I have often been told, and more often cautiously reminded, how revealing poetry can be. It comes from a different place, they say. It tells a story about the author that no prose ever could. Does it? It seems fairly commonplace to believe that poetry is deeply revealing whether the author intends it or not, but I enjoy challenging that notion.
When I was a girl, probably somewhere in early middle school, I wrote a poem about a child murdering her incestuous father. I remember distinctly attempting to trigger a flare in the reader’s chest, a fire that rose in anger and left in its place the coolness of freedom. In my early 20’s, I wrote a poem in Shakespearian language as a middle-aged man who was undressing, for the first time, the woman he’d desired since boyhood… A personal favorite I intend to include in a larger work one day.
Now, I have never been a child victim turned murderer or a middle-aged man of the Elizabethan era… At least, not to my knowledge. Nonetheless, the poems were highly effective, deeply emotional, and physically stirring. So, who is to say that these works are any more or less revealing than the rest? One could suspect that I was the victim or perpetrator of an unspeakable crime as a child or that my narrative about the amorous couple hints at sexual secrets buried deep within, but readers tend not to assume these kinds of things because these conclusions seem like a stretch. So, readers decide the piece is simply well fictionalized. If I write about the more common events standard to fairly average lives, however, people are more willing to assume all kinds of biographical storylines – ones that may be comprised of equal parts fiction to those that are obviously invented.
When I was a college student – the first time, I was a theater major. One of the many things that I studied (well, as much as I did study…) during that time was Stanislavski. The fundamental idea we focused on was that acting has to come from somewhere. We were taught to draw upon a single life experience that produced the emotions most resembling those being called into the scene and apply them to the situation. It was a very powerful tool on the stage and proves to be just as impacting to the pen.
It is true that artists are creators, and everything we create is in some way an extension of ourselves. It is an emotional expression that is rooted somewhere in our human experience. That is not to say, however, that we have experienced all we exude… even when we are writing poetry. Although poetry certainly comes through on a different channel and has the potential to be more “revealing” than even the most impressive dossier, it is reductive to say that there is more truth about an author hidden in stanza than story. Many poets, with lyricists being one excellent example, weave perfect fiction into meters and rhyme. Frequently, the first person in a poem is just a character as in any other form of fiction, and all it takes to master the skill is a moderately successful trip through Acting 101.
So don’t believe everything you read in poetry. Just because we can make it roll deliciously off the lips and soul with all the rhythm and rhyme of musical meltdown doesn’t mean it is in any way a reflection of a reality in which we, the veiled poets, live. It only means that we are writing well, and that you – my friend – are susceptible to liars.