Sunday, April 10, 2011

Truth Is Not the Caramel Center

Pulled again this week into the old conversation: Truth in poetry. Answering the question "Wow, did that really happen?" Whether to show my mother what I write*.

It's that same question again and again: whether it's reasonable to expect a person reading a poem not to place the poet into the person of the speaker, or just to assume it's all true. I haven't found a way to convince people that it's really not, and I'm not just talking about novices or non-poets, but also about people who have a reasonable claim at being writing hobbyists.

I usually try to bring the visual arts into this discussion, ask whether people look at paintings and ask if the scene really happened. It usually doesn't work, but I think I finally hit on the way to connect this comparison. I think it's probably true that visual artists prepare a sketch or use (pencil/light) guidelines when producing a piece of art suitable for hanging; these are the equivalent of truth to the poet. They may get you into the piece, but they're not there when you're done, though their shape may be visible.

The problem, I think, is the old opinion of poetry as therapy, not as craft. I'm not saying there isn't therapeutic or cathartic poetry, or music, or painting, but that it's silly to think it all is catharsis. Even established writers talk to me about poems "needing to be written". Do we think of screenplays in that light? Novels? Some, to be sure, but we don't start with their truthfulness as the assumption. I don't think we do, anyway.

And that, I'm afraid, goes back to how poetry is taught. It's either dry and dead or first-person pathos. That's one reason I like to follow the Poetry Out Loud competition; giving voice to other's work breaks wide open the idea that the poem must be a confessional or observational moment.

Truth is not the element that makes the poem essential or beautiful; it is not the reward. It's not even essential to the poem. It's just another way into the moment. No, I don't think the conversation's over, or that I'm winning many people over, but I intend to keep trying.

* - Not all of it. Sorry, Mom.

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