Well, clearly there’s no one answer. There’s a question of genre: in a memoir or autobiography, we expect everything to have some bearing on the subject. As readers, we (or at least, I) turn to such books to get inside the author/narrator’s head. When world events crop up, we want to hear how they influenced that person’s life or world-view more than how they influenced history in general.
In fiction, there’s not that expectation. As a reader, I like authors to write from outside their personal frames of reference: to write from the point of view of a person of a different race, gender, ethnic or national background, or from a different planet (can you tell I read SF?). I don’t insist on this, but it’s a pretty strong preference on my part.
In poetry, as I’ve indicated in some previous posts, this is a fairly thorny question. There’s an entrenched dogma that poetry is suppposed to be “personal,” for a wide range of meanings of personal. This dogma emerged with the beginnings of creative writing as a discipline, in the early 20th century. The original concern behind it was that increased urbanization and industrialization was dissolving traditional community structures and creating a more isolated society. Creative writing in general, and poetry in particular, was seen as a way to bridge gaps between people by conveying personal experiences to individuals with whom one had no other contact.
This was certainly a laudable goal, but the prescription of “personal experience” has tended to devolve into mere anecdote (“I went out this morning, and there was a slug on the sidewalk. I said ‘Ew’ and carefully stepped over it.”) or whinging (“I feel so bad. I feel so blue. My heart is broken.”). Not that there’s not a place for both in poetry– but I would argue that good poetry needs to go beyond either of the above. It’s not enough to talk about how you feel, or what you’ve seen and done. You need to make a connection to the reader.
I also find the prescription unnecessary on the one hand, and on the other, limiting. Unnecessary, in that I think any kind of creative writing conveys a sense of the writer, no matter what the subject. You can learn a lot about me by reading my poetry, even (or especially) poems which are not about me in any obvious sense. Limiting, in that there’s a huge universe out there, and why should I write about myself or my experience all the time?
Last October’s OPA conference was on the theme of “witness poetry.” One of the functions of witness poetry is to give a voice to the voiceless, the oppressed who aren’t able to speak for themselves. By definition, this means writing about experiences you don’t share. You may have seen, but you haven’t felt. Does that make it not valid poetry?
Daphne, pregnant and cursed to silence
by the relentless sun-god of past summer
wandered into a winter grove
where gray-brown naked figures struggled
against encroaching cold, clawed weightless light
from the pale sky with black boughs.
They seemed barren, skeletal. Yet at each twig’s tip
a fleshy swelling, packed with soft tissues
crumpled, folded tight as a baby’s fist
and sheathed in tough translucent scales. Every
fingertip was pregnant with flowers and leaves
of the coming spring. Daphne’s fingers
pregnant with words she dared not speak, swelled.
The nails burst, bled. Secrets unfolded
from the ragged fissures, lifting her arms
into the sky, sinking her feet
deep, deep into earth. Mute, Daphne wrote
evidence of Apollo’s crime on every leaf
but no-one read them. A hundred books,
a thousand books, a thousand women
in a thousand groves watch as their testament
is gathered back to the blind earth.