Poets Online Archive


August 2017

I was looking recently at a series of self-portraits by Pablo Picasso that show not only his physical aging, but the development of his style.

Like a writer, Picasso’s experiments and changing style mirrors not only changes in himself, but also changes in the art world. Sometimes he is influenced by that world; sometimes he influences the art world with his work.

There are also many self-portrait poems.

In writing about her poem, "Self-Portrait on the Street of an Unnamed Foreign City," Jennifer Grotz says:

Ut pictura, poesis: as with painting, so with poetry, the saying goes, and perhaps this is why from time to time poets, like painters, use the exercise of the self-portrait to practice seeing. If either the poet or the painter is lucky, sight leads to insight. In this unabashedly autobiographical poem, I use a shop window on a busy street, not a mirror, to view myself, and though my poem aims for truthful precision, I think it renders what, I’m convinced more and more, poems are meant to achieve, that is: registering what it feels like to pass through time.”

The confessional poetry movement of the mid-twentieth century opened up new themes and subject matter that had not been used openly in American poetry.

This poetry of the personal or “I” style of writing emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s and was originally associated with poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and W. D. Snodgrass.

I didn't read Lowell’s book Life Studies until I was in college and was surprised at how highly personal it was - revealing his life and the lives of his family. I liked it, but I couldn't imagine writing my own poems in that style if I had any intention of publishing them.

Plath and Sexton, students of Lowell who spoke about the influence of his poetry, shared their own personal and "private" experiences and feelings about big themes like death, but also very intimate details of their own trauma, depression and relationships. Poetry became more autobiographical.

The term "confessional poet" became a term that was sometimes used in a derogatory way to describe poets and poetry that seemed like pages from a diary rather than formal poetry.

But the autobiographical element has remained and today, though the term "confessional" may not be used, poems that use the specifics of the poet's life to write about universal experiences is common.

Although the autobiographical writing of Sexton with its psychological aspects (which she started writing at the suggestion of her therapist) may not be as common, Marie Howe, Maria Gillan and Sharon Olds are examples of contemporary poets whose writing largely draws upon their personal experiences.

These poets are not just recording their emotions like a diary, but applying the craft and construction of the best poetry, while still breaking conventions of subject matter and themes and shocking some readers in the process.

Many of these confessional poems might qualify as self-portraits, but because the self-portrait in art is a particular type, the self-portrait poem also follows some of those established rules.

The artist generally is looking in a mirror to paint a self-portrait, but could also be looking at a reflection in a window or water, or at a photograph.

In our model poem for this month's prompt, "Self-Portrait at 36 w/ David" by Ellen Hagan, the poet moves from photograph, to photographer, to mirrors, including the one inside a camera.

Any well done self-portrait is more than just a literal reflection of the artist, and as a poem it is not just the autobiographical details of the poet's life at that moment.

Some poets have even mixed their poems with artists or others self-portraits. In "Self-Portrait as Vincent Van Gogh at the Asylum at Arles" by Roger Reeves, and Self-Portrait as the Bootblack in Daguerre’s Boulevard du Temple by Robin Coste Lewis, the poets look to art to find something of themselves.

For this month's writing prompt, "self-portrait" should appear in the title of your poem, and the poem itself should capture you with specificity and details in some particular time and place that you feel captures yourself like a painting or photograph. Think about using the techniques of other artists and writers who work in portraiture, confessional and memoir.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


Burn away the peripherals to
see man walking naked under stars,
scars limping on bony knees;
lips pursed for whatever moisture
comes their way;
eyes preparing to see eternity,
if it exists;
Leaning heavily on cane,
man walks dog, dog pulls, life calls,
and man’s desired death
refuses to aid, but paints man’s mouth
into constant frown.
Man’s brow must sweat
another day.

R. Bremner


As a child I lingered and stalled
before being sent off to bed
Sister was already long asleep
and so I was alone
The nightlight both friend and foe
Casting shadows and knocking on the door
of an already ignitable imagination
but I am no romancer of the night
the kind of which Robert Louis Stevenson wrote
for into the late evening/early morning
I am waiting and watching
Searching, perhaps even yearning
for that which I am unsure
I feel like a keeper of calm and order
though no catcher in the rye I
but a watcher in and of the night
The evening, filled with potential peril
It haunts and hunts
and so I, the night custodian- must keep watch
I am Nocturnia
and Gotham is my family
TV and lamp on, mobile close at hand
Bad snacks and soothing late night monologues
Now I lay me down to sleep
if I can stay awake your safety I will keep
The phone will not then ring with bad news
the way it did the night dad died
And so I do not leave my sofa post
until I am overcome, drunk with exhaustion
and stuffed with cream filling and remorse
I stumble into the bathroom
to brush and floss away the debris
of solace and routine
I gently nudge the dog
as I crawl into bed
wearing the day's same tee-shirt
In search of a corner's scrap of sheet
I try not to disturb man nor beast
lest the man become beast as well
Once entombed, sleep does not come easily
An exhausted body is no match
for a brain awhirl in thought
like a tornado having picked up in its path
the most heavy, burdensome objects
not nailed down or anchored
Old and new- fears, pain and sadness
My prayers a litany of requests, gratitude and shame
as I ask for help with an oft faltering faith
I touch the body next to mine and ask for the same
and I wonder
if we pray for the non-believer
and he's not awake to deny it
does it find soil in the subconscious?
My room a forest on the edge of a dream
moonlight thru my shutters
mutes the darkness that will take me
from my cozy perch
as I teeter on the cusp of sleep
If I should die...
The unease snatches me awake again
I coax my body to yield,
my brain to cease and desist
to invite the forest in
like Frost's woods "lovely dark and deep"
but it's Dylan Thomas I hear
Only I am left without the strength for rage
so off I go not un-gently but not without struggle ...
... Into the morning light
I can hear the early hubbub outside
The world is humming and on the move
My body would like to sleep some more
but I deny it
If one wants to burn a candle at both ends
then burn it must
It is thinking time, quiet time, alone time
My desk awaits only a room away
So I lie there in rebellion and dread
and read the latest on fools and followers
which brings obscenities to my lips before toothpaste or toast
I consider the books beside the bed
but I must begin my long journey from day into day
Feeling pressed upon by time and earth
even in these early hours
So I leave behind Baudelaire and O'Neill
and promise myself a poem or two
after the dog has his breakfast and walk
I look over, he is sleeping
warm, and solid and wiry
like a great straw brick
I watch him breathe
with nary a twitch of whisker, leg nor lash
A creature whose life is ruled by others
sleeps so deeply, so contentedly
but what do I know of canine dreams
and the forests he may visit both day and evening
or like us, those visited upon him
or what freedom really is
or if it exists at all

Terri J. Guttilla


Everything is converging.
It all reflects inward to one focal point.
The image varies depending on your
distance between us and the mirror.
It has been dark so long.
We are thankful it collects light.
What is normal with each point
on the mirror differs.
Maybe if this concave mirror
was in a reflecting telescope
I might see the distant future.
It could magnify a face -
like if I was shaving
or she was applying makeup -
ordinary things that now
seem extraordinary somehow.
Hope is the light gathered
and directed outward
from it in a beam,
a headlight so we might
continue down the road
through the dark wood.

Ken Ronkowitz


She was only 22.
I'm not.
She climbed into a willow tree over a brook.
I never climb trees.
The branch broke and she fell into the water
and drowned.
Obviously, I have never drowned.
But Ophelia -
"incapable of her own distress" -
and I are sisters.
I am the twin who lived.
At my death, they will sprinkle
sweets to the sweet
and two men will compete
in proclaiming their love for me.
And then my name will be forever unmentioned.

Pamela Milne


looking in the mirror
blurred image looks back
an inane stranger
a case of illusive identity
ever changing imprisoned ego

umpteen masks
innumerable roles compulsive
dawn to dusk
derelict clouds changing shape
painting sunset in fading light

casual selfie
deliberate self portrait
futile attempts
lighting my shadow with a candle
seen till smoke rises at dawn

arrogant self propagation
self portrait unattempted
even this world with celebrities galore
less than a dust particle in known cosmos

Vishnu P Kapoor

Montclair, New Jersey-August 11, 2017

My reflection shifts in color, shading in, then out, a bit opaque
Perspective adjusts, so too the symphony within, mostly amiable
I am sometimes too much inside myself, but this day
Reconciled, I look in the window of this relic of our time,
A bookstore, not just any, but one of our loves, our children,
Our time marked in novels and prints, records and shirts
Thank you for Russo and Ford, the Bowie tee, of course
Our Boys’ St. John’s Wood crossing and we were there!

Excuse me, cummings for 5 bucks, back in a minute

Looking in this need of a cleaning window to wonder
I see near 66, near wrinkle free, tan, fit and smiling, one
Who loves much in the way we age that brings closer the call
We share, so softly I see me in a face seeing me, all at once
And that is pretty cool to be in touch, work at jerked distance,
With me who can now be in touch with what is essential
An open day with a walk the most pressing of wishes and
What tunes I will listen to through these woods I know well

Excuse me, the park whispers welcome, paths await, life’s on

Joe Palestina


It shattered when I was 8,
accosted by an angry, leathery football,
I had thrown at Jimmy,
who had an older, taunting face-
my mom loved that antique mirror,
so in her heartbreak,
she left it hanging there for weeks,
knowing I’d learn how uneasy feelings anticipate
not before, but after a naughty act-
mom put some of the broken pieces of me in a plastic bag,
in a kitchen drawer,
missing a small ow of blood on one of the shards,
twice, I spied mom arguing with dad over it-
I had to wince passing it to get to the door outside,
the many reflections scratching the corners of my eyes,
so many truthful slices of me,
dad bitched and swore while replacing it,
with a taller, more sensible style,
and mom soon fell in love with something else.

Bob Lau


Someone I once was
stands under a willow
chequered with leafy light
striped with shadows
in a long-lost garden
half a lifetime ago.

The sun catches her hair
and a bare arm. She's young.
Hesitant, head tilted, a half-smile
for one she knows is watching,
she's wearing white
on his midsummer birthday.

Ama Bolton


I’m holding one end of the banner.
We all wear white T-shirts.
My head is covered in blue.

Days after Orlando and every second
person is wearing the pulse.
I wasn’t hijabi at the time
but I got a message—
Go do this.

It was a little scary.
You wouldn’t know it to look at me.
I’m walking on air, wearing my pride on my sleeve
like some people wear their hearts.

My mother says the pictures worried her.
If she meant me to be a coward,
she raised me wrong. This is me. Grin on my face
the size of Portland.

Tiel Aisha Ansari


Jane asked me about my
Water color self portrait.
I said, ‘” we are all water
And a little color,
Take your choice.”
She insisted about my sleeves
Being long and never short
Never acknowledging heat
Not wanting to be cool
As if I wanted to cover
Needle tracks in my arms
Antecubital fosse
A medical ditch where blood is drawn.
My silly explanations
”My mother bought my shirts
And long sleeves could serve me best.
At work or play.”
Jane added, “ never to relax?
So why the dark sun glasses
When eyes reveal the soul
The truth behind the face
The beating of a heart..”
“Good point.
So who says
I want to see myself
Even on command.”

Edward Halperin


Pacing the halls to remember all
I wanted to forget, I pause to stare
through a tinted window at cars
passing on the tree-lined road
named after the first president of
the school, he who had brought
the semblance of college life to
the hinterland north of Houston.

I recall the school I left long ago,
when life still raged in blood
addicted to learning, to art, to
friendship, and all the etherealities
of youth that mask the cold
efficiencies of time as it unravels
each cord in the unstoppable
entropic exactitude of Lachesis.

Now its spring again: the azaleas
shouting from beneath the trees,
yellow pollen dusting every leaf
and bloom, the sweet cacophony
of cardinals, titmice, our local
mockingbird competing with the
roar of tires and the base whine
of jumbo jets passing overhead.

My last spring as a professor,
tutor, and ersatz father to those
masses of students who flow in
increasing numbers through the
doors to what they are told is a
better life beyond the physical
and mental ghettos they inhabit,
where no ideas take root.

I turn and walk again, dodging
those knotted on benches, slumped
against walls waiting for classes;
zombie-like, their phones close by
for comfort, they stare ahead
glassy-eyed, unresponsive to what
passes, or bend intently over laptops,
remote in some world lost and alien.
As I reach my office a girl smiles
and waves; I nod and pass, knowing
the face—not the name; suddenly
all the faces, all the springs, the class
beginnings and bitter semester ends
are palpably present, startled into
existence. I enter, close the door.
Far away a wave laps the shore.

Robert Miller


I can’t see myself with others beside me
they are intrusions
In the pond of purpose
that make the self-reflection

When the world outside is asleep
they've forgotten about me
i see myself for what I am
no distractions
In my pool of reality.

Bags under my eyes
a gut over my belt
smoke from my heart periodically
Clouds my perception.
But it will clear
and when it does
I am face to face with purity
with flaws

And without a still mirror
I wouldn’t have known
How lost I was.
How free I’d become.

Daniel Reynolds