Recently I reconnected with the work of a poet whom I have known for many years, Betsy Sholl. She and I went through the same MFA program, lived in the same community, belonged at times to the same writing groups. I have read her poems in great gulps, but not until recently did I study their effect on me. When I read her work deeply, I want more depth and texture in my own work. Hooray for Betsy. She’s doing one of the most important things a poet can do–inspire others to discover what they like about good poems. And she’s inspiring me to work harder at the truth, which is our job description.
Without knowing it, though, she also taught me to question my ability to read a poem for what it is not. A poem is not an extension of the poet, but a stand-alone creation. Knowing her as well as I do, I concluded that her work is autobiographical. It’s believable, given what I know of her life. It may begin with her direct experience, but it can and does go beyond that. The opening lines of her poem “Pink Slip” (in Don’t Explain) did not fit with what I know of her life, so I couldn’t quite “get” the poem. I asked for her help. Oh, that’s a persona poem! Well, duh! Now it works very well.
Then I went through a brief loss of faith. If I cannot believe what I see on the page, cannot tell if she’s speaking directly or not, then what? Can I trust her? It doesn’t matter. All she’s asking is that I trust the poem. That I recognize that the writing on the page has an integrity all its own. Where she was when she wrote it might be interesting, but is not vital to the way the poem moves. Had it been anonymous, would I still value the poem? I would. Lesson learned.