As my last post intimated strongly, the poem ‘Cuda is a lie, or more accurately an ensemble (pack) of lies. I didn’t live in envy of the college bound, nor work in a steel mill. My brother didn’t either, and he didn’t race a souped-up hot rod or suffer a paralyzing injury. In fact, I don’t even have a brother.
I remember the shocked disappointment, even anger, in the attendee of a poetry reading when he asked me afterward about my brother’s welfare and I confessed my fabrications. Well maybe he didn’t care for a whopper in quatrains. But does stretching the truth make the poem a failure, and even beyond that, is lying morally tolerable in the poetic act of writing? Clearly everyone understands and accepts that prose fiction, is well, fiction. But is poetry different? After all, as the old saw would have it, you can as a writer, maybe even must, “lie your way to the truth.”
People do tend to make assumptions about the first person voice in poetry. Some of this may be an artifact of living in a post-confessional age, i.e. in the wake of “confessional poetry” (Lowell, Plath, Sexton). Some of this may be the continued presence of confession in contemporary poetry. Some of this may also be the native state of anyone writing poetry, even someone who is not in fact a “Poet” with a capital P, i.e. someone from the audience, since everyone has at one time or another scratched out a few lines in response to a personal event. But even subtracting these influences, and going back in time, one finds a confessional honesty to poems written in the first person where the distinction of the narrator from the writer is not clearly made:
ON MY FIRST SON
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy,
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy;
Seven years th’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, I could lose all father now. For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry;
For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.
Even with fiction, one likes to forget temporarily that one is visiting a virtual world, lose oneself in the persuasive elements a good writer utilizes to work his or her magic, which as we know is all deception and misdirection. This must at least be true for poetry as well, even those poems which don’t depend on a first person voice, and in fact may even “tell a story,” maybe even one we know is fiction, because it hasn’t happened, or hasn’t happened yet:
Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs, no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, headed north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters crouched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
“They’ll molder away and be like other loam.”
We make our oxen drag our rusty plows,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers’ land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers’ time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads,
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.
Clearly as well, even “honest” poetry, which occurs in the first person voice, may take small liberties with the truth that no one will mind, i.e. that won’t spoil the illusion. For instance, in ‘Cuda , the car motor is a supercharged “hemi.” Well maybe the real one (there was in fact an actual car, which I drove, though not quite as recklessly) had only a small-block V8. Readers (and listeners) experience and tolerate this sort of embellishment all the time, as well as more trivial ones (i.e. substituting plate for beam because the sound of plate is better).
But what about the big lie, as in the writer doesn’t even have a brother, i.e. none of this happened? Well, was mine such a “big” lie? My last post, even as it as much as admitted that the poem told a few whoppers, also took apart some of the psychology that might have been at work, might have compelled me to write dishonestly and yet with what I can assure you was passionate and sincere need. In a sense, I did have a brother, a metaphorical one, both inside me, and in the person of people I knew and admired. In a sense, writing the poem, I lied to myself, persuaded myself all this really did happen. It was only afterward, when the Kubla Khan-like endogenous opiate daze had passed, that I realized I had pushed the factual envelope beyond pretense, good excuse, or suitable fib as explanation.
I would argue that the “big lie” doesn’t even exist as a successful poem, that the poet must (like a good con artist or thespian) believe his lies during the act of writing them. To do this he must get at his own soul with real depth and real risk. And when it comes to torque and tires, he must (hopefully) know what he’s talking about.
Still, the issue is far from settled, and I’m just talking about how I feel about it. I still have reservations about ‘Cuda . But then I don’t think there’s a good poem I’ve written where that isn’t true…(to be continued)