How Real Life does Poetry have to be?

Last year a competition asked for poems in response to photos showing the immediate aftermath of a disaster and again after four years of re-building work.  One of the poets involved commented that they had hesitated before writing their poem because they hadn’t been there or known anyone directly involved.  They felt awkward and worried about the authenticity of their poem.  There have also been discussions at Magma Poetry about how poets can make it real despite not directly experiencing events and whether we should let our knowledge of writers’ biographies influence our reading of their poems.  Does it matter?

No one expects crime writers to have committed the crimes they are writing about.  Readers expect crime writers to have done their research and create empathetic characters so the readers can ‘experience’ the crime alongside the victims and try and figure out who the murderer was before the end of the book.  Generally novelists are not expected to write autobiography although there is an understanding that some events or characters that end up in novels may have roots in the writer’s life.

Poetry is also fiction.  So why should poetry have to be real?  Why does the question of “how do poets make an event they have not experienced authentic” even arise?

Most contemporary poetry is written in first person, whereas novels are generally written in third person.  There are exceptions, but most poems use an “I did/ felt/ saw/ dreamt/ experienced…” narrative and it is easy for readers to therefore assume that the poem’s “I” is the poet.  The assumption then becomes that the poet is writing directly from autobiography and poetry is no longer fiction.

This creates two problems.  Firstly it can create misunderstandings.  I know of someone who read Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips” as taking place in the aftermath of a suicide attempt because he knew the poet had attempted suicide.  What he didn’t know was that “Tulips” was written after a routine operation to remove an appendix, which puts the poem in a completely different light. 

Secondly it shifts the focus from the poem to the poet and encourages the view that poems about, say, the war in Iraq are only authentic if the poet has served a tour of duty.  Or that knowing a poet has served a tour of duty in Iraq makes that poet’s poem more authentic than a poem written by someone who’s never been to Iraq but done their research.  This takes us backward to the view that crime writers should have committed the crimes they write about, which has already been dismissed.  Surely the poem matters?

Poems need to be able to stand on their own merit.  It doesn’t matter whether the poet has direct or indirect experience of what they are writing poems about.  What matters is whether the poem is any good or not.  Good poems can come from indirect, researched experience and bad poems can come from direct experience and vice versa.  Incomplete research will show, but poets with a distance from the event they are writing about have the advantage of being able to put the event in context and focus on making the poem.  The key focus has to be on the poem, not the poet, doesn’t it?

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3 Responses to “How Real Life does Poetry have to be?”

  1. Sheenagh Pugh Says:

    “Most contemporary poetry is written in first person”

    Is that really so? Quite a lot is, I’ll grant, but I wouldn’t have thought it was a default setting, and I do think it happens less lately than it used to. I know I am consciously using it less – I used to use it when I wrote in persona, it was never a personal “I”, but lately I have wanted the greater distance and universality of third person and it seems to me that in general, there are more 3P than 1P poems around at the moment, though that may reflect my reading preference. Has anyone gone through a mag or two and counted?

  2. Paul Squires Says:

    Every poem is a fiction, even the most honest confessional poetry is spoken in a constructed, artificial poet voice.

  3. Writers need to Read and Get Out More « Emma Lee’s Blog Says:

    […] How real life does poetry have to be? […]


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