The Case of the “Dead” Brother, Part 2

Posted by on Aug 29, 2012 | 4 comments

Here is the Chinese symbol for truth. Here’s more about “truth” in nonfiction and poetry: as I think about it now, it’s really poetry I’m concerned with. When nonfiction posits an “I,” we read with a measure of suspended disbelief. We believe the writer’s trying for the truth of the situation, but that there may be some invented dialogue, some stretched and conflated scenes.

In memoir—in my own memoir—I’ve done that: combined elements to make a single moment that was probably several different ones. Who knows for sure? My memory isn’t that accurate. If I ask my sisters, they each have a slightly different angle and sometimes even a different story. We do the best we can. And what the reader’s reading for, what I’m reading for, is a sense that the speaker is honestly searching out the emotional truth and adhering to facts pretty much. If the memoirist were to go too far astray and I find out about it, I’d be disappointed.

But in poetry, it seems to me something of a moral failure to lie. Is this silly? I guess so. In “The Prelude,” When Wordsworth is out there rowing and sees the huge peak towering between him and the stars that seems like a living thing, and rows like hell to get away, I believe this happened to him. I take it in, digest it, and it feels like a more direct infusion, let’s call it a transmission, than if it had been set within a fictional frame.

Here are some of the comments I’ve gotten about this, followed by my thoughts:

Anne-Marie Oomen writes: I do agree with the need for truth, especially in this culture, and for deep consideration of how truth is presented, despite its mystery. But I am wondering, you know, just curious, as to why a poem is so-often assumed “true” any more than, for instance, a short story? I’m probably shy on my literary history here (or misunderstanding the argument–more likely), but has poetry always been a “truth-telling” genre? How did it come down on the “nonfiction” side of things? Or is it simply assumed that the speaker of the poem is the poet speaking of her own experience? Or did the confessional poets lead us to this? Of course, truth be told, my questions spring in part from my self-consciousness about own collection, “Un-coded Woman.” I recently discovered some people have read it as a completely autobiographical poem series. Yikes! The speaker shares a few experiences and memories with me, but she’s not me. (I even gave her a different name.) I hope the book tells a truth, but it is not mine. So. I lied? But. But.

My comment: I’m thinking of dear old anonymous’s poem, “Western Wind”. . . “Christ, that my love were in my arms / and I in my bed again.” I suspect that poetry that is spoken by “I” is likely to be taken as really an “I,” the poet, presumably. In Anne-Marie’s book, she created a fictional, narrative structure for the poems, just as I did in my book, The Devil’s Child. When the speaker in the poems is clearly not the—or a—poet, if we have half a brain, we can see that the poems are fictionalized, attempting a truth of the human heart, and maybe even a truth of how it might have been, but still, we see the scrim of the poet’s mind as it plays upon the material.

Molly Spencer writes: I’m right there with Anne-Marie wondering about truth in poetry, the speaker vs. the poet. I’ve been working on a series of poems through the persona of the Mail Order Bride. I have to keep telling people they’re not about me or my life…. not quite (definitely not the mail order part!!)… but yes, they speak to experiences I have had (more through serious illness than in marriage) of utter dependence, bewildering new landscapes, and starting over. So, no, I’m not that Bride, but I’m IN that bride. No, the poems aren’t the historical truth, but they are a truth of my life. The same is true for others of my poems — I’m not the speaker exactly, but the speaker’s truth gets to a truth of my life, or to something I feel needs examining from my life.

My comment: Again, this is how I related to Barbara, the woman in The Devil’s Child, who had horrible experiences I could never expect to enter into or to see firsthand. But I know something of fear, of terror, of feeling abused, of sexual threat, etc. I knew her from the inside, only thank God, less so. Again, this is a self-conscious narrative frame we’ve established, not a lyrical “I.”

Sydney Lea writes:  Point 6 is the one that is absolutely on the money for me. Of course all experience, even “true” experience, is edited by the experiencer. Facts are not. Play fast and loose with the facts as a means to personal aggrandizement and you insult all those who have lived the awful factuality of something like a family death. If “I was the man, I suffered, I was there,” then by God I had BETTER have been there!

My comment: This is what I mean. If the lyrical “I” is experiencing something, that “I” had by God better have been there. And by removing the narrative frame around the “I,” the poem purports to deliver me into a situation unmediated by anything but the sometimes faulty mind of the writer/speaker. I am that I unless I give plenty of clues that I’m not. That’s just me, now, saying this. Understand that this is what I, Fleda Brown, FEEL about this issue. This is how I react, without a lot of thinking about it. Which is fine with me.

Ann Hursey writes: Let’s just say I agree with the responsibility of how writers navigate their words on the page: is it fiction or non-fiction?. . .how deceiving the reader violates “the basic human contract.” And as for “this particular political season. . .”

My comment: I am interested in the word “responsibility.” I have a hunch I have some responsibility as I write, to the whole human endeavor. I am not sure what it is, what that would look like, exactly. I certainly don’t want to start making “rules.” All I know to do is to rely on the rudder of my deepest human compassion. I don’t know what that means, either, but I seem to know how it feels when I’m doing it.



  1. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on both of us. For me, the creative process is partly a search for deeper truth. I realize that not everyone shares that view, and I respect the right of anyone to write anything at all. I have no problem with people who make stuff up, that’s what creativity is all about. But I will be treated with compassion and respect or I will go read something else.
    It’s like the story of the blind men and the elephant, where one feels the trunk and thinks an elephant is much like a snake, and another feels a leg and thinks an elephant is like a tree. Help me to picture the elephant in a new way. Change the way I think about elephants on general. But don’t lead me to a snake or a tree and tell me it’s an elephant.

    • Yes, that’s true. Ii suppose the difference is between “fool” and “willing suspension of disbelief” that all fiction requires, yes?

  2. I thought of this post (and the preceding post) on truth last weekend when I was at a writing conference. One of the leaders of the conference (a very successful poet and editor) said: “You have no obligation to the truth; you’re a poet.” I guess as poet I feel like I have an obligation to *a* truth (the one I’m trying to puzzle out), but I don’t necessarily feel an obligation to only use real life events to do so.

    • I really don’t agree with this, from either perspective. Of course we have an obligation to the truth of the human heart, but also, if we appear to be speaking from our heart, what we say is assumed to be the truth to us. That’s the way it seems to me, anyway. I may conflate or expand something that happened in a poem or in prose, but in a poem, if I invent the whole thing, my emotional stake in it is likely to be less. Again, this is how it seems to me. Then we could also talk with this person at your conference about what he/she meant by “truth,” I suppose. . . . . .

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