Marilyn Monroe watches us sideways: Thoughts on confessional poetry

Burnt! at Madison Brewing Company, Bennington, VT

There’s a piece up on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog asking Can Confessional Writing Be Literary? The essay by Kelly Sundberg discusses a number of interesting things, among them the cultural dynamic surrounding women’s wounds. She cites an author who “laments our culture’s infatuation with traumatic experiences.” At the same time, as the essay points out, “the culture” expects us to gain from those wounds stories of recovery and redemption — whether we are writers or not. In other words, we are warned: Thou shalt not wallow.

It can be argued (and is by some) that the culture teaches and perpetuates violence against women… and then that same culture advances the expectation that we’re terrible people (and weak) if we can’t recover. And quickly. And be better for it. And then we’re required to use that exact plot to tell — and sell — the story. Isn’t that great?

It’s not fucking great at all, of course.

***

It makes me think about how I live with my own trauma. Sometimes, as it did recently the morning of a colonoscopy (something I have to have even at my age because of my mom’s early death related to colon cancer), it overtakes me. That morning, it manifested as anxiety that caused me not only to be far bitchier than usual, but also to tremble and sob uncontrollably.

Other times, I behave like a (mostly) sane human being. I wake up and make oatmeal. I take my Subaru for its oil change. I go with my boyfriend to Bennington on an unseasonably warm February Saturday. We browse galleries and bookstores. We eat and drink at a local brewery where Marilyn Monroe watches us sideways from her perch atop an old upright piano. Things are perfectly normal.

And I am happy.

But that doesn’t mean that I am recovered or redeemed or “better for” the trauma in any way. My traumatized self hovers over me always, ready to jump into my body whenever she chooses. We co-exist. We are estranged, and we are not on some Hollywood trajectory toward healing or acceptance. That doesn’t appeal to me in any way, and I will continue to reject any idea that trauma belongs.

It doesn’t belong. And it shouldn’t be. The expectation that I would integrate something so horrific into my psyche? into my body? That’s insane to me.

***

In her Brevity essay, Sundberg also conveys the (related) story of her MFA thesis defense — in which a committee member asks if the stories of women’s trauma in her collection of lyric essays are “melodramatic.” Sundberg’s legitimate complaint with the remark is: “I am worried about having to constantly assert my legitimacy as a literary writer, simply because I often write about my experience of trauma.” In other words, as the title of the essay asks, “Can confessional writing be literary?”

The answer is yes. I wrote my long research paper in grad school on how confessional poetry can also be literary.  Just as the word “melodrama” has so many negative connotations (and is dismissive), “confessional” is a label that’s been used to assign second class status to writing on account of its subject matter. My paper determines that as long as poems do what great poems do — make room for the reader, transform or elevate an experience, apply craft, etc. — then they are literary even if they are also confessional.

Sundberg nets out there, as well. She says, just because we have “easy access” to our own experience “doesn’t mean that we can write it well. As literary writers, when writing about individual traumas, we’re still called upon to use the elements of our craft in a way that strives to move beyond the individual story.”

***

For me, this often means coming at things sideways — and usually unintentionally — when transforming an experience or idea into art. Sideways, like Marilyn.

Marilyn watches us sideways.

Sideways, Marilyn watches us.

It’s serendipitous that I’d been communing with a painting of Marilyn around the same time I found the Brevity essay. Or maybe I’m making a connection that doesn’t really exist, as we sometimes do. But I can’t help it. As much as Marilyn represents beauty in the culture, that beauty seems tethered to the tragic. Would we have been as mesmerized by her (and would she have been so sexualized) if we hadn’t seen the shadow side? The sadness just off camera but still, somehow, captured by the lens.

Sideways, Marilyn.

Darling.

***

In addition to the other insights Sundberg shares in her essay, she also points out that she does not believe literary writing should be therapeutic. And I agree 200%. I don’t write for therapy, and I am really uncomfortable reading poems and essays that seem to serve only that purpose for their authors. Therapy is work we must do (and it can happen in the writing process), but it is not the work of literary writing.

I don’t even write to describe what it’s like to live with trauma alongside me. In fact, I write in part to get away from her. If I can’t, I let her surprise me: she pops up with clues about what she looks like, where she hides, what she might like to say. I write for a kind of sick, twisted playfulness with Those Things That Are Devastating.

Gladly, it isn’t always about them. One can have a lovely lunch with a handsome man and a sideways Marilyn, and they can be totally beside the point.

6 thoughts on “Marilyn Monroe watches us sideways: Thoughts on confessional poetry

  1. I once wrote a sort of meta-essay about how I don’t write for therapy. Oddly, it was therapeutic, so I threw that essay away. 🙂

    Beautiful piece here, Carolee. It touched me on many levels.

  2. You make some very important points here. Thank you. And the issue of Marilyn, the cultural construction of and around her, is important, too. That’s something I hope my work is exploring.

  3. I’ve been thinking about Kelly Sunderberg’s article this past week as well. Of course confessional writing or memoir can be literary; just think of all the beautiful stories out there. What makes them literary is that they turn a particular tragedy or trauma into a universal event. The reader isn’t a voyeur, she’s listening deeply as she reads. Of course, for me, the best stories or poems are ones that show us the way out of suffering, so a certain amount of healing does take place.

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