they want to play Freud, let them play Freud nudely.