Once, when I was reading a Selima Hill collection, I noticed that she’d used an epigraph by the poet Rita-Ann Higgins; it’s a piece of wisdom I’ve carried with me ever since: “To get to the poetic truth, it is not always necessary to tell that what-actually-happened truth; these times I lie”. This idea, alongside Sharon Olds’ idea that her poetry isn’t ‘confessional’ but is rather “apparently personal” are ideas that I always take with me to the page.
What I think it’s important to take from this is a sense of freedom from the lived reality of something; I write poems that people generally assume come from my own life- mostly that’s true but the important part of that phrase is ‘come from’, poems which emerge out of ones own experience and then go in a different direction.
How many times might we have been given a critique of our poem, or been told a certain line isn’t working, only to insist, ‘but that’s what really happened’. The poem doesn’t care what ‘really’ happened, and the reader will never know what ‘really’ happened. Yes, it’s important that poems move towards the truth, but this should be a ‘poetic truth’, the real truth at the heart of something and what it can say about the wider world, rather than the ‘what-actually-happened’ truth.
If you do want to write from personal experience, ask yourself why that moment is important; think of it like describing a dream you had last night to a friend- will it actually be interesting to anyone else but you? Ask yourself why it is you think that incident needs to be written about, what is it that your own personal experience can say about the wider world? In the same way as describing a tree might be able to say something about the wider landscape, what can this personal event say about the wider human experience of being alive?
That sounds like a tall order, I know, and writers spend their lifetime clawing towards an approximation of an answer.
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