But is it true?

Last week Cascadia Review featured some stunning images made by Nance Van Winckel.

I especially liked her image The Backside of Saint John the Divine.

And I read, “digital photocollage,” which made me gasp a little, realizing that this wasn’t a literal image, a visual transcription. It’s a translation, a reinterpretation. It’s art. But I also realized that I have a built-in expectation that photography is always “real”–always that transcription. Maybe because of photo journalism, because I’m relying on those images to tell or validate a story. I know, it’s naïve.

That reminded me of the prevalent assumption that if a poem says “I,” it’s autobiographical. (Exception: persona poems.) Generally, we don’t make that same assumption in fiction–and in memoir we now know we have no idea what we’re getting. But poetry seems stuck in the assumption of the true story.

So what’s true?

On The Writer’s Almanac, Dorothy Allison is quoted: “People want biography. People want memoir. They want you to tell them that the story you’re telling them is true. The thing I’m telling you is true, but it did not always happen to me.”

In Poetry in Person*, Frank Bidart says, “First of all, I think one has to understand that all art is artifice: it’s made. And as something made, it isn’t just a report. I’ve said before that ‘the aim of art is to make life show itself.’ How can you make things show themselves? When does life show its essential nature? … I am hoping within the world of the poem that it reveals something that not only is true but also that I needed in some way to reveal.”

I leave with two thoughts:

  • The “I” in a poem doesn’t mean it’s an autobiography.
  • A poem doesn’t have to be autobiographical (this really happened) to be true.

What do you think about truth, facts, and the idea of poetic license?

*You can get a copy of Poetry in Person (hardcover) at Open Books for $8.50. Reading it gave me inspiration every day.