Thursday, 2 February 2012

The truth in poetry

There is some dispute over whether confessional poetry always has to remain true to the facts being written about. My stance would be that if you are writing an autobiography in verse then you should try and stay true to the facts as you know them, however, for individual poems it is better to say true to the poem itself.

Many beginner poets (and more established writers!) get hung up about writing about an event exactly as they remember it –

Say you want to write about a particular road trip that you went on as a child – in writing the poem you want to somehow recapture the feeling that being on the road trip gave you.  You start writing your poem but a few drafts down the line you find it is still not quite working.
You take the poem to a work-shopping group and are flummoxed when they don’t quite “get” the poem; they suggest taking some of the details out. You are resistant because you have written events exactly as they happened.

At this point it is clear that the poem is not working as it is and you need to make a decision – the poem is trying to capture a feeling, and that feeling might be better evoked by changing or eliminating some of the facts – facts that are not serving the purpose of the poem. Your other choice is to try and re-write the poem or write the experience as prose where chronological order and the facts are more important.  It’s a tough choice but as you become more experienced as a writer you realise that your writing moves beyond you anyway and it becomes easier to not be so precious about the initial inspiration for a poem and recognize that the poem has grown and evolved into a being all of its own.

My own writing improved tremendously when I stopped writing in such a personal way. It’s not that I no longer write personal poetry - I do, but I write it in a different way. It no longer beats you about the head with its personalness  - one of my MA tutors described it as relentlessly personal – personal to the point in which it excluded the reader. If you are writing to be read - and let’s be honest most people are, then you want your poem to speak to the reader and for them to be moved by it. This is what some writers call the greater truth of writing – the poem might not be entirely true (or true at all!) but if the reader believes in it then it has a universal truth.


Tim Love said...

Must be something in the air - Marion McCready on her blog mentions Michael Hamburger's The Truth of Poetry, which I've heard nice things about.

Julia said...

What a coincidence - I recently reviewed Marion McCready's pamphlet for Ink, Sweat and Tears. The Truth of Poetry sounds really interesting I shall put it on my wish list!

Marion McCready said...

Must indeed be something in the air :) I'm halfway through the book (wish I'd read it years ago) and there's been lots on the 'self' in poetry and the role of the empirical self in relation to the fictional selves in poetry. I'll be posting up more quotes from it soon.

Julia said...

It sounds really interesting Marion - I have just ordered a copy!