Yesterday I came across blogger Patrick Ross’s post on Avoiding “Truthiness,” when writing non-fiction. Ross brings up the point of sticking to the truth in terms of creative non-fiction – a subject that has brought ridicule to more than one non-fiction writer. James Frey, author of the autobiographical book “A Million Little Pieces,” came under fire after his book became popular in Oprah’s Book Club, and it was discovered that he thoroughly embellished parts of his story. Many non-fiction readers feel let down and betrayed when they discover that their favorite authors don’t tell the truth.
So how does this apply to poetry? Obviously, poetry is not non-fiction…and isn’t fiction either. Poetry exists somewhere in the middle – where the real life of the author is skewed through various metaphors, through nuanced language. Many poems (such as the persona poetry I mentioned in a previous post) are written from the voice of a speaker who is not the poet, or in the case of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” from many different voices. The poet’s opinion or intention may always be present in a poem, but does that necessarily mean they have to “tell the truth?”
The idea of “truth” and sticking to the story as it applies to poetry is more relevant for poems where the poet is present as the speaker in the poem. Poems about the “I” and confessional poems are good examples. This is an issue that we have run into a few times in our Shameless Word-Artist workshops. More recently, we were doing a round-robin style workshop, and I was critiquing a poem that Aurora wrote. Her poem had intricate and beautiful imagery. However, at the end of the poem she quoted someone from a dream as saying, “once you’re awake, write about trains.” There was no industrial imagery or language present in the rest of her poem, so this line seemed out of place. I asked her why she included this line and she replied, “Because that’s what happened in my dream.”
The point of this story? Don’t let your poem be bogged down or dysfunctional just because you want to keep it truthful. And adversely don’t be afraid to make your poem elaborate – to guide the reader into seeing through the poet’s eye.
What are your opinions? Do you think keeping your poem “true” is important when writing poetry? What do you think entails “truth,” in poetry?
A beautiful poem from the blog, “Letters to the Living.”
The word “Persona” comes from the Latin word for “mask.” To write a persona poem, then, is to wear the mask of an assumed character – to become them, to use the language they would use, to channel their emotions. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is a classic persona poem, written from the point of view of Homer’s Odysseus after he has returned home from his long voyage at sea. The speaker in the poem conveys various conflicted emotions – an appreciation for finally being home and reassuming the throne, but also an itch for adventure, and a longing for the sea. Tennyson likely utilizes the archetypal character of Odysseus as a guise to reveal his own itch for a return to youth and adventure.
Persona poetry went through a more recent revival in the 1970’s with the poet Ai’s book, Cruelty. Ai is known for writing from the point of view of characters who aren’t archetypal, but are rather underfoot and struggling. Ai writes from a more feminist standpoint (although some of her characters are male), and often touches on the gritty parts of womanhood and personhood – abortions, abuse, sex, poverty.
So, this is the prompt: write a persona poem. Pick a character – one who already exists within the realm of fiction or fairy tales, someone famous, someone that you know, or one that you develop on your own – and write from their point of view. Writing persona poetry is a great exercise for poets of all levels. For young poets who haven’t quite developed their voice, it helps you to practice writing in different voices, to keep in mind the kind of language that you’re using and determine how that language affects the poem. For more experienced writers who already have a voice and style developed, it can help you break out of your box, and give you a chance to write outside of the realm of personal experience.
The beginning of the Shameless Word-Artist Society is comparable to the beginning of the solar system: a few poets drifting along in the dark of poetic space crossed paths and began gravitating together, around the large, phosphorescent mass that is poetry.
The president of SWAS, Shanalee Smith, founded our group while studying creative writing at the U of A in 2010. She quickly invited as many fellow poets, writers, and dreamers as she could squeeze an e-mail address out of, and the group began meeting on a weekly basis at various cafes and grassy hills on campus.
Since that time, the amount of group members we have has fluctuated: people have moved, graduated, taken up other hobbies. But we still meet weekly to workshop each other’s poetry and fiction in a communion of coffee, tea, and strong language.
The other Shameless Word Artists: Nichole, Aurora, and Amy
And our long-distance artists: Dorian, Bobby, and Kevin