In my poetry and fiction I fabricate stories, narrate from perspectives I could not possibly experience directly, and even--when using my exact experience--distance it from myself in some way so that the reader can not assume that I am the "I" that is the voice in the poem. I seem to use these devices at random--and though there is always a purpose to my strategy--I am not sure I can always articulate the reasons behind my choices. Are my poems untruths, then?
This question came to me because of new experience I am having workshopping my poems in two on-line groups. The posted poems are exceedingly good, and the comments range from helpful to outright praise. But those who comment often speak to the writers as if they were the voice and as if they experienced the emotions and actions they present in their poems. And the writers' responses often second that impression. Except in the allegorical types of poetry, then, I feel out of step. Should I change my ways, or frame my poetry in a fictional contest?
I think, if I am not telling the truth, I am also not lying. I write what I know, following the advice Audre Lorde gave me long ago. But I remember also what Aristotle insisted was the difference between poetry and history: They are two different kinds of truth. He even implied that poetry's truth was superior. Here are his words--and yes, I am trusting the translation:
. . . . [I]t is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen- what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen.Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages.
Aristotle is one dead white male that I don't mind referring to because I believe that he was trying to save education and literature and art back in his day just as many are trying to do now. His teacher, Plato, and his time were trying to banish art and poetry and theatrical expression from political authority. The evidence of this is in Plato's Republic, which preceded a new stress on military and local authority and seemed necessary for the obedience required in a more fascist state. In The Poetics, to which I refer above, Aristotle is trying to establish the necessity of poetry by showing that it too has formal rules that could be quantified and then obeyed. The Classical Age and its Ideals, according to Aristotle, had to embrace poetry as well as what actually was more controllable.
Two types of truth exist: poetry and history--maybe even more. And many kinds of lying exist. Adrienne Rich describes two in her essay "On Lying." One is lying directly and the other is lying by omission. Plato (and my contemporary faith) show another kind of lying: saying words and taking perspectives that are not our own, IE acting and "playing at" as one does on the stage or when quoting another's truth. And that is another subject for another time. In the meantime, I console myself that my poetry fulfills some kind of ministry, even if as yet I do not know what that is.
(I'll be back to provide the links.)