Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Fidelity to Fact or to Art?

It's not uncommon to come across a feverish poetry enthusiast who turns a blacker shade of rage when they discover that a poet they've taken a liking to does not, by default, base every verse they compose on real experience. I've had this situation in several workshops where a participant or two became irate when I let on, during a critique, that some elements in a some poems I submitted for review were not wholly autobiographical. What set off the participants, I guess, was my distrust of poets who insist on full disclosure sharing, as if the slightest ebb and flow of their emotional equilibrium sufficed as finished work. Experience was merely material, I remember saying at one time or another in a dispute over the purpose of writing. Experience was like wood, glass, paper, what have you; the poet, the artist, had to make it into something else , a species of writing not contractually obligated to gets the names and dates correct. This doesn't sit well with a few of my very serious co-work shoppers.

This is , I suppose, part of the long term hang over of Confessional poetry and other styles that choose to make journal entries into the stuff of literary explication. It seems beyond some that poets, if they're any good, are writers all the same and are allowed to make things up , to invent narrative circumstance for the purpose of getting out a good piece of writing. Still, there is the thought that some immorality has taken place. A betrayal of reader trust, perhaps.

This isn't the poet's problem, though, but rather the reader's, who should, by rights, arrive at the idea that the validity of any approach to writing a poem lies in how well it works, on the page. One should think more broadly on the subject; verse plays are fictional, and yet their validity as quotable, meaningful poems isn't questioned at all--virtually no one objects to the stanzas being used to put forth an imaginary activity; this tolerance should be extended to single poems, ones not connected to grander fictional universes. The evolution of poetry into a form thought to be exclusively autobiographical in purpose is a narrowing of what poet should be allowed to do.

I don't think poets are obliged to write solely from their own experience, since we have to remember that poetry is , above all other considerations, an imaginative craft. There are any number of times that I've written pieces of my own that are based more on an idea and inspiration ; although based or premised on some actual fact of in my life, the details are often fictional. It is the rare poet, I think, who rigorously sticks with autobiographical material who doesn't soon writing the same set of poems over and over until they finally stop writing.

The issue, of course, is balance; how much ought to be from real life, and how much should be embroider, enhance, fictionalize?One way or the other in excess can result in dullness or unspeakable bombast. Empathy , I think , is what the poet is after; can he or she write in such as way as to get a reaction from a reader who might empathize?Poets , we must remember as well, are writers, and writers tell stories they want readers to relate to in some capacity. Not all the stories they tell us are true, as in adhering to autobiographical facts; I want something better than vetted facts. What I would expect is something more than Coleridge's tirelessly useful phrase , A "...willing suspension of disbelief"; I like to feel as if the writer had taken some bit of their own experience and considered hard and long enough what they might do with it, to enlarge an incident's potential as a means of having readers made aware of a world that's apart from the comfortable references and homegrown usages.


  1. Poetry is not memoir! And just because it's organized under "non-fiction" in the library, it's not non-fiction, either.
    Imagination! Yes! More of it in poetry, not less, is what's needed...

  2. I find people want to make the poem into memoir, want to find a correlation between "what happens" in the poem and what happened, or what they think happened, in the poet's life. It bothers the hell out of me.

  3. I agree entirely! The poetic speaker does not need to mirror the poet. Think of all the great dramatic monologues (such as those by Robert Browning) that offer readers complex ideas, poetic language, and a glimpse of something new. Of course, I'm not interested in reading poets who try to pass off fabricated events as biography. But the invention of a persona to look at events from a different perspective is one of the great uses of the imagination.

  4. I agree completely with your comments and the very thoughtful responses. I myself just now am working on a poem that has narrative that is not factually true, but expresses some true thoughts and feelings about the ostensible subject and my own life.
    Fact does not = truth....


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