Personal poems

Rachel Fox blogged recently about personal poems, and I joined in on the comments. The question was, should you publish really personal poems? Are there any things which are too personal to make public? My line is that I’ll write about anything and everything, whether it’s personal or not, but if I feel that my poem might hurt someone close to me, I’ll keep it in the folder and not submit it for publication. I know some poets have a fearsome honesty, and they publish anyway. Alternatively, others may fictionalise the narrative and disguise the characters. However, some very fine poems have emerged from personal griefs and tragedies – look at Douglas Dunn’s Elegies, for example. Emotional truth is a recognisable feature of these poems.

Rachel has referred to my own poem On saying goodbye to a brother, published first in Cencrastus and then in my second collection Seven Senses (Diehard, 2000). Since that collection’s now out of print, I thought I might reprint it below. It was written out of a very painful and stressful time, and I wanted to bear witness (as I think all poets should). My brother’s widow and daughters, and our parents, found the poem moving. It’s certainly personal.

On saying goodbye to a brother

Seven years ago I first thought
to say goodbye.
Your first illness,
your crippling pain,
frightened me.
I wanted it to end,
as they said it would,
in a few short weeks.
Seeing your pain
I imagined my own.

The treatments were terrible;
days dripping precious metals
and plant juices
into your cells;
always putting stuff into you
and taking pieces out.
I learned all the names –
Vinblastin, Cisplatin, Methotrexate –
and what they did.
(They turned down your flame.)

We were close in age
and yet apart in spirit.
You accepted much in silence
while I rebelled, nervously.
You let life lead you
and I tried to cut new paths.
We had moved away without farewells.
I was impatient with your
fecklessness, and other failings,
my own of course not so self-evident.

Before that New Year,
you’d hidden discomfort
but it wouldn’t go away.
Later you couldn’t,
and we all saw
the hollow fear behind the face.

Time elapsed,
as it does if unconsidered,
and treatment sessions
seemed to postpone concern.
Two years on I cried
when they said you were clear.

But little clumps of madness
lurked in your body’s byways
and had to have their say.
You nearly died so many times
that when you did
I almost didn’t know
how much I’d miss you.

Copyright (c) Colin Will, 1993 and 2000


About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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6 Responses to Personal poems

  1. Rachel Fox says:

    Just to make things clear…I did blog about personal poems last week but this poem of yours really came up in the next couple of posts (which were about poets talking about their own work). I asked readers and writers to stop analysing others and think good and hard about which of our own poems we think are, just maybe, our best (so far, anyway). You did a great job on this project, Colin and maybe the confusion about posts arose because one of your best poems is one of your most personal too. Interesting in itself…x

  2. Colin Will says:

    Yes, Rachel, I conflated the two issues, because I tend to think that my best poems <>are<> the most personal.

  3. Rachel Fox says:

    And in fact…having reread my own ramblings again just now…you’re completely right – I did write about personal poems (again!) in the new post! I think maybe I need a little more sleep…x

  4. Sorlil says:

    How hard to write a ‘good’ poem about something so personal and painful. You did a great job. I recently read some of Dunn’s elegy poems for the first time in his Selected and wept over them.

  5. hope says:

    Wow! This one really hit home for me. I lost my Dad to cancer. It’s the kind of illness no one can really prepare you for…you just follow the lead of the person who’s ill.I like the last line….because the loss does hit you in unexpected ways. Dad died in Sept. and I thought Thanksgiving would be hard and Christmas unbearable. It hit, of all days, on MY birthday…because I realized half the reason I was on this planet was now gone.You are right to be proud of this work…it is touching, not morbid.

  6. Rachel Fox says:

    I like the contrast between the scientific responses in the second verse and the emotional ones in the last verse. It gives the poem a depth of feeling, a wide range.

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