Enhancing, Fudging, Protecting, Lying?

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…


A poem has two subjects

from Richard Hugo, Triggering Town

a poem has two subjects: a triggering subject that gets it going and a generated subject that the poem discovers along the way. The first subject is finally just a way of accessing the poem’s true subject. The first subject is the map, the second the treasure.

Billy Collins adds: “In a poem of recollection, the trouble often is that the memory itself can exert so strong a grip on the poet that the poem never leaves the confines of the past, never achieves the kind of escape velocity that would propel it to another, more capacious dimension. [These are] poems that are primarily driven by the engines of memory rather than the engines of imagination.”

(when I first read this, I thought he had written “capricious dimension,” an idea I find much more intriguing that “capacious.”)

from After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography

New work up – Psalms and Piyyutim

I’m starting to upload a new section of work – more psalms about assorted subjects from my daily life, and piyyutim, or prayer poems. The latter are, so far, a genre I’m calling “collages,” poems created by weaving together words from many different poets to create one piece that is a kind of dialogue about a topic between writers of very different eras and languages. I have two of these so far, one with ocean images, and one with river images (I’m a Pisces, whaddya want from me??). I plan to have more over the next few months.

For reasons unknown, I can’t get wordpress to make a new tab for this section at the top of my home page, so you can find it here:Psalms and Piyyutim

not the fundamental I but the deep you

from “Proverbs and Songs”
Dedicated to Jose Ortega y Gasset
Antonio Machado

But look in your mirror for the other one,
the other one who walks by your side.

Between living and dreaming
there is a third thing.
Guess it.

Look for your other half
who walks always next to you
and tends to be what you aren’t.

In my solitude
I have seen things very clearly
that were not true.

Water is good, so is thirst;
shadow is good, so is sun;
the honey from the rosemarys
and the honey of the bare fields.

Form your letters slowly and well:
making things well
is more important than making them.

Wake up, you poets:
let echoes end,
and voices begin.

But don’t hunt for dissonance;
because, in the end, there is no dissonance.
When the sound is heard people dance.

What the poet is searching for
is not the fundamental I
but the deep you.

Beyond living and dreaming
there is something more important:
waking up.

If a poem becomes common,
passed around, hand to hand, it’s OK:
gold is chosen for coins.

But art?
It is pure and intense play,
so it is like pure and intense life,
so it is like pure and intense fire.
You’ll see the coal burning.