Lies that Tell the Truth

When people read work from Living Things, one comment I invariably receive is, I can't believe you went through x experience or When x happens in y poem, that must have been really hard for you.

The truth was, it wasn't hard. Because most of the poems are fabrications.

But the poems are true poems. Although they are not documents in the sense they appear to be, they are (to paraphrase Marianne Moore) "imagined experiences with real feelings in them." But I do struggle a bit with these pieces because I know they purport to be documentation of events when they are, in fact, only documents of what I was feeling.

There are poems that are documents. "The Cat," I've often written here, happened to me, and it happened virtually as it appears in the poem—making my lived experience a literal metaphor (aside: can one's life be deconstructed as a text?). The statement made by the narrator in "Shopping" ("Somebody died.") was my explanation to a coworker regarding why I was leaving work the day I received the call. "Mail" is an actual piece of mail I received—one of the thousand post-mortem bills that streamed into my life.

So why did I lie?

I think the issue here isn't that some poems are "real" and some are merely "true," but honestly, I do feel a kind of ethical dilemma about the fact that the poems are so closely related to my lived life that people assume them to be documents. Confessional documents. Which they are and aren't. I intentionally refer to the speaker of the poems as the narrator and not as myself because he is a different voice. But we have things in common, he and I, and maybe we are too easily mistaken for each other.

Am I being overly concerned about nothing? And maybe again, the poems' proximity to real life makes for an uneasy and uncanny experience of living with this work....


  1. Anyone who thinks even "confessional" poetry is entirely real is naive and/or in college. Or in my graduate poetry class of suckage.

    In writing, creation is more true than the truth.

    In the end, I think it's patently unfair for people to expect poetry to be true unless you're making a point of it being not so (ie: making no sense).

    Novelists don't experience the same pressure of truth, although memoir is changing that a bit...ahem.

    I think the important thing is to let go. Refuse that internal drive to write "based on a true story" and run with your ideas.

    Just because something isn't documentary doesn't make it any less vivid or true for the narrator.

  2. I realize that last comment made 10% of sense. I blame being sick and drinking brain numbing liquids for the sick.

    I stand by my rambling, however.

  3. I agree: in Poetry "lying" is more truthful (and more interesting) than "truth." Or, to put it another way, the imagined is more real than the actual.

  4. Or as Richard Hugo said: the truth must conform to the music.

  5. A Million Little Living Things

  6. If I want facts, I go to an almanac. If I want truth, I go to poetry.

    Just 'cause it's the truth doesn't mean it has any facts in it.

  7. Anne, I literally cannot say it better. Well done.

  8. Am I being overly concerned about nothing?


    The real question is so what? Will you change your art to appease your reader?

  9. Or, I might add, to make yourself more comfortable?

  10. It doesn't count as lying.

    It is just society's view of poets--people assume that even my most surreal poems are about true, factual events.