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No Sacred Lies

August 19, 2009

As my recent posts would suggest, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s o.k. to write poetry in the first person about experiences one hasn’t had, even knowing that such poems defy convention and that one’s audience might mistakenly believe such verse to be autobiographical. I think such defiance is justfied when: 1) it serves some greater truth, and 2) the author knows enough about his or her subject to pull it off.

Having said that, I believe there are boundaries beyond which one should not go, or must tread very, very carefully. For example, while I’ve written a number of poems about the holocaust, I would never dare to write one in the first person as a survivor, or the child of a survivor, or to in any other way invent any kind of first-hand experience I didn’t have. Here, when I’ve written in the first person, I’ve stayed within the confines of my own personal facts, and scrupulously avoided fabricating details or events. Even writing in the third person, I’ve been careful to stick to verified history and facts.

Why? Well, I’d say there were at least two compelling reasons. First, the holocaust, I believe, is a sacred topic. This on the basis of its enormity and uniqueness in the history of human suffering and enduring, and its profound importance to so many. While sacred doesn’t mean taboo in terms of writing, it does mean one should refrain from trivializing it, and I think masquerading as someone who has experienced it risks in the starkest way a kind of selfish exploitation, and does trivialize it. Second, the cruel and despicable efforts of holocaust deniers are only assisted and emboldened by such “fictions” since it is their contention that witnesses and survivors are liars and have invented or exaggerated their accounts. The holocaust is one of the most well-documented events in human history, but this documentation is clouded by innuendo, half-truths, and exploitation of the media, such as the internet. Anything, even a well-intended poem, that serves such evil is difficult, no, impossible to justify.

There are, I believe, other topics which similarly should give one pause before one embarks on a first person “fictional” poem, or otherwise invents experience in one’s verse. The Armenian genocide. Vietnam. The list, I believe, is actually quite long. Deciding what should be on it is a matter of wisdom, judgment and taste.

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