“I agree. Does an actor portray his real life – not usually. If we are to believe he does, I think that is childish.”
Acting is a terrific analogy. A good writer, just like a good actor, tries to “get inside” the characters he or she is hoping to portray. When I write a poem and can say “I” instead of “he” or “she,” I find getting inside the fictional person in the poem much more real and immediate, much more like picking up a script and saying my lines. I don’t have the filter and distance of talking “about” someone else—I’m thinking the thoughts and saying the words myself. My experience with this is pretty universal, which is why so many people find it easier to write in the first person voice. The intimacy with the writing allows the writer to be more passionate, to care more about his or her subject.
In other art, like theater, this intimacy is an essential part of the process. Even in non-verbal art, such as painting or sculpture, the audience sees what the artist was “seeing” when he or she created the art, which might presume the artist as a first-hand witness of the scene he or she creates. Yet much visual art tumbles out of the artist’s imagination as opposed to representing “real life” and no one feels deceived.
There are clues poets can use to distinguish fictional first-person voice from presumed autobiography and avoid controversy. These include using a fantasy or historical context, as Eleanor suggested the other day, or indicating in the title that the poem is from another person’s perspective (e.g. “The Race Car Driver’s Last Ride”). But I would rather believe poets shouldn’t have to be shackled by such convention, only by the need to make their poems necessary, informed, and in the end worth reading.