One of the big issues in writing autobiographical poetry is that, as a poet, I can rarely write only about myself. To write about and from my reality, I am inevitably writing about other people. And sometimes what I am saying about them is harsh, strong, and revealing.
So, as a writer and as a human, what is my responsibility to these other people? To be completely honest, to hide their identity, to give them fake names and false details in a kind of Poetry Protection program?
To me, the context matters a lot. I have no desire to hide the identity or protect the feelings of my sadistic great-uncle who did horrible things to children, women, animals, and other living things. Violence, I believe, must be confronted, and speaking the truth about it is vital. And the pressure to say silent, to not reveal, to lie, was part of the violence done to me and others. But what about a poem about, say, an ex-lover, someone who was an ass and a jerk, but hardly evil. To name her, to share details of her life, in the name of “getting even” is, to me, clearly immoral, petty, and well, honestly, behaving like a jerk and an ass. But I do get to write about my experience of that unfortunate affair, or to write about love and life in general driven by emotions stirred by that experience.
So where, then, is the line drawn between truth-telling and causing harm, between protecting identity and caving in to silencing?
Poet Ted Kooser, in the essay “Lying for the Sake of Making Poems,” tells the story of a woman with a step-child who wrote a first-person poem about how that’s child’s biological mother had cut his face horribly in a drunken rage. Except it wasn’t true — the child had an accident, but his mother had never harmed him, nor was she a drunk. Kooser asks, “How could somebody write something like that, I wondered, just to ‘make a better poem?’ The child’s natural mother was libeled, and who knows what damage might be done to the child to have this distorted version of history on record?”
He explores this question in many interesting ways. What I found most illuminating was his discussion of the manipulation of writing in first person in order to make ourselves look better. He writes:
I am most concerned about poems in which ‘autobiographical’ information is presented in such a way as to effect the reader’s feelings about the poet. In such poems, the speaker, calling himself or herself ‘I’ (and without forewarning the reader in any way), builds a poem around what appears to be autobiographical information, but that is untrue. [he describes a childless man writing about a tender experience with his son, and a woman writing about the suicide of a brother that doesn’t exist] Hundreds of readers may be moved by these fabrications, moved to pity the poet, moved to praise his or her courage and candor.
Ouch! And wow, yes, exactly. The “I” poem must be about something other than the “I,” or risk descending into the most shallow kind of self-aggrandizement, written only to show off how brave or wise or generous the “I” is. Jeesh, I think I’ve written that kind of poem, or at least its step-sibling, the “look how wrong he/she done me/poor me” poem.
But of course Koontz knows there are all kinds of reasons poets change details: because the poem has to work as a poem, not just a transcript; because we want to protect others; because we are writing emotional, not physical reality. He offers this advice for walking the line between “facts only” and using the power of our imaginations to create the power of the written word. “I credit my friend, the poet Bob King, with coming up with a pretty good test as to where the line should be drawn: does the poet get some extraliterary credit or sympathy from the lie? If the answer is no, the invented detail, the lie, is not bad.”
Koontz closes his essay with this: “It is despicable to exploit the trust a reader has in the truth of lyric poetry in order to gather undeserved sympathy to one’s self. Why do we permit this kind of behavior in poetry when we would shrink from it in any other social situation?”
Me, I love a poet who is willing to use the word “despicable” while discussing what it means to have ethics and morals as writers. And, although he doesn’t discuss the other end of this, the oversharing of what did happen, that can be done in a way that is equally self-serving, self-aggrandizing, and despicable.
So if you ever seriously hurt me, know that I’ll feel well within my rights to take you on, poetically.” But if you merely piss me off, I do have ethics about how much to say. Probably. But also probably best not to push how carefully I, or any of us, walk that particular boundary…
My hunch is that if you didn’t call what you do Poetry, it would be called something else. Conversation, feeling, living, however you work things out — the main difference being craft, and your devotion to getting that part right. That’s a moral standard, as Kooser notes, not some higher calling that you and nobody else has (have?). One of the many reasons why I love that guy.
Yes, it is a moral standard, and deeply important. But don’t think we in fact love those who violate it, or flirt with it? The comedians who dance on the razor edge of tragedy, stories about the fall out when this standard gets violated, whether those are told as fiction, drama, whatever.
Violating that standard isn’t justified even by great craft. Right?
And telling “the truth” at any cost is not worth the cost.