Some readers posted thought-provoking comments on my poem, "Beautiful Suspect." I am posting here my thoughts on their comments. My reply may make more sense if you read their comments first.
Thank you, Anonymous, Greg, monkey and Larry for your thoughtful responses to the poem and to each other. I only wish the "poem," not even a draft but a jotting down of ideas and phrases, deserve such deliberations. The discussion is important, of course, because of the issues raised by the "poem."
I frame these interrelated issues thus:
(1) What is the relationship between the speaker and the author of a poem? What is at stake when we conflate the two, as we so easily and commonly do?
(2) Should an author treat subject matter of a dubious morality, in a manner that that is not condemnatory nor ironic? This assumes that the author, in his real person, thinks of the subject as immoral in the first place.
My thinking on the first question:
The basic relationship between the author and the speaker is one of creator and creature. The creature may be made in the image of the creator (possessing some of the creator's autobiography, attitudes, intelligence, and what have you) but the creature is not the creator. But some creatures are more like the creator than others. In the Christian account, man is more like God than a platypus is. So some speakers are more like their authors than some other authors' creatures. Even within the same species, some men, and most women, are, arguably, more like God than others. So within a single poet's work, some of his speakers are more like him than others.
Monkey reminds us of the useful concept of "implied author." The concept is useful not only because it emphasizes the differences between speaker, implied author and actual author, and how those differences play out differently in different texts, but the concept is also useful because "implied" reminds us that our ideas of that author is an act of interpretation. So Larry read the implied author as a mock confessional portrait of a young gay man wanting to make it but frightened by the terrors of the city, while the first Anon read the author as a self-hating Foley. Also, "implied author" is a critical (i.e. readerly concept). As a writer, I think of the speaker and him as both creations.
If we have read much and well, we know all this, and yet we so often conflate speaker and author. Why? One reason could be that we read poems to confirm our own understanding of the world. So we read something in a poem that triggers a response in us, and we want to praise or condemn it.
Praise, almost always, means the poem says something we agree with; condemnation means the opposite. But both come from the same source. We become literalists when we praise or condemn a poem's content. What is the alternative attitude? Keats's negative capability, with which we hold the mind open to ambiguities, nuances and possibilities, with which we resist reducing a poem to a message, whether Satan's or Gabriel's.
Does that mean the author can get away with saying anything? Perhaps. At the very least, a poem grants the privileges of a careful hearing and of a suspension of judgment. For me, that is the fun of reading and writing poems. That is why literature, in the ocean of texts and media, is so vital.
I find myself at the second question. I think of monkey's response to Kundera's "The Hitchhiking Game," and I bless his soul. If it were up to the woman friend who read the same story, she would have burned the book, abetted by the male friend who was swayed by her view. My "poem" is no masterpiece like Kundera's, but the principle is the same. The only relevant judgment is whether the literary work is psychologically simplistic or complex, aesthetically ugly or beautiful. (And I think that kind of judgment is inapplicable to a poem that is not even a first draft. Thanks, Larry, for the aesthetic suggestions for the poem.)
But I think monkey hesitates over some of the implications of his intuition. He is disturbed, like Larry, by the apparently flippant tone of "The Poem as Autobiography." But, in terms of appropriacy for literary treatment, what essential difference lies between flippancy towards child abuse and denigration of women? Is child abuse more prevalent? More damaging? Is flippancy more dangerous than hatred? More simplistic? Answers to that question quickly run into trouble. This probably signals my limitation, but I sincerely cannot see any difference.
Larry provides a clue to the disturbance felt. He described child abuse as a taboo. It is a strong taboo in this historical moment, one reason why writers want to write about it. In so many poems, child abuse gives the abused speaker's voice authority and sympathy, qualities so alluring to a poet marginalized within the wider culture. That allure is one reason why I exploit, and question, that topic in my poem. So in my mind, both Larry's and monkey's responses to the poem justify my choice of the topic. Of course, what you are reading here is self-justification after the fact.
Eagleton defines a poem, in part, as "a fictional moral statement." However much we want a poem to give us unmediated access to the writer's mind, a poem is a fiction, or, in my terms, a creation. I am beginning to see the moral "statement" my poems make: my poems give me permission to say anything I want in any manner I wish. To put it in an unattractively self-aggrandizing manner, it is a moral vision that values every thought and feeling the human is capable of thinking and feeling.
I want to thank you again for giving me your thoughts on these issues. Your opinions have made me think, and will continue to do so.