Poetry and memoir can be alike on some levels, different on others. Jill Bialosky, in “The Unreasoning Mask: The Shared Interior Architecture of Poetry and Memoir,” (The Kenyon Review, Spring, 2013) says “… what the two art forms share are a tone of intimate connection with a reader …”
One of the biggest differences is that memoir is thought by readers to adhere to facts while poetry can be based nearly equally on imagination. Chloe Yelena Miller, in “Memoir Lessons from Poetry,” (Minerva Rising Literary Journal, 2014) said: “Poetry can rest in that space between facts and emotional truth.” Jeffrey Thomson puts it this way: ” The poem is what it is and my experiences are what they are and they are not equivalent … I am telling a different kind of truth that supersedes the factual truth …” (“Bird Stories: On the Insistence of Poetry – The Persistence of Memoir,” Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Enviroments, 2015).
Audre Lorde may have blurred this difference in her autobiography, Zami: A Portrait of an Artist as a Black Lesbian (The Crossing Press, 1982). In her review of this book (The Kenyon Review 13:4 (Fall 1991), pp. 195-213), Barbara DiBernard quotes Lorde: “It’s a biomythography … It has the elements of biography and history and myth. In other words, it’s fiction built from many sources. This is one way of expanding our vision.” Lorde’s biomythography has become a new genre, a sort of embroidered autobiography; the term seems to me to apply just as well, perhaps better, to poetry.
My poem, “jack 1941-1959” (Kansas City Voices, Vol. 12, 2014, p. 10) is a “memoir poem” that had its origin in what Honor Moore refers to as “a shard of language” (“Memoir and Poetry,” Poets Out Loud, 2009): The stark, terse, and poignant statement of a state trooper who worked the scene of an accident that killed a friend and classmate of mine in his senior year in high school. The trooper’s words remain with me nearly 60 years later, as do dimming memories of Jack and his death. Not every scene in this narrative is strictly factual, but I think the poem honors Jack’s memory. It combines history with elements reflective of the culture of teen-agers in small-town midwestern America in the 1950’s. It is a bit of my own personal biomythography.