People turn to poetry in times of strong emotions. Sadly this occasion was a funeral. The poem wouldn’t have won any poetry competitions but it was appropriate, completely suitable for the occasion and a celebration of someone’s life, written so the person it was about was completely recognisable to everyone at the service. That was some feat given that the audience included life-long friends, relatives and community members as well as colleagues, some of whom had known her over a couple of decades, some for a few months. On its own terms, it was a wonderful poem.
A poet could have been asked to have written the poem, but the poet wouldn’t have been as familiar with the subject and would have to start from second hand information. If there had been time for the poet to interview family, friends, and colleagues and draw on photographs, needlework and other crafts done by the subject, would the poet still have been able to encapsulate the person so recognisably and accessibly?
This question lies at the heart of a poet writing about news events, trying to capture personal stories into a poem whilst using second hand sources. The internet does make it easier to track information, to read personal blogs or social media comments, to see maps and street views, to get the feeling for being there even whilst sitting in at a familiar desk and only journeying as far as the coffee pot. But can it replace direct personal experience?
Probably not completely. But compassion and empathy can enable a writer to place themselves inside someone else’s story and transform it into a poem. Everyone might have a story in them, but not everyone can write it. Distilling a story into a poem may mean leaving some facts out or emphasising others to make the poem work and tell and overall truth rather than focusing on making every finite detail true, but it still can be an effective way of bringing a story to life. Poets shouldn’t shy away from telling others’ stories or avoid topics because they weren’t there to witness it first hand, but should respect their sources and be truthful rather than sensational.
A poem isn’t a diary or reportage, it has to find a new way of telling a story that millions may have already seen on the news. The ease of finding source material also makes the poet’s job more difficult because those details are available just as easily to the poem’s potential readers. That’s the challenge that separates poets from those who like to think they can write: it’s easy to look at a photograph and describe it, harder to look at the photograph’s context and implications and see beyond the photograph’s borders. The real work lies in reading and re-reading sources, thinking over and understanding the stories being read and transforming that source material into a poem.
But there also are occasions where a poet has to step back and allow people to tell their stories in their own words, even if the result feels clumsy or incorporates clichés. Because on some occasions, the story matters more than the form it takes. That’s why the poem read at the funeral I recently attended was better than anything I could have written for that occasion.