There is a lot of talk in poetry about making the personal “universal.” Which is silly: the personal is universal only because we are all human beings and most of us have deep reserves of empathy. The best art is not that which turns the personal universal, it is that which takes the personal and transfers it. Good writing makes the personal personal for everyone.
Beth Towle offers this fantastic definition of good writing (see others from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Samuel Delany, Ernest Hemingway, and Arthur Schopenhauer) in her altogether excellent and important meditation on feelings and gender in poetry. She writes:
Poetry [by some contemporary male writers] on the idea that the personal is automatically relevant because it comes from the male perspective. [And yet] the most common criticisms leveled against Sylvia Plath is her over-emoting. Her work is too personal, critics say. It embarrasses itself because it is so open. I do not think I have ever once in my life seen a critical review that accuses a male writer of being too “open,” too “honest.” Instead, these writers are praised for their “bravery.” Why is Sylvia Plath not considered brave? Why not Anne Sexton?
Feelings: we have them. Men and women have them, and they influence our own written work and how we read the work of others. But it has become far too common to see the ways in which the poetry world categorizes men’s feelings versus women’s feelings. We must watch carefully to make sure that we do not consider the poetry of male emotions as “valid” but then ask female poets to not be so personal in their work.
More wisdom on writing in our ongoing archive.