Saturday, January 31, 2009

POETRY’S FACTS AND FICTIONS


One thing I’ve noticed since I’ve been participating in One Single Impression’s weekly poetry prompt is that occasionally the question arises of how autobiographical (or not) a particular poem may be. I’ve noticed it in how I view some of the poems I read on other blogs, and I’ve seen it in comments left for me. Some bloggers post additional comments to give the backstory of their poem, or dedicate it in a way that gives readers insights, but many times the poems are just offered as they are, and readers decide. We can probably all agree that knowing the biography of a particular poet can often enhance our understanding of “what the poem means” but can it sometimes be a distraction that has the potential, at least, to alter or limit what we can take away from it for ourselves?

Lately, on my blog and on some others, American poet Robert Frost has been mentioned. I was thinking of another poem of his that I love and have memorized – Bereft. I love it for its vivid imagery, and the soft undercurrent of sorrow that runs throughout. I know a little of Frost’s life, but not enough to say: Oh yes, that must have been written about such-and-such. Still more questions crowd in – is the whole poem personal, or just a few lines? Might he simply have explored an old abandoned beach house one day on a lark, and constructed the melancholy poem around that event? What might change for me if I did know where Frost’s inspiration was deeply autobiographical - or a complete fabrication?

Another of Frost’s poems that I enjoy very much, one that isn’t set in New England, is the light-hearted history lesson in The Bearer of Evil Tidings. It’s obviously closed to speculation that it came from his personal life, but wait – what if it came in part from some old childhood book that was read to him? There’s just no telling, unless, of course, the author chooses to. I’m also reminded of the stirring essay and poem that fellow blogger Sandy Carlson wrote for OSI last week, where she talks about a poet’s/poem’s ability to create intimacy and distance both at once. It’s a very insightful post on the subject, worth re-reading.

I’d love to hear from any of you about this, either as a writer or reader, or both. What do you or don’t you assume when reading poetry? What is your own best source of inspiration?






The photo was sent to me by my friend, Sydney; it’s her beautiful blossom-covered backyard deck last spring. I thought the view, taken through the screen, kind of suited this post.

16 comments:

bobbie said...

I must confess, I have rarely tried to find autobiographic meaning in most poems, preferring to let them lead me to my own imaginative paths. There are obvious ones, like the poetry of Countee Cullen, or even Maya Angelou, but most just lead me to my own little stories.

Wren said...

Interesting question. I generally assume that a poem comes from the poet's experience, direct or indirect. Another way of saying that is that I assume poets are not writing fiction. True and autobiographical are not the same thing, however, and the first is the more important to me. If I have reason to think it's not autobiographical, the question of its truth is harder to answer.

Lin said...

it's hard to write anything without it reflecting who you are as a person. but you can certainly add and fictionalize whatever you write. I think it is up to audience or reader to interpret what he or she reads in light of their own experiences. There are as many different meanings as people.

Betsy from Tennessee said...

I think you have to know something about the poet --so that you can understand what the particular poem meant to him/her.

It's like people reading the Bible and taking a small passage and changing the meaning out of context--not knowing the befores and afters and who wrote it and why.. Knowing the history of that passage (or poem) helps clarify what the author is saying.

NOW---I guess we all want to make the poem "OURS". We want it to meant something to US in our lives. SO--maybe taking it out of context is okay--sometimes!!!

Hugs,
Betsy

Kallen305 said...

I too always equate the poem with the life expiences of the poet. To me poetry conveys emotion, feeling and experiences that the poet has experienced either directly or indirectly just as Wren said.

Sylvia K said...

I consider a poet's life and experiences when I read them, but I don't try to find a specific set of circumstances to equate with any particular poem. Some I think are very obviously linked to very specific circumstances or events, but that as Wren says, true and autogbiographical are not the same. I guess I prefer to find in their expressions a link to things in my own life and they therefore become a really personal experience, but at the same time they come to me through the poets own words and feelings and I can feel a personal bond with that particular poet/writer. Thanks for the thoughtful post!

Avid Reader said...

Having read interviews over the years where poets and songwriters say "it means whatever you want it to mean, whatever you see in it..." has had an effect on how I view poems and song lyrics since I was very young. I don't think anything strictly autobiographical right away. I mean, you could argue that everything is or else it isn't authentic... I've loved poems without knowing whether the poet was male or female, I never sit back and think "what was this person trying to bring off?" I guess I just enjoy the words and the visuals they create in my mind. Picking apart a poem in school was fun too, but not mandatory for great enjoyment.

Beloved Dreamer said...

Most of my poems are autobiographic in nature that they all are a part of my own mind and soul. I do not think I could write one that was not. For me words flash across my minds eyes and translate into clear words.

love-bd

Cloudia said...

Good poetry is where the very personal and the very universal dance together. aloha-

Sylvia K said...

I forgot to tell you that I left an award for you on my site last night. You don't have to do anything, a really nice gal gave it to me and I did want to let you know what an inspiration you are.

Robert V. Sobczak said...

I don't read much poetry, but should probably read more. It's full of imagery and tightly packed metaphor that makes it a completely different experience than prose. After all, there are poets ... and there are writers. They are two but not the same. The best poems don't need a backstory, like a good song they take on a life of their own.

Squirrel said...

I like photos taken thru screens.

Poetikat said...

Love that line, "Leaves got up in a coil and hissed".

Hey! Where's your award?

Kat

magiceye said...

when i read poetry i tend to visualize the situation being expressed
when i write it could be personal or out of empathy
hence both are related/dependent to whatever experiences that one has gone through, to a certain extent. if a poem can induce a new experience, well, its fantastic!

Annie said...

Squirrel's comment drew me back to the photo with this post. I became so caught up in the reading that I barely noticed it's details. I took like the natural texture the screen provides for this scene.

Thanks for the note re Sandy's post. I'm off to read that now.

gel(Emerald Eyes) said...

enjoyed your photo and OSI poem.
I do not assume the poem (or prose) is true or autobiographical. As writers, we can write in first person from our imagination. It's a pet peeve of mine that many DO assume such and such is autobiographical or COMPLETELY true.

Even when I do offer a bit of insight into a piece I wrote, I may choose to omit, add, or change parts or even all of the post. I still put all of "me" into these posts, but I usually keep the mystery for interpretation by the reader and for my own privacy.

It's like my art. Let the viewer become lost in seeing...