I make my living as an editor. This means that grammar rules…well…rule my life. The literal definition of my job is to find and fix incorrect grammar, usage, and style. What’s more, my full-time job is as a medical editor, which means that my penchant for the rules takes on a whole other meaning, because science.
So you can imagine my chagrin at the thought of editing a work of poetry. I love reading and listening to poetry. But I couldn’t imagine being Emily Dickinson’s editor, telling her to stop being so fast and loose with those em dashes. And yes, I’d be that editor she would eventually complain about in her memoir who “did not understand her art.”
Nothing against Emily Dickinson, but my skills as an editor are much better suited for her memoir rather than her poetry (which is some of my favorite, by the way). Because poets spend so much time breaking the rules of traditional prose and professional writing, it’s fascinating to see how their writing is adapted in the traditional, more commercial format of a memoir.
Now, I’ve read plenty of memoirs in my day, and I have to say that those written by poets are among my favorites. There is a lyricism that refuses to shut down within the pages, and a meter that always happens to be present. Poets are known to be tortured souls who put pen to paper in order to relay the veracity of their feelings or to capture moments of time. Poetry is a beautiful way to write and one that defies definition, no matter how hard my English teachers tried. The standard rules of punctuation are thrown out the window and even something as basic as aligning text to the left is not a guarantee.
In my view, a work of poetry is one of the truest forms of subjective writing, both for the poet and the reader. Everything is up for interpretation because everyone walks away with something different. The opposite of that is nonfiction, which strives to relay reality as it happened. Everyone walks away with similar interpretations (which can still be debated, of course). Fact checking is the norm, and it’s not uncommon for nonfiction writers to spend years just researching for their books and then for editors like myself to ensure consistency in grammar, syntax, vocabulary, style, et cetera.
Memoirs, despite being works of nonfiction, are fascinating because I see them as a sub-genre of nonfiction that has that subjective flair that poets seem to thrive in. With this logic, it makes sense that poets use the memoir as a more accurate medium in which to relay their personal stories.
One of my favorite poets, Natasha Trethewey, published her lyrical memoir, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, in 2020 and I remember my jaw dropping while reading it. With quotes like “In the narrative of my life, which is the look backward rather than forward into the unknown and unstoried future, I emerged from the pool as from a baptismal font — changed, reborn — as if I had been shown what would be my calling even then” as well as ” I have always loved the feel of books, the way they give a literal weight to words and make of them a sacred object,” I sometimes had to remind myself that I wasn’t reading a work of poetry. Even though the book walked me through Trethewey’s life, I sometimes had to pause as I read because the lines were tracking her emotional journey as well as her physical one. But the lyricism was perfect for this work of nonfiction because Trethewey was not only tracking her life story, but also relaying her love for her mother. Love like that is always best relayed via poetry rather than nonfiction writing, in my opinion at least. In fact, the poetry of the writing made the historical account all that more realistic to me as a reader.
Memoirs are something I’ve only began reading in earnest over the last five years. I always thought of them as “boring.” But as I’ve grown older, I can appreciate the human need to examine our life. Poets do this to some degree in their work, and I love seeing how those skills, which are based on breaking the rules of writing, are then honed in to write a memoir.