Self-referentiality in the verse autobiographies of Alec Choate and George Elliott Clarke
  • Linda Weste

This paper explores self-referentiality in verse autobiography: lifewriting-in-poetry which thematises the poetry-writing-life. It begins with the contention that poiesis (production, making) is redoubled in verse autobiography – producing autobiography and poem, autobiographical-subject and poet-subject. A close reading examines how self-referential comments inhabit language and inscribe the making – and even the unmaking – of subjects in two autobiographies in verse: Alec Choate’s My days were fauve and George Elliott Clarke’s Traverse. Lejeune’s metaphor of poetic autobiography as a ‘Rosetta stone’ helps to foreground the potential of self-referential verse autobiographies – on account of their redoubled poiesis – to yield clues for understanding the tension between referentiality and aesthetic creation. This enables discussion of the interplay between – and affordances of the irony, trope, and intertextual allusions – evident in these texts combining an autobiographical- and a lyrical-‘I’.

Keywords: Autobiography in verse – poetic autobiography – poetic life writing – poeisis – self-referentiality – metapoetic comments – Lejeune – writing


Verse autobiography can be considered a redoubled act of poiesis,1 of bringing forth or production, whereby the creation of autobiography brings forth or produces an autobiographical-subject, and the creation of a poem brings forth or produces a poet-subject.

A verse autobiography about a poetry-writing-life can be said to be self-referential. A self-referential verse autobiography may thematise – that is, take as its topic or theme – the act of redoubled poiesis, the process of bringing forth, of ‘making’. It may thematise poetic prowess, or the form which poiesis takes – its versified, rhythmic or otherwise deliberately bound form;2 its poetic constituents or elements. It may also thematise the status and significance of the autobiographical- or poet-subject. According to Andreas Jäger this awareness of status can manifest at the textual level as stylistic self-consciousness or irony (1996: 8). A self-referential verse autobiography may even comment on life writing about the poetry-writing-life.  

Self-referentiality in the verse autobiography may, conversely, thematise the impeding of writing, the decline of life-writing or poetic impetus, even the loss of life-writer-relevance or poet-status; such ‘unmaking’ that troubles the act of poiesis.

These contentions form the rationale for a close reading of how self-referentiality inhabits language in two verse autobiographies and shapes their acts of inscription. I combine a textual reading of the formal and semantic structures with a secondary contextual reading – to demonstrate both the poetic and non-poetic discourses that are entered into in making the autobiography in verse. Mindful of poststructuralist interpretive positions3 I use the term ‘metapoetic comments’ interchangeably with ‘self-referential comments’, mainly because usage of the prefix, self, inevitably invokes Roland Barthes: ‘in the field of the subject there is no referent’ (1975: 56). In the words of Paul John Eakin, ‘Reference in autobiography remains … a rather forbidding subject now that poststructuralist theory claims to have demonstrated its undecidability once and for all’ (1992: 29).

To take such a definitive position, however, would eschew discussion of the tension between referential transparency and aesthetic creation. Rather, in the interests of foregrounding that interplay, I borrow Philippe Lejeune’s enabling metaphor of poetic autobiography as a ‘Rosetta stone’ (1983: 424) to appreciate the effects on verse autobiography of combining an autobiographical- and a lyrical-‘I’ (Velguth 1990: 33-4). In the section that follows, I offer context for this metaphor, before examining self-referential, metapoetic comments in Alec Choate’s My days were fauve (2002) and George Elliott Clarke’s Traverse (2014). 

Poetic autobiography as a ‘Rosetta stone’
Quite particular implications for poetry were to result from the prescriptive stance of France’s foremost researcher of autobiography, Philippe Lejeune (1971) – that autobiography is the ‘retrospective prose [my emphasis] narrative that someone writes concerning his own existence, where the focus is his individual life, in particular the story of his personality’ (Eakin 1989: viii).

The testing ground for poetry was Chêne et chien (1937) by Raymond Queneau (1903-1976). In L’autobiographie en France (1971) Lejeune made clear he did not consider Chêne et chien an autobiography on two grounds: Queneau called it a novel, and it was in verse. This autobiographical roman en vers or novel in verse, only made it into English translation in 1995; the work of Madeleine Velguth.

Chêne et chien, as described by Velguth (in Queneau 1995), is ‘burlesque in tone’ (12), ‘a mixture of formality and informality’ (13) – meaning Queneau makes ‘use of every register of expression available to him, ranging from lofty poetic heights, through the mundane of the colloquial to an occasional dip into vulgarity’ (13). Queneau’s poetic techniques involve ‘a great deal of word play: punning, invention of words, play on multiple meanings, hyphenation for the purposes of rhyme, and the phonetic spelling of néo-français – neo-French – which he championed’ (14).

According to Velguth, several years after Lejeune wrote L’autobiographie en France (1971), he conceded in Le pacte autobiographique (1975: 245):

that he had perhaps been arbitrary in thinking that poetry, because of its outward signs of art, works against the verisimiltude necessary for the autobiographic relationship. The reader will simply accept as poetic license the stylizations of verse. (in Queneau 1995: 5)

Velguth’s translation of Lejeune’s Le pacte autobiographique bis (1983: 423-424) enables her to argue that:

Lejeune had decided that, instead of excluding verse, he should have put it at the center of his explorations: For ‘the paradox of the literary autobiography, its essential double game, is to claim to be at one and the same time a truthful discourse and a work of art’ and poetry epitomizes the ‘tension between referential transparency and the search for the esthetic’. (in Queneau 1995: 5-6)

Velguth outlines that Lejeune then adopted Chêne et chien (1937) into the autobiographic canon, rationalising in Le pacte autobiographique bis (1983: 425) that ‘After all, the style of The words of Sartre is perceived by certain readers to be just as ‘artificial’ as the parodic versification of Queneau’ (in Queneau 1995: 6).

Lejeune, by Velguth’s measure, had ‘overestimated the importance of the contract while underestimating textual content, narrative technique and style’ (Velguth 1990: 33). This had led him ‘to dismiss as non-autobiographic those texts in which parody, word-play and versification got in the way of “the transparency of written language,” thereby making them less true to life (vraisemblables)’ (Velguth 1990: 33).

Velguth paraphrases Lejeune [1983: 424]: ‘instead of excluding verse, he should have centered his system on this tension between referential transparency and aesthetic creation … In this sort of study, … Chêne et chien could serve as a “Rosetta stone,” mediating a meditation upon the effect produced upon poetry by the use of an autobiographic rather than a lyrical je’ (Velguth 1990: 33-4).

Reading self-referentiality
Alec Choate’s My days were fauve (2002) is subtitled an autobiography in verse, and George Elliott Clarke refers to Traverse (2014) as a poème à clef. Both works announce their ‘making to make, write a life’. Both autobiographies claim to arise from an intention, a decisive consideration, a deliberate presentation – that is, bearing the hallmark of the autobiographic pact: the announced intention of a writer to relate and to understand his life (Lejeune 1975: 28).4

While each of these two verse autobiographies ‘make to make/write a life’, they also ‘make/write’ about the ‘making/writing’ of a poet-subject. Thus, as well as producing autobiographical-subjects, both texts produce poet-subjects. In the close readings that follow, I adopt Lejeune’s advice: the texts, viewed through a metaphorical lens as ‘Rosetta stones’, mediate reflection upon the interplay between the referential and the aesthetic. I examine the metaphors that convey ‘making’, and the self-referential or metapoetic comments which foreground the act of self-inscription.

Of particular interest to consider are the ways each text thematises the making of the poems and poet-subjects: the metapoetic appraisal of poetic prowess, or of the form which poiesis takes – its versified, rhythmic or otherwise deliberately bound form – its poetic constituents or elements. The texts often link domains that are intratextual or intertextual when thematising the poets and poetry movements which the developing poet-subject reifies. Of interest too, is how the texts thematise the status and significance of the autobiographical-poet-subject, to comment on life writing about the poetry-writing-life. A further consideration is how the texts thematise the impeding of writing, the decline of life-writing or poetic impetus, even the loss of life-writer-relevance or poet-status; such ‘unmaking’ that troubles the act of poiesis.

In My days were fauve (2002), metaphors ‘make’ a poet-subject by placing focus on writing as a hand-wrought activity. In Traverse (2014) by contrast, a deep identification with race underpins making and unmaking in the formation of the autobiographical-poet-subject. Acknowledging the influence of identity upon autobiographical discourse, Jäger contends that poststructuralist conceptions of the self ‘were bound to take on a different significance in the work of those who, for reasons of class, race or gender, had so far been denied an autonomous self and a voice’ (1996: 19). Stated more directly, one of the criticisms of poststructuralist theory in relation to autobiography is that certain groups were silenced, thus:

the dissolution of traditional poetic discourse also facilitated the emancipation of groups which, for various reasons, had been more or less strictly excluded from the production of canonical literature – most notably women, non-whites and members of different sub-cultures … For these writers, the discontinuity of the dominant poetic tradition in the twentieth century meant the chance to (re-)discover and (re-)define their own, hitherto submerged, traditions. (Jäger 1996: 19)

Making and unmaking in My days were fauve
Alec Choate’s autobiography in verse, My days Were fauve, made the shortlist in the 2002 Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards. The judges’5 report stated that My days were fauve:

is informed by the conventions of autobiographical narrative in verse and its self-evident intertext [Wordsworth 1850]; its great charm lies in the ease with which life and times are created unencumbered by the weight of tradition and written with quite remarkable clarity and poetic force. (State Library of Western Australia 2002: n.p.)

The Judges’ comment that My days were fauve is ‘unencumbered by the weight of tradition’ (n.p.) perhaps warrants qualification, as My days were fauve is nonetheless ‘deliberately bound’ – arranged in 14-line stanzas with ten-syllable lines and the rhyme scheme abacbdcedfegfg.

In My days were fauve, the metapoetic comments that shape the act of self-inscription thematise ‘making’ as lifelong, beginning with early poetic inclinations and noting influences. The developing subject is aware of poetic inclinations from an early age. Describing early adolescence, he states, ‘I was obsessed with word play’ (Choate 2002: 11). He attributes his learning from the masters: ‘I played with Milton’s sirens, verse and voice’ (11). At first he denied his gift: he ‘faltered through [his] poems, hid them like sin’ (12). He ‘cocooned a self/in poet daydreams, wayward and aloof’ (16).

Poetry was a means of dealing with life’s ups and downs: ‘the fateful poet touch/that keeps the maker-victim in a spell/now sun, now darkness, the most lonely way/of shouldering life’s heaven and its hell’ (18). Then the developing subject began to foster his skills, recognising what he needed, ‘a mind/well disciplined within a poet’s creed’ (20), but also acknowledging the talent he already possessed – ‘perhaps a gift of grace, perhaps a curse/but there it was, a sensibility’ (22). Only later would he shape this ‘gift’, its ‘wonder’ and ‘waste’ (11), in the belief that poetry was his ‘true life’s career’ (33).

By then he was invested: ‘poetry/would still obsess me more’ (34). He came to accept that he wanted to write: ‘writing was my way’ (49). Increasingly he devoted his time and effort to poetry: ‘I came and wrote my poems above this glass,/wrote in the rain and cold, always alone/…//// ///I wrote, large in the choice of my lookout/and coaxed my poems out of my green youth’s dreams./I wrote, I read, and must have always learned (52). Indeed, that learning entails for a time, studying and emulating reified writers: ‘I wrote the world’ (106). These models continue throughout development: Milton (73); Virgil (126); ‘the Arno, D.H. Lawrence and his bat/dim by the old bridge as the evening died’ (128); Dante (128); Browning, Byron (131); Wilfred Owen and ‘Athens, a poet’s city’ (133); and ‘… Byron too, who watched the fire/when the beach burned and Shelley/turned to ash,/two restless poets I came to admire/with other like Romantics’ (124). To emulate other writers required self-discipline: ‘… Writing, the rich influences/of the romantics flighted me along,/Keats, Shelley, Byron, who had mastered me/in teenage, and could master still. In time/Yeats, Auden, Eliot, intrigued my song,/though it retained the discipline of rhyme’ (106).

Over time, the ‘fits of writing’ (62) give way to perseverance in the craft. Such commitment is demanding, and incurs personal costs – loneliness and isolation, ‘[a] shy and lonely voice’ (68), but this was perceived to be worth it for a ‘born writer’ (68): ‘I was prepared to suffer for my gift’ (68). A budding awareness of status as a poet is borne: ‘still far from the name/he dreamed to make and which might never come?’ (68).

Poetic practice leads to first publication: ‘One/war poem was fixed suddenly in print,/the first I ever sent. What had begun/that day but confirmation that a writer/at last could progress with a golden hint?/And now, in my new study, manuscripts/were doubled, posted off with brighter/prospects to current journal, magazine,’ (106).

Poetic ‘making’ in maturity manifests in the text with the aid of markedly different metapoetic means, likely linked to conceptual metaphors: farming, milking, cultivation, gold prospecting. Sample excerpts reveal these metaphors at work: ‘I milked life, chose to see/how words and rhythms could set fire to’ (21); ‘milking both sweet and sour and so creating/the poet that I knew I had to be./One self-portrait I took calm pleasure in/was that of a farmer-poet, cultivating/less farm than his own mind, a book in hand,/old Homer in Pope’s English, discipline/I needed to control youth’s groping words’ (22).

Gold prospecting is at first, a literal means of making, but once the developing subject leaves off this occupation, ‘Not finding work, and in my poet’s dance/of heart not wanting it where gold could wink (48), ‘gold’ continues to hold symbolic meaning throughout the text: for the value of the writing activity; for literary prospects. After a period of despair, the subject repositions: ‘I was determined I would write my mind/back to well-being. Many rooms had heart/to be my fortress-study, my hermitage./I chose one large, its shelved walls soon book-lined./My pen grew golden, lighting desk and page’ (105).

This fortifying was not only material in nature. The developing subject used his skills to fortify himself, with poetic courage and resilience: ‘the strength to hold my gift/to its engagement. Words came singing in,/danced through the shadows, words came racing down/the tracks of creativity I sniffed/out like a bloodhound’ (105). The line, ‘my soul addressed its stay on earth through poetry’ (105), is arguably one of many which call up knowledge of conceptual metaphors such as life is a journey or death is a departure, to inscribe a poetic vocation sustained over the course of a life.

Soon the developing subject begins to face the concern that his ideal is unattainable; that his talent for making is akin to a detached leaf; that the impulse to make is fleeting and liable to depart at any moment, as the following line about transience suggests: ‘searching poems through water, leaves and wings’ (110). A related metaphor is the great unknown, a place where few dare to venture, as evinced in the following lines: ‘this wayward writer-life!’ (178); ‘poets trailing their word-wilderness’ (124). Concern becomes frustration, palpable in the verb ‘ransack’: ‘Poem after poem, I let the lake shores spin/my days, ransack their depths for the right word/at the right time’ (112) – an intertextual allusion to Wordsworth’s ‘the right words’ but here adopting the temporal dimension ‘at the right time’ to allude to the fickleness of a writer’s gift.

When the developing subject in the verse autobiography My days were fauve starts to express resentment at the fickleness and injustice of literary pursuit, and the obstacles to writing, the metapoetic comments manifest a change in the type of metaphors used, a reconfiguring of language, a discourse of ‘undoing’, ‘unmaking’. Hands are used, not to ‘make’, but destroy: ‘rejection slips/came sneering back with more than half that went’ (106); and ‘every poem I wrote turned into doubt/and once back home, some lived but many burned’ (52).

The point at which the poet’s work is done is also thematised by metapoetic comments:

Here is the summing up of my career
as writer, closure too, I do not doubt.
When that will come is not my poet guess.
What I write here belongs to my last book,
this trial Autobiography, about
three hundred stanzas long, or longer, one
I’ve worked on twenty five slow years, and look!
I feel as if I’ve only just begun! (176)

A reconfiguring of language occurs once again, toward the end of My days were fauve, where the poet-subject’s career end is thematised. A number of binaries enter into the language, dramatically juxtaposing ‘making’ and ‘unmaking’; two oppositional forces wresting for control:

a poet, near recluse in the routine
of word-engagement, word-play, or word-curse? (178);

age and the daily struggle with the flit
and grit of words that end up as a poem (178);

Words make me sweat and struggle more than play. (179)

The poet-subject’s ‘unmaking’ here includes metapoetic utterances of disparagement, doubt about poetic prowess, and resentment toward the obstacles to writing; toward the fickleness of a writer’s gift and the remoteness of literary fame: 

Dropping my biro, tapping the last keys
and filing this last sheet may be quite soon.
I wonder who will read me? Will I please?
How many readers will read to this end,
how many hearts, if any, be in tune?

Once poems are published they are leaves in flight,
detached forever, gone! And then, today,
I’m eighty seven! Where is my poet role?
I ask, and ask again, why did I write
this work, why and for whom? My tongue is tied.
The day grows late, I’ll take my evening stroll
and, for the last time, toss the work aside. (180)

My days were fauve culminates at the point when the making is done, when the autobiographical-subject is produced by autobiography. Here, at the end of the autobiography that will also make the poet-subject, now the ‘making’ is done, how the reader is struck by the irony –  that the text that simultaneously ‘makes’ and ‘unmakes’ its subject(s), ultimately cedes to the latter. For this autobiography in verse, this life-writing about a whole life’s versifying and authorship which, thus, fell naturally to verse, is also a prelude to a retirement – ‘dropping a biro, tapping the last keys’ (180) – a decommissioning of the poet-subject, at the point at which poiesis is done.

Making and unmaking in Traverse
George Elliot Clarke’s celebration of 30 years of trying to be a poet led him to compile Thirty years: (1975–2005). More than half of those 61 poems were published serially between 2006 and 2013 (Clarke 2014b: n.p.). In 2013 Clarke composed a further nine poems and added a ‘Preface’ to the publication that is now titled Traverse (2014). The dust jacket refers to Traverse as a poème à clef, a poem based on real life overlaid with a façade of fiction.

Traverse is written in Rap Sonnets – rhapsodic sonnets – as poems to be read aloud. Clarke utilises a ‘jazz poetics’; elsewhere he has written that he ‘explores ways of thinking about a jazz poetics, specifically addressing the ways that jazz can be manifested in words and on the page’ (Moynagh 2013: 145). Moynagh offers the following definition: ‘A jazz poetics partly involves an emphasis on voice, and partly it involves adapting such jazz elements as syncopation, call and response, repetition, and revision of other music or, as the case may be, poetry’ (2013: 145).6

Clarke also refers to Traverse as a verse memoir. It was written, he states, ‘to canvas my vital inspirations and the cobbling of my works up to then’ (2014: ix). Memoir ‘refers generally to life writing that takes a segment of a life, not its entirety, and focusing on interconnected experiences’ (Smith and Watson 2010: 274). Clarke acknowledges Traverse is autobiographical, but tells us he leaves out ‘many signal moments’ (2014: x). He then proceeds to tell us several signal moments anyway:

such as my debut tour, in April 1977, to Church Point, Nova Scotia (where I viewed snow flurries round a lighthouse); my Fall 1981 residence in a Toronto subway station; my April 1993 encirclement by gun-hefting border guards at Port Huron, Michigan (where my entry to the US ‘to give a talk on poetry’ inspired alarm); my surf-side, noon-sun mugging by three thugs in Salvador, Brazil, in November 2007; and my receipt of The Queen’s inadvertently deferential nod in Halifax in June 2010 (She mistook me for a cleric: A reasonable error, given my surname). (Clarke 2014: x)

These signal moments, which at first present as random selections of experiences, have the effect of making racism conspicuous; indeed, the selections convey an autobiographical-poet-subject who manages to achieve success in spite of setbacks, and despite racism. Further, while on the one hand, the ‘Preface’ emphasises the fidelity of Traverse to the autobiographical-poet-subject’s experiences; on the other, it reinforces the fiction of lifewriting. This model of selfhood is thus not specifically literary à la Jean Paul Sartre ‘proposing to transform himself into a text’ (Eakin 1985: 8). Traverse demonstrates the prerogative of the ‘maker’ to shape the act of self-inscription. Nevertheless, after Sartre (1972; Eakin 1985: 37-38), Clarke acknowledges his is a presented life … he wishes to write Traverse because he needs to signify what he experiences. He states: ‘Nor have I elaborated (or belaboured) my poetics: “Canadian” by origin, but “African” by inclination. Thus, like Canuck poets, I dignify; like Black poets, I signify’ (Clarke 2014: x). 

From the outset, therefore, in this redoubled act of poiesis – of making poetry to make or write about ‘a life of writing poetry’ – the lyric ‘I’ and the autobiographical ‘I’ are presented as inseparable from the racial, cultural, historical and geographical contexts in which they signify. At the textual level, awareness of the duality of emerging subjects – the autobiographical-subject and the poet-subject – manifests as stylistic self-consciousness, with metapoetic comments thematising the act of poiesis itself:

854 lines captured in one day: 
         61 ‘Rap Sonnets’ raptured in one day –  
July 1, 2005 – to laud July 1, 1975,
         my esoteric assent to making. (Clarke 2014: 67)

Traverse thematises in particular, how public reception contributes to a poet-subject’s making or unmaking. This public reception is framed by awareness of ‘double consciousness’. Double consciousness, a term introduced by WEB Du Bois, comments on a cultural dualism, on looking at one’s self through the eyes of others (Meyer 1996). According to Meyer, ‘the condition … can be said to be a feature of African-American poetry for much of its history … reflected in the writers’ choice of linguistic registers, their poetic methods and in the ironies of the reception of their work’ (1996: 62). ‘Sonnet XLIII’ perhaps best exemplifes how metapoetic comments in deliberately-bound form enable Traverse to convey this ‘framed’ public reception, here in relation to one of the poet-subject’s earlier published works:

         Whylah Falls was a brick launched through library stained glass,
and scholars went at it like a lost blues score.
         Nothing mediocre – no tin-pan Opry – found there.
Something ‘un-Canadian,’ hissed a critic. (Clarke 2014: 45)

The term ‘tin-pan opry’, an abbreviation of tin-pan opera, here activates awareness of the rise of ragtime music in America during the 1920s and 1930s in the shift away from a European opera tradition toward ‘popular’, vernacular music, derived from African roots, but which could be embraced by all (Hamberlin 2011). While in part conveying the tension between ‘high-brow’ and ‘low-brow’ – the metapoetic excerpt might be thought to allude to voice as a problem of audience. Maureen Moynagh (2013) summarises key points made by George Elliott-Clarke about voice in his essay ‘Bring da Noise’ (Clarke 2012):

The problem of voice is, for the black writer, also a problem of audience. The risk is either that a demotic, music-oriented verse is dismissed as mere ‘performance,’ or that a more ‘grammatical’ verse is derided for its ‘whiteness’ [Clarke 2012: 177]. Acknowledging that these debates have beset black writers for quite some time, Clarke insists that ‘no poetic form is primordially black or white in its signification’ [2012: 177]; but he also recognizes that ‘any black writer’s aspiration to apolitical self-expression’ is invariably fraught [2012: 179, emphasis in original, and 177]. Ultimately, Clarke makes a case for assessing the work of poets who opt to foreground orality according to the terms of orature rather than ‘by the print conventions of Eurocentric poetry’. [2012: 181] (Moynagh 2013: 145)

The orality that is foregrounded in Traverse – by virtue of its deliberately-bound rhapsodic sonnets, designed to be read aloud – is also thematically rendered within its pages. Orality is there implicated, along with reception, in the making and unmaking of the autobiographical-poet-subject. In ‘Sonnet I’, the developing autobiographical-poet-subject avows an inheritance of ‘backtalk – ‘nasty Nofaskoshan’ noise – black and insolent (Clarke 2014: 3), and ‘talks back to’ black occlusion in reception. In lines 1, 10 and 11 of ‘Sonnet IX’, orality or ‘talking back’ is conveyed as a means of contesting subject positions:

Once I penetrated the oval, cuntal Legislature,

         Amazing it was to stand outlaw in the womb
of Law … (Clarke 2014: 11)

The language of making and unmaking in Traverse is not always concerned with (re)construction and contestation; it can be focused on editing and redaction, as evinced in ‘Sonnet LIX’:

Accidentally, I’ve here blacked out some passages –
         those nights lounging in strangers’ rooms,
barfing concoctions of sugar cookies and plonk,
         after hours fixin liquored pals’ tricky lyrics,
deciding what was imperishably publishable,
         what wasn’t,
cutting through cobwebs of adjectives
         to free the startling, tarantula verbs. (Clarke 2014: 61)

Metapoetic comments in Traverse can also thematise the ‘advance toward poetic-maturity’ as a type of unmaking, as can be seen in the wry intertextual reflection of ‘Sonnet XL’:

Suddenly 27, shooting tequila, I was scared
         to spy a white hair on my head
and to have attained an age, Yeatsian,
         that required quadruple syllables to pronounce. (Clarke 2014: 42)

Similiarly tongue-in-cheek are metapoetic comments that convey the autobiographical-poet-subject’s perception that his writing is off-putting for audiences. Although Roy Wang in his Arc Magazine review observes that in Traverse, ‘Clarke’s strongest voice exhibits pride and disdain for his vast erudition’ (Wang 2015: n.p.), in ‘Sonnet LVI’ that disdain, however, is wrought with wry humour, and conspicuously metapoetic; an ironic unmaking.

Execution Poems was this big, black book.
         Blood-hued acid was the titular ink.
Readily, the poems, dramatically erratic,
         strayed into the epic of a novel.
(George & Rue could not emerge yet, however,
         from Bellagio and the Hotel Vancouver.)
But Blue edged along, consciously atrociously too –
         using a jigsaw poetry, a hacksaw poetry,
to maim critics with one eye already gouged out,
         mangle those already on Death Row.
Surprise! Execution Poems set me face-to-face
         with her Excellency The Governor-General of Canada,
The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson,
         who delivered me the poison-pen prize. (Clarke 2014: 58)

Toward the end of Traverse, in the CODA (Italian: ‘tail’), metapoetic comments thematise the success that contributes to making the autobiographical-poet-subject. These metapoetic comments consolidate in ‘Sonnet LXVIII’ with the aid of allusions (‘the roar of a crowd’; a ‘celebrated’ winged victory) and the idiom ‘to make it’ – to convey the success of ‘making’, and the status and significance afforded the autobiographical-poet-subject:

         Whylah Falls got rendered in Mandarin,
thus acquiring Cathay cachet. Another title roared
         out in Romanian, and brought me lira
non-negotiable, plus a bronze statuette
         I winged home: Academy award. (Clarke 2014: 73)

Metapoetic comments continue through to the final ‘Sonnet LXX’ where ‘making’ is again thematised, this time by reference to a growing list of published poetic works. Yet with characteristic irony and humour, the end is not forthcoming, since the sonnet’s final line, defers, ‘But Ecclesiastes 12 owns the last word’ (75). This intertextual manoeuvre leads to a further deferral, ‘of making many books there is no end’ (Ecclesiastes 12.12), before verse 14 offers the ultimate deferral, ‘For God shall bring every work into judgment, … whether it be good, or whether it be evil’ (12.14).

For the autobiographical-poet-subject produced in the act of poiesis, this sting-in-the-tail comes unexpectedly, seeming to render success futile; a thirty-year-anniversary unmaking. But then the irony is apparent – this life writing pertains only to poetry-written-to-date; success can wait; poiesis continues, and what matters for now is the making.

In this reading of Alec Choate’s My days were fauve and George Elliott Clarke’s Traverse, it became evident how uniquely the referential – and aesthetic – dimensions were manifest. Irony, trope and intertextual allusions inhabit the language of both of these self-referential verse autobiographies, yet these elements inscribe the making or unmaking of the autobiographical- and poet-subjects, and even poiesis itself, in considerably different ways. In Traverse, metapoetic comments are highly stylised and self-conscious, frequently embed intratextual and intertextual allusions and word play, and deploy more varied expressions of trope, including metaphors, for ironic effect. This exuberant use of language vivifies the interplay of aesthetic and referential dimensions inscribing its autobiographical-poet-subject. In My days were fauve, metaphors of ‘production’ or ‘making’ as a hand-wrought activity contribute to the inscription of the poet-subject, but it is the inclusion of metapoetic comments –which call up our knowledge of basic conceptual metaphors – that highlight the interplay between the aesthetic and referential dimensions of the text. Such metaphors are potent because they are automatic and unconscious; their impact is, paradoxically, made more powerful because of the conceptual understanding behind language.


End notes

  • 1. Jauss (1982) offers a history of poiesis from Aristotle to Valéry. See also Michael Wheeler (2018) on Heidegger’s (1962) occasional use of ‘brings forth’ for poiesis. Pont (2011) employs Kristeva to distinguish praxis (action) from poiesis (production).
  • 2. The phrase ‘versified, rhythmic or otherwise deliberately bound’ was used in the call out for a conference entitled ‘The self in verse. Exploring autobiographical poetry’ organised by Kindermann M, J Görbert, M Lindskov Hansen and G Paul (2017)  St Hilda’s College, Oxford University.
  • 3. See Loesberg (1981) for a summary of the deconstruction of reference in autobiography.
  • 4. The autobiographic pact has gained further nuance. For James Olney, it is only this stated intention that distinguishes autobiography from fiction; for the ‘I’ presented in an autobiography is, after all, a fictional construct, a creation of language – ‘a metaphor of the self at the summary moment of composition’ (1980: 35). For Paul John Eakin, the ‘formal mark’ of the pact ‘is the identity posited among author, narrator, and protagonist, who share the same name’ (1992: 24).
  • 5. The Judges are listed as Dr Simon Adams, Mr Zoltan Kovacs, Professor Vijay Mishra, Ms Suzanne Wyche.
  • 6. For a broader conception of ‘jazz poetics’ see Edwards and Szwed’s eight-page bibliography of Jazz Poetry Criticism (2002).
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