Observations: “Truth” & Poetry

Being on writing retreat for three days at the Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway last weekend left me recharged, rejuvenated, and refocused on what words and poems and community can mean, left me ready to be present in the “spoiled and radiant now,” a line from a new poem by Stephen Dunn, one of the special guests who read on Sunday evening. I wrote several viable, interesting drafts and spent time with like-minded people serious about writing. I got to see some beloved friends who live on the East Coast. These are good things. But there are also some questions floating around in my head, especially about workshopping poems.

The Getaway is a unique community and a welcoming one where anything can happen. For example, this weekend, I was honored to stand for someone saying the Kaddish, a moving moment. One year, I had a rousing afternoon of competitive ping-pong with Stephen Dunn and Diana Goetsch, one of the oddest and most wonderful experiences I have ever had at a writing conference. This weekend, Stephen Dunn read several poems including “Decorum,” one of the first poems I knew of by him and also one that addresses the familiar type of conversation that may occur in a workshop setting. (Read it if you don’t know it…I’ll wait.)

Since the Getaway is based on the premise of generating new work in the AM and taking it straight to workshop in the PM, this strategy puts all participants on an equal playing field, more open to critique and less attached to their precious darlings. Still, over the course of three days in workshop, I heard several insistent comments about how parts of poems were capital t TRUE (and therefore could not be altered). I also heard (not only from writers themselves but also from group members & leaders) many assumptions that the speaker of the poem was “obviously” the poet. These were a bit bothersome.

Poems reveal truths.

Poems create their own truths.

Poems don’t have to be factual to be true.

The need to declare “this really happened” about any part of a poem says to me that the poet is not confident in the world that he/she has created, that the certainty of fact is necessary to explicate his/her choices.  I’m not sure why a poet would feel that he/she must vehemently adhere to facts, especially those not in service of writing a better poem. Most writers realize this and, even though they draft from a factual stance, are willing to leave that stance to improve the writing. I heard poets this weekend, however, who, when they had their turn to speak at the end of workshop, resisted leaving the realm of the factual, even if it didn’t do service to the poem.

In a similar manner, assuming that the speaker of the poem is the writer does not allow the poem to be its own entity. It assumes that the writer must be telling the “truth” about the content of the poem. If the reader cannot separate the speaker from the writer, then he has not allowed the poem to be what it is, its own separate world.

Some may argue that all poems are autobiographical in some way, and I may partially agree with that. After all, I am the one writing the poem – my ideas, my words, my choices. However, that should not prevent me from inhabiting the world of a poem that does not fit my own experience. For instance, if the language and impulses of the poem’s first draft seem to create a narrative of someone leaving a relationship, I could write that poem although I have been happily married for almost 34 years. As long as the poem’s central voice is true, the facts of the writer’s experience don’t and shouldn’t matter.

This is not to say that poems cannot contain true experiences – how else would one ever figure out what to write about? –but once a poem is created, what happens in revision must work within the poem’s own boundaries to improve it AS A POEM. This is why neither of the stances above is helpful to the poet in workshop.

So what IS helpful (at least to me) in workshop?

Pointing out places in a poem where its created universe doesn’t cohere, where the writer has inconsistencies in diction, syntax, or voice that take the reader out of the poem’s established realm or conceit.  Offering suggestions about line breaks. Reiterating the reader’s perception of the poem’s central idea. Discussing confusions in the poem, places where readers are unsure of intent or movement from image to image or event to event. Offering ways in which a title could do more or less work for the reader to draw them into the poem’s orbit. Do any of these for me, and I’m a happy listener, taking notes. I may or may not apply all of your suggestions, but I will learn from them.

As long as you don’t ask me if my poem is true. 🙂


21 thoughts on “Observations: “Truth” & Poetry

  1. Hear hear! One of the things I most prize about poetry is the way it can render the distinction between fiction and nonfiction completely irrelevant. Of course some poets, and some traditions (spoken word, for example) do conceive of their practice as creative nonfiction, and that’s fine, but I would argue that they too can hardly ignore the way all poetry draws us toward myth-making.

  2. I think that I started to learn this “truth” early. I say started because I do need reminding sometimes. My first ever published poem was entirely fictional but one people assume is true, I think because it is true to itself, its world. it’s so convincing in its truthfulness, actually that I choke up when reading it. I think the factual truth can be limiting in a poem too, IIRC Richard Hugo in Triggering Town talks about how using the real town alcoholic in your poem might actually shape the poem because the facts you know about them will get in the way of what your might be trying to express explore.

    Thanks for the Stephen Dunn poem btw.

  3. I think a lot of poets who preface a poem by asserting its truth are either preempting criticism or they need to be seen. I am glad poetry can help with the latter. I don’t participate in critiques of work when the writer begins this way.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing Stephen Dunn’s “Decorum.” What a powerful poem.

    I agree with you about “truth” — in poetry, there is definitely truth to be found, but it shouldn’t be confused with “facts,” which I think a lot of people can do. People will often think of my “I” narrators as representing me, even though I’ll often poem about myself in the third person.

  5. A well expressed and rendered consideration Donna. William Stafford said the poem is a thread the poem begins, then as reader your opportunity is to carry forward that thread howsoever it has meaning for you. Thinking you will ever understand the poet themselves by the poem simply isn’t so. Our relationship is with the poem, not the poet. Does that cast the notion of truth in a different light? Truth is simply what’s so. But memory is not and same same for point of view. How a poem lands is what matters to me. What works is the only rule I care to measure by.

  6. “I’m not sure why a poet would feel that he/she must vehemently adhere to facts, especially those not in service of writing a better poem. ” –I think some of your commenters have spoken to this issue pretty well.

    Often, my readers assume the I in the poem is the poet, not the speaker of the poem. And indeed–I am often writing what I observe. But I think that switching up the phenomenological to illustrate Truth or Relevance better; and risking “fiction,” is valuable for the poem itself sometimes. And that means valuable for the reader, too.

  7. I’m glad you were able to articulate what was rattling around half-formed in the back of my mind. Strange that this idea almost sounds radical in today’s poetry world.

    As for workshop advice, it’s usually not the poem being workshopped that ends up benefiting (for me). It’s absorbing all that advice for all future poems I am yet to write that really pays off.

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