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?