Friday, November 27, 2009
Poetry and lying
Some time I posted a poem I wrote concerning a blurry childhood memory of my Mom sobbing over a stove, the conceit being that I'd first give hints that this was going to be a melancholic memoir and then reveal, through a clever alignment of detail, that her tears were not from a spat with Dad. It was revealed by the last stanza that she' chopped raw onions for what the meal . Someone asked in a response how the memory was so clear, and I explained that the story was not wholly true; I manufactured the narrative thread I couldn't recall, and produce an entity that had a punchline, not a grievous irony. The response was fairly psychotic; I was called a liar and worse with my method revealed, and the inconsolable assailant couldn't get it through his (or her) head that not every poem is factual, therapeutic, journalistic. My response was defensive, of course, and typical of the accused bard.It's called imaginative literature, after all.Not a good reading habit for someone who says they love poetry. No, my friend, I didn't lie to the readers, I just told them a story.Poetry is imaginative writing, my brother, and there are those who err in reading this as an attempt at autobiography. The offended party didn't seem to accept any of this and cranked the vitriole higher, at which time I stopped talking to her (or him),You wonder what they missed in grade school when reading and writing was taught ; poets are liars by habit of mind when it comes to their craft; they make stuff up when they feel the need. Critic John Hollander has a useful essay on the matter,The shadow of a lie: poetry, lying, and the truth of fictions. That should give us something to consider.This is a slippery slope, and what it underlines it your unwillingness to admit that poetry is the practice of writing in imaginative, figurative, fictional language. Writers employ metaphors, similes, and varied tropes at times to get to what one can call the "larger" truths,"greater", which is to say that writers, poets especially, try to get at matters a straight forward prose style can't get at. The hidden moral of the story, if you will.Part of this is creating scenarios that are not necessarily factual (autobiographical) or plausible in the conventional sense. Coleridge has a useful principle he calls the suspension of disbelief, which roughly means that a reader needs to leave their suppositions and stipulations at the door as they enter into reading a poem; you need to stop arguing that a poem is obliged to fulfill your personal requirements and instead read it as is, inspect what the writer does. Bandying about words like "lies" blocks us, meaning myself, from the sunshine of the spirit.An impatient man can't possibly get all that poets and their work have to offer. Exactly what they have to offer is debatable, but that's part of the pleasure of reading poetry,or writing it. It's better ,I think, to leave people wondering for themselves than to try to tell them the facts , Joe Friday style.