Today we have a fabulous article written by Joy Von Ill, who holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. She is a poet who lives in Omaha, Nebraska. A small ambling of her work can be found at Fruita Pulp and the end of this GREAT article. Her work has appeared in various journals and in An Untidy Season: An Anthology of Nebraskan Women Poets. She also writes three sentence reviews of books. Now, on to why you are here, the TRUTH.
What I Know About the Truth and its Deviations in Poems
Someone, or a book maybe, said “write what you know.” I started writing about my life. At some point, I found that catharsis was not enough for me. Art was something I wanted to achieve in my writing. As my education continued I learned a few things that I would like to share.
- Writing about your life is dangerous.
- In the book, Women and Poetry: Truth, Autobiography and the Shape of Self by Carol Muske discusses how while working at a women’s prison teaching writing, she advised her students to write the truth of their lives. One of her students wrote a poem about the prison’s denial of her request to attend her daughter’s funeral. The poem was copied and memorized, passed from woman to woman. Eventually, the woman who wrote the poem was put into solitary confinement for inciting a riot. Enraged by the prison’s response, Muske spoke with the warden, who informed Muske that the prisoner who wrote the poem was not allowed to attend the funeral because it was suspected she played a role in the child’s death. As evidence, the warden showed Muske pictures of the dead child’s beaten body and court documents implicating the prisoner’s involvement. This shows the importance of differentiating between the exact truth, the way things actually occurred, and one’s personal truth. Knowing this can change a reader’s relationship to poems that feel “real.” In the case of the example given by Muske, the prisoner writing her personal truth lead to a breakdown of society inside of the prison. Think twice of the consequences of your personal truth.
- Eventually, at some point, if you are brave enough, you will be judged. The most recent example of this happened to me in a writer’s group where a woman asked, “Did you really kill your pet bird?” Everyone in the room stared at me. My response was to say “If I answer you, will that change how you read the poem?” I have found that drawing the reader’s attention to the poem itself and away from your life will distract them from their judgment, but be prepared.
- The significance of your truth will be read differently with time. Robin Skelton, in her book Poetic Truth, states “The facts may remain unchanged, but their significance is continually changing.” How a poem is read is always changed by the perspective of the future. It causes me to consider how future events will change how people read my work about struggles that are common in life. Consider how you view a poem about the holocaust now as opposed to someone who would have read it in 1950. There is no way to guarantee readers can connect to your poem in future, but thinking about this view can bring extra depth to your work.
- There are different opinions on the artistic nature of the truth.
- In an interview I did withFran Higgins she discussed her views on using factual events in her writing. In her poem, “Fanam’s Car Repair & Tow”, which appears inAn Untidy Season: An Anthology of Nebraska Women Poets, she changed or made up details about the garage because she could not remember particulars that would make the poem more impactful. She expressed a sense of falseness about the title, but in this case the title gives the reader a more complete mental image, making the emotional effect of the poem more tangible. As a writer, Higgins tries to be as truthful as possible. She even went so far as to state, “If I am not being true to myself in a poem then I’m not communicating accurately.” Her view of those who change details in their writing was expressed when she said, “Some people are shit poets and don’t communicate. People skirt around the truth because they are afraid of it.” While I respect this point of view, there is more to an experience and a moment than the facts. There are reasons to change events that can heighten the experience of the reader.
- In The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo discusses his poem, “The Squatter on Company Land.” In the poem he describes the event of a squatter trying to claim space owned by the airplane manufacturer Hugo worked for. Hugo didn’t know why the company wanted the land the squatter resided on, but cited a “hammer shop” in the poem because “The rhythm seemed to ask for it.” Also, the squatter owned many rabbits, as confirmed by one of the men who worked at evicting the squatter, but it was not a thousand. The hyperbole of the amount of rabbits makes sense to the reader, imagining the squatter as someone who was apart from main stream society. One of the reasons people read poetry is for prosody and the reader’s ability to relate to human experience. These goals are achievable by changing how we as writers report our experiences.
- There is a deeper goal in poetry than explaining a narrative. In an interview I had with Cat Dixon she discussed T.S. Eliot’s phrase “objective correlative” (from the essay “Hamlet and His Problems”) which translates to using images or events to portray an emotion in literature. There are times when Dixon’s emotions tied to a particular event are more intense than the event would allow her reader to feel when it is expressed in poetry. She then expands the image, changing the even to evoke the emotions she felt in the moment. An example of this would be in her poem, “River”, which appears in An Untidy Season: An Anthology of Nebraska Women Poets . In the poem Dixon describes being drunk at the shore of the polluted Missouri River. Dixon said that in reality, she did sit by the Missouri River when it was polluted, but she did not go in. She considered going in, but refrained from doing so. Her emotions at the time were powerful and destructive, and she wanted the images to match the intensity of her emotions. Using this technique can create work that has the highest possible amount of impact on the reader.
- Changing the events can change the point of view of the poem. In The Art of Attention by Donald Revell, he writes, “How do you go about erasing yourself, how dispose of such a perilous and long-beloved forebear? Look up. Look out.” By removing one’s self from the experience being discussed, a new image and emotion can become apparent. He cites an excerpt from his poem “Heat Lightning,” where he describes his existence in the world. “Next door, in bright sun, a girl on stilts/ is so fabulously illuminated/ she blends into the light below her legs.” By shifting the focus from the “we” previously mentioned in the poem, the reader is able to see a new perspective, the writer’s “saint” and perceived salvation, is that of the girl on stilts. Revell shows an external experience outside of an interaction with a girl on stilts while he is in his office writing. External events can imply what happens internally, and have just as much effect on the reader, as the reader experiences their own emotions about the event.
As you have read, there are multiple ways this information can be applied to your writing life. Each poem that is written about a real life experience drives toward a different level of truth. Some poems can run purely on the universal truth of human experience while others require the structure of the true, factual, real life event to be an effective poem for the general reader. Be cognizant of the needs of the poem. The effects of the experience and personal truth is the best way to create an impactful poem. Be aware of the power of truth, and the power deviation from the truth holds. It can change how you write and ultimately how you connect with the reader.