Poets sometimes make up the elements of a poem, including characters. Other times, they use real people they know or have read about or heard of. Even then, however, the ‘real’ character is changed by what Coleridge called “the shaping spirit of imagination.”
None of this will be news to most poets or to many readers, but I still find it curious how often readers assume that the subject of a poem is pretty much “what really happened” in what we loosely call “real life.” Are there many more slippery terms than “real” or “true”?
In my first LSU Press book, The Burning Fields (1991), there is a poem entitled “The Quiet Garden.” It is a poem about a son in middle age attending to his dying mother, now an old woman. The son is the speaker of the poem. In my fourth LSU Press book, The Fiddler of Driskill Hill, (2013), there is a poem entitled “‘If I Should Die Before I Wake’: Of a Daughter Who Died at the Age of Ten.” That poem is spoken by the father.
On more than one occasion I have had someone come up to me, with eyes full of tears, offering heartfelt condolences for the loss of my mother or my daughter, sometimes because they have experienced a similar loss. When I reply that my mother (now 93) is alive and well or that my daughter and only child (now 28) is thriving, the kind person who so thoughtfully offered his or her sympathies often seems somewhat puzzled, perhaps in a few cases even a little upset, as if he or she had been fooled or had his or her emotions toyed with over something that never “really” happened — at least to me as poet in a strictly autobiographical sense. It can almost seem like a kind of magic or trickery — perhaps slightly disconcerting or even threatening — when a poet brings about in a reader a profound reaction to what certainly seemed to them to be a “really true” story from the poet’s own life.
Of course, in the deepest sense, these stories and characters in poems are true and are real, although words like “true” and “real” remain very hard to pin down in a simple definition. Moreover, in the instances noted above, if a reader has lost a mother or a daughter, then another layer of complexity is added.
As poet, I am left with a profound sense of obligation and responsibility to make such poems as good as they can be as works of art in words. If a poet has the skill and power to move another person deeply with such poetry, then the poem should as “real”and as “true” as it can be. The poet owes that both to the poem as a work of art and to the reader as a fellow human being, especially the reader who, in the cases of the examples given, has embraced his dying mother or has stared helplessly into the eyes of a gravely ill daughter, a child who cannot be saved from death by a father who would gladly give his life in place of hers. The poet must respect the subject of the poem, for the poem may deeply touch the lives of readers who find in the poem consolation for an experience that is, in the deepest sense, shared.