Feature: Telling the Truth in Poetry

By Carl Dennis

All good poems must be truthful, but the truthfulness they embody is not that of accuracy to historical fact but fidelity to what might be called the facts of the human condition. In the service of discovering and expressing fundamental attitudes toward life, poetry is allowed, with some qualifications, a license similar to that accorded to fiction and drama: the freedom to substitute imagined materials for those it finds ready-made in the world. Poetic license means that William Wordsworth would have been free to write a poem about meeting a leech-gatherer even if he had never met one in the flesh, that Matthew Arnold would have been free to write a poem about standing on the beach at Dover with his sweetheart without ever having been to Dover, that Robert Frost would have been free to write a poem about picking apples even if he had never picked apples, if, say, a bone spur in his left foot had made it too painful for him to use a ladder. The demands of the poem itself are allowed to take precedence over any demand for strict autobiographical accuracy.

Readers at times may be disappointed to find that events they assume to have actually happened never in fact occurred, but this disappointment is not the same as feeling deceived. It results rather from our natural wish that poets find their actual lives rich enough to supply all the materials that a poem requires, without any need for fictional augmentation. But in other moods we may be encouraged to learn that a lively power of invention may supply whatever an individual life may be lacking, that imagination can serve a poem when experience is inadequate.

Are there any exceptions or limits to this kind of poetic license, any restrictions we demand from the poet that we don’t demand from the writer of fiction? I think there are, though defining them precisely isn’t easy. The difference has to do with the fact that the speaker of a poem seems to express the writer’s thoughts more directly than do the narrators of a work of fiction or the characters of a play. Though the speaker is always to some extent a construction, a voice serving the needs of a particular mood or occasion, not the person who sits down to the desk to write, we use the word “poet” for both writer and speaker because we imagine the writer as endorsing, by and large, what the speaker is saying.

In the novel the writer may give us an unreliable narrator, but the speaker of a first-person poem, unless defined clearly as a persona, is intended to be a reliable spokesperson for the writer’s perspective. If we don’t trust the speaker, the poem has failed. If the speaker in the poem by Emily Dickinson that begins “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” had begun, “After great pain, a foolish feeling comes,” we would have good reason to stop reading. The point is easy to see when the truth in question has to do with our general sense of the human condition, but what if the question is not whether the writer understands life but whether he or she has actually had the experience that the speaker claims. We are willing to let Wordsworth make up his leech-gatherer, because the experience presented seems more about the poet’s imagination than about the man the poet encounters. But are we ready to let him to make up the visit to France described in the Prelude, which presents the poet as a young man thrilled by his sense of being present at a momentous historical occasion? We would not want to hold him to the kind accuracy we would expect from a reporter sending dispatches back to his newspaper, but would we allow him the latitude we would be likely to allow a novelist? Wouldn’t we have some grounds for thinking we had been misled if we found out, in fact, that the poet had never left home, that he had gleaned his information from a correspondence with friends on the scene? Or, closer to home, if a speaker presents himself in a poem as being among those who rode buses south to register black voters in the early sixties, wouldn’t we expect the writer, if in fact he hadn’t been there, to make clear that the speaker is a persona? Or, less heroically, if I write a poem about going to hear E. E. Cummings read in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1958 (a reading I did in fact attend), am I free to include a conversation I had with him after the reading if I do not make clear that it was an exchange I wished for, not something I experienced? I am a great admirer of Robert Lowell’s poem about talking with Robert Frost after a reading (“Robert Frost”), but if I learned that the conversation never took place, that it wasn’t a heightening of an actual occasion but a total fabrication, I would be disappointed. The poem might still be strong, but my response to the poem would be compromised by my knowing it took place only in the poet’s mind, not in the world as well.

The issue of authenticity I’m raising here might seem to be confined to the kind of poem that presents an apparent intersection of private life with public events, but in fact it applies to poems that we would be likely to categorize as strictly private. We would allow Mathew Arnold the freedom to write “Dover Beach” if he never once visited Dover, but would we allow his speaker to lament–without any indication that someone other than the poet is speaking–his painful divorce and his sadness over being childless when in fact the writer remained married to one woman and fathered many children? Poets may choose to write very little about their private lives, as is the case with Arnold and Wallace Stevens, but many poets do refer to personal facts, if not in an every poem then at least over several books, so that we can think of their typical speaker as having a particular gender and age, as married or single, as having children or being childless, and as living in a particular country, and perhaps a definite region. If we come across a poem that contradicts our composite portrait, without any indication that the speaker is someone other than the poet, we are likely to be confused. Of course, a poet may train his readers to avoid bringing any autobiographical expectations to a poem if he varies his speakers enough, if in one he speaks as a young father and in the next as an old widow, in one as an orphan and in the next as living with his parents. We would come to know quickly that we were reading a sequence of impersonations. Our pleasure, when the poems were successful, would be similar to the pleasure of watching in a theater a sequence of vivid performances. Such pleasure should not be disparaged, but the kind of freedom it allows does come at a significant cost, the cost of intimacy, of the closeness we feel to the poet whose speaker is more consistent. It’s true that every poem, even when apparently unmediated by a persona, is to some extent a performance, because the speaker is never identical to the writer. Even Yeats, who places himself squarely in the romantic tradition of the self-revealing poet, criticized the notion of self-expression as offering too passive an account of creation, as ignoring the fact that the speaker is a voice the writer deliberately fashions. But the voice Yeats made for himself by imposing, as he describes his creative process, a complementary “mask” on his given character, an ideal opposite to balance his natural limitations, results in the crafting of a particular personality who seems to be speaking us directly in poem after poem, and one of the pleasures of reading Yeats’s collected poems is listening to that speaker confront the ordinary problems of life as he moves from youth to age. It’s true that a writer today may have a more fluid notion of the speaker’s personality than does Yeats, but we still expect the voices to have a family likeness, to be the moods of a single individual who stands behind the lines and endorses them.

Though I am favoring here a kind of minimal post-romantic sincerity, an individual voice tied to at least a few basic autobiographical givens, as opposed to a collage of perspectives, the freedom that comes from working with personae reminds us that a poet who sets his or her poems in the context of a consistent personal life always runs the risk of sounding provincial, closed off from the world, locked in a house lacking sufficient doors and windows. No reader wants to feel trapped in the company of a monolithic speaker unable to look on the world from more than a single, rigid point of view. Yeats himself reminds us that “consciousness is conflict,” that the drama in a poem often results from a division within the speaker, a division that the poem seeks to define and intensify rather than to resolve. The danger of narrowness is particularly present in an autobiographical poems in which the speaker is going through some deep personal crisis, like the loss of a parent or child or a wrenching divorce. Here the poet has to be especially on guard against self-absorption. In this regard, it might be useful to close by looking at a poem in Sharon Old’s most recent book, Stag’s Leap, which focuses on the speaker’s divorce and does not invite us to make a distinction between the speaker and the writer. What is impressive about many poems in the book is how often they manage to achieve breadth of perspective. Here is “Pain I did Not”:

When my husband left there was pain I did not
feel, which those who lose the one
who loves them feel. I was not driven
against the grate of a mortal life, but
just the slowly shut gate
of preference. At times I envied them—
what I saw as the honorable suffering
of one who is thrown against that iron
grille. I think he had come, in private, to
feel he was dying, with me, and if
he had what it took to rip his way out, with his
teeth, then he could be born. And so he went
into another world—this
world, where I do not see or hear him—
and my job is to eat the whole car
of my anger, part by part, some parts
ground down to steel-dust. I like best
the cloth seats, blue-gray, first
car we bought together, long since
marked with the scrubbed stains—drool,
tears, ice cream, no wounds, but only
the month’s blood of release, and the letting
go when the water broke.

Pain lies at the center of this poem, the pain of the poet’s being rejected by her husband, but less as a driving force than as a subject of exploration, a problem to be confronted. The poem begins with three acts of self-distancing in which the poet attempts to put her pain in perspective. It takes some distance, first of all, to compare the humiliating pain of being flung aside for someone else to the nobler pain of those “who lose the one who loves them.” And it takes even more distance to supply the husband with a possible defense for his departure: his feeling that escape was a matter of spiritual life or death. And, finally, it takes still more distance to regard the speaker’s deep anger at her being rejected as grotesquely absurd, as akin to being left a with car-sized load she doesn’t have any obvious means of getting rid of. What might have once seemed to her like exhibit A in the case against her husband now seems like something she has to dispose of on her own. And in using as a metaphor for the process the eating of an indigestible meal, she seems to be mocking herself for the awkwardness of her predicament. Anger is being dealt with here through wit, though the anger remains real, and is expressed in the conclusion, indirectly but forcefully, by an unexpected rhetorical move that allows her an opportunity for self-assertion. By turning the metaphorical car of grief into the literal family car, into the car steeped in the long story of the marriage, stained with her children’s’ messes and the fluids of fertility and childbirth, she replaces grief with affirming memory. If the husband is allowed to evade blame by the wounding “birth” he claims he needs to make, the speaker can assert herself by recalling the birth of her actual children, a birth without wounds that comes from the richest part of her married life. The poem expresses anger but avoids self-enclosure. Rather than being narrowly defensive, it enacts a drama of opposed perspectives. And rather than being predictable, the poem seems to discover its plot in the process of being spoken. The metaphorical car is suggested by the “grille,” the grille by the “grate of a moral life,” and the family car arrives just in time to replace the grotesque, figurative car with the dignity of history. Though the poem may seem at first to be confined by its autobiographical truthfulness, limited to a sincere recounting of a painful predicament, the poet manages to enact her freedom.


Carl Dennis is the author of many books of poems, including Selected Poems, 1974-2004, and, most recently, Night School. A winner of the Ruth Lilly Prize and The Pulitzer Prize, he lives in Buffalo, New York.

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