NPR recently aired a 1989 interview with Adrienne Rich in which the poet discussed the role of autobiography in her poetry. Here's a highlight:
I'm very much interested in the place of biography in poetry and in fiction, but I'm also interested in the place of fiction in poetry, and I think that there's a tendency, at present, to read poems as autobiographical statements, documents, narratives — and to miss therefore a great deal that's going on in them. If you ascribe each event to some actual event, if you ascribe each image, each relationship to some literal occasion, it seems to me that you run the risk of missing not only the poetry, but the fuller, richer, deeper aspects of the poems, which come not necessarily from the poet's biography, but from what the poet has seen, heard, drawn into herself or himself from other lives.
On the way to work, pressed against other riders of the L train, I started thinking about autobiography and poetry. When I used to teach poetry, I'd spend a week on the "confessional" poets. The unit inevitably expanded because my students loved them. It was partly my fault—I loved telling stories about some of the more colorful poets' lives. And yet, teaching the poems, I was always trying to drive a wedge between the poet and the poem, clearing a space at least for the recognition of fiction.
A few poems came to mind on the train.
Frederick Seidel's "Frederick Seidel":
There's the open honesty of "Meditations in an Emergency" ("Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them, too, don’t I? I’m just like a pile of leaves.")
And Berryman, Henry, and Mr. Bones in any of The Dream Songs, but here's a favorite. About The Dream Songs, Berryman has said: "Henry is accused of being me and I am accused of being Henry and I deny it and nobody believes me" (excerpts from interview*)
Everything the man says is suspect. If I ever teach confessional poetry again, I'll start with this quote.
*from "An Interview with John Berryman" conducted by John Plotz of the Harvard Advocate on Oct. 27, 1968. In Berryman's Understanding: Reflections on the Poetry of John Berryman. Ed. Harry Thomas. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1988. Copyright © Harvard Advocate