5 Poignant Poetry Memoirs
Writing in a poetic style can enhance many aspects of the memoir genre. Like memoir, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “an autobiography or a written account of one’s memory of certain events or people,” poetry benefits from honesty, attention to detail, raw emotion, and personal voice. In fact, some of the most successful and fascinating poets have turned to memoir in order to meld introspection and genre-bending verse. These five bold and reflective writers have stunning, important life stories to add to your shelf.
1. Lit by Mary Karr
The third of Mary Karr’s evocative and deeply confessional memoirs, Lit captures an experience both highly personal and prevalent in the writing world: addiction and recovery. Lit is a searing volume that explores these themes through the lens of feminism, gender, and sexuality, later dubbed “the best book about being a woman in America” by award-winning author Susan Cheever. Above all, Lit serves as a study in duality and juxtaposition—contrasting intoxication and sobriety, death and new life, and writing and reality. Karr shows her audience the complexity of navigating these stark and painful in-betweens.
2. The Complete Memoirs by Pablo Neruda
Pablo Neruda is typically cited as one of the best-known and most talented love poets. His memoir contains the same vivid language as his beloved romantic works but varies in its wide-ranging subjects and inspiration. The Complete Memoirs draws on Neruda’s rich and often overlooked political involvement, including his time spent as a Chilean senator, as a protestor, and in hiding after an arrest warrant. Along with these large-scale historical moments, Neruda also ponders grief and loss, including his experiences of growing up without a mother and being diagnosed with cancer.
3. The Apricot Memoirs by Tess Guinery
While many memoirs chronicle tragedy and personal upheaval, The Apricot Memoirs takes a more light-hearted and whimsical approach. The book begins with Tess Guinery’s decision to step away from her design business, then leads the reader on a journey of rediscovering one’s inner child. With pink pages and playful, hand-drawn illustrations, The Apricot Memoirs is one woman’s exercise in reclaiming individuality and creativity.
4. Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry by Donald Hall
Donald Hall led an extraordinarily literary life, serving as a U.S. Poet Laureate and the editor-in-chief of the prestigious Paris Review. Just as its title suggests, Hall’s memoir reveals how his life can’t be separated from poetry, and how his writing life shaped the rest of his experiences. The book depicts Hall meeting iconic New York School poets like Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery at the beginning of their careers, and shows the power education held in his life. Throughout Unpacking the Boxes, Hall never shies away from poetry’s highs and lows, making space for stories of rejection alongside success.
5. Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir by Lucille Clifton
Lucille Clifton has a place in history as one of the most influential Black feminist poets. Her accomplishments include multiple Pulitzer Prize nominations, a Coretta Scott King Award, a National Book Award, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work brought together both the personal and the political, focusing on the Black experience and on family life. Good Woman merges dozens of Clifton’s celebrated poems with her memoir Generations, an elegiac work that shows Clifton at her most vulnerable and sincere as she copes with her parents’ deaths.
Ready to start crafting your poetic memoir? Think back to a significant personal experience and let it lead the way. Explore all the details, potential imagery, and sensations: What did your surroundings look like during this moment? Who else was present? What emotions did it elicit?