We reach deep inside ourselves to bring out the best imagery we can, diffused through our experiences, dreams, and subconscious minds. And often, we simply make stuff up—stretch the lies until their marks are invisible, so they can become someone else’s truth.
I was minding my own business yesterday—or the library’s business, anyway— working through the stack of Publisher’s Weekly that had just made their way to my inbox and noting titles that our patrons might like to read,* when I picked up the issue for September 9th** and flipped to the Soapbox page.
The title of the article was called “Poetry as Fiction: A poet explains why it is important to make things up.” It was written by Kim Dower, whose poetry I confess I hadn’t read.
So, Ms. Dower is often asked at her readings whether she’s actually done the things described in her first person poems. This worries her a little, for understandable reasons—you did read “Boob Job,” right? And she’s found her collections on the non-fiction shelves in bookstores and libraries. This strikes her as odd.
As a literary publicist I’ve promoted hundreds of books, including many crime and mystery titles—lots of dark, scary stuff. No one ever asks the author of one of these novels, “Did you really shoot someone in the chest and toss him over the side of a yacht?” Fiction is fiction. Poetry is fact. How did that happen?
And she’s right, to a point.
Some bookstores have a special poetry section that sidesteps the issue nicely, but all the libraries I know put most of their poetry collections and anthologies—even Shel Silverstein, whose life was interesting, but perhaps not quite that interesting—in the 800s, which is where Melville Dewey, in his dubious wisdom, decided literature should live.*** And while the 800s also includes short stories and plays, few people would consider MacBeth or Midsummer Night’s Dream autobiographical, or even historically accurate.^
Of course, you could make the argument—I would—that all fiction is based on someone’s experiences, if not the author’s, and is rooted in shared emotional responses. Voice, too, especially in first person, can blur the lines between the characters and the author.
But in poetry, there’s an automatic assumption that the speaker—the character—is the poet.
Sometimes this is true. Often, it isn’t.
It’s easy to keep them separate in some poems: those with obvious stories to them, or fantastical beasts. But it’s far too easy to take, say, an inexplicable raven with an annoying verbal tic from spooky story to metaphor, to disguised autobiography.
I didn’t realize how often I do this, but I do. It’s surprisingly difficult not to.
Ms. Dower has an interesting explanation for this:
The intensity of a good poem that immediately grabs you and connects you to our emotions—a poem that breaks your heart, makes you laugh a deep and knowing laugh, or shows you a fresh way to see something familiar—is part of what makes you believe that the poet must be speaking from personal experience. Perhaps you want the poem to be true because it feels so true. The fact is, we poets are not telling you our life stories—we want you to see your lives in our poems.
I don’t know if Ms. Dower can speak for the motivation or process of all poets, but she’s certainly nailed why I read the stuff.
What do you think?
*And making a list of titles I’d like to read, because that’s a perk of the job, and one to put on Dad’s possible Christmas list, because buying offbeat books for Dad that he’ll actually read all the way through without stopping is something of an annual challenge for me, especially since I’ve stopped choosing non-fiction with political or religion premises guaranteed to tick him off—that’s cheating.
**Which arrived a week earlier than usual—those subtle threats from Tech Services about the timely viewing of selection resources are starting to pay off.
***Or in PN, which is where the Library of Congress, in its slightly more experienced wisdom, puts it.
^She says optimistically, hoping the witches, ghosts, fairies, love potions, and donkey-headed men would be a tip-off.
Article quoted is from Publishers Weekly, September 9, 2013, p.60 or link is here.