There’s a note from the author in break your glass slippers that got me thinking about the idea of poetry as either fiction or nonfiction. For most of my life, poetry existed in this world beyond fiction and nonfiction. By dictionary definition, poetry cannot be fiction or nonfiction, as both are defined as works of prose, but that’s not really what we’re getting at either.
Is poetry true or not?
For reference, here is the author’s note:
at the heart of this poetry collection is a retelling of one of the world’s most recognizable & beloved fairy tales, cinderella. in that way, i suppose you might consider this to be a work of fiction. however, this story is also very much based on a number of my own lived experiences, as well as experiences i know to be true for many.
she is cinderella.
i am cinderella.
you may even be cinderella, too, if you find that any part of this story happens to speak to you.
laced with love,
amandaamanda lovelace, break your glass slippers
One of the things that I have loved about both amanda lovelace and rupi kaur is the way their collections seem to be autobiographical but not exactly. I have read and loved a few memoir written in poetry and I adore that as a choice. These have been brown girl dreaming, how I discovered poetry, and shout. They specifically chronicled periods of the poets life and progressed in a manner logical to a memoir. lovelace and kaur, on the other hand, collect poems on a topic that is no less true whether it happened to them in that exact way or if it is based on that they know it happens.
Likewise, my favorite poet, Wilfred Owen, wrote of his experiences in WWI. They aren’t written in a manner where the collection would be called a memoir of the war, but many spoke of experiences he had and observations he made. The most famous of these, and also the poem that made him my favorite, was Dulce et Decorum Est. It’s the telling of his unit being attacked with mustard gas and one man who didn’t get his gas mask on in time to escape it. The poem was written as a response to those who were glorifying the war. It was meant to tell them that it is not glorious to be in war and not something that should be romanticized for children. There is nothing sweet about dying for your country. This was a conclusion he came to in more than this one instance and it belongs to him like a biography, but it isn’t one. And yet it makes the point better and in a more succinct way that can be digested in smaller bites than sitting through an entire memoir.
So is poetry true? Is it fiction? Is there really such a thing as fictional poetry? Is there such a thing as nonfiction poetry? Does it mean something different when we know or think that the poet has experienced the exact thing they are describing? Can a poem be true and fiction at the same time?
Of course, that last one is yes. Everything can be true and fiction at the same time. Fiction is a simple changing of names or dates sometimes. It can embellish a little to make the point but does that really stop it from being true? I don’t think so. I try not to put poetry into fiction or nonfiction, true or not true. The memoir are slightly different in that it is the way they are collected that makes them a memoir.
Those same poems delivered in any other way would still be true and they would still tell a story, just not the whole story of that person. They may even be true of more than just that person. I also love the idea that a poem is true and an embellishment that stresses what is true. Then there are also those poems written for religion or with religious influence, like the psalms or the Iliad with all of its scenes with the Greek gods or Paradise Lost with it’s inspiration from the Bible that is seen as true or untrue based solely on faith.
For example, the Raven by Edgar Allen Poe. A raven may have come into his chamber, but I doubt that it spoke “nevermore” as in his poem. At the same time, I believe that he could have heard it anyway. In the poem, he’s dealing with such grief that it does things like that. Even if the raven doesn’t actually speak, is the poem less true? I don’t think so.
This all rolls back around to amanda lovelace and the truth of her collections. break your glass slippers also has that bit of wisdom and advice that is pretty good advice. women are some kind or magic series is also true, though not what I would consider a memoir of that experience. It’s not ordered that way. It’s in the poetry itself, in the way she speaks, the way she knows that we know who the matchstick boys are and who the witches are supposed to be.
I’ll end with one more set of questions for everyone:
do you look for poetry that is true?
have you read poetry that you would consider fiction or has been written as fiction?
*I highly recommend all the poems and collections mentioned except for Paradise Lost. Despite being a classic there are some inherent issues with it such as some big inconsistencies with the actual biblical version of this story but that says so much more about the truth of misogyny and biblical misinterpretation of the day that I could still consider it truth in some ways. For some frame of reference on how the Iliad and the Odyssey can be far truer than we’ve given it credit, check out the books of Jonathon Shay.