by Ron Hayes
for Philip Levine, 1928-2015
It’s a common affliction among us poets that early in our formative years we put pressure on ourselves to swing for the fences. We obligate ourselves to compose the poetic equivalent of a walk-off grand slam that will proclaim our own greatness and announce to the world the dawning of a new, future-hall-of-fame career. We lie to ourselves. In doing so, we get caught up in perpetuating the lie, slaves to our insistence on being outstanding, and we abandon a certain measure of truth. We shun a facet of ourselves. I believe this is so because I have worked to help young poets overcome it, I have seen friends fall victim to it, and I spent years struggling with it myself.
But recently, my (ever advancing) age, coupled with a rising sense of frustration at my own halting progress (a consequence of the strictures I’d placed on myself that would only allow me to write in stultifying fits and starts), has enabled me to cure myself of this affliction. And I’ve never been so prolific. How? I started telling the truth.
Truth in poetry can be a tricky thing. As the late American Poet Laureate Philip Levine noted in 2011, “The truth of poetry is not the truth of history,” a statement I believe I would have struggled to understand early in my career. I would have been too busy looking in the wrong direction: forward, toward the future and the volumes of amazing poetry I was bound to write. Those of us who practice the art of poetry—indeed, most all writers, I would venture to say, (but particularly poets)—understand our art to be the practice of creating touchstones. That’s our job. We record shards of our collective social histories, preserving elements of our cultural landscapes both tiny and grand. We poets are the philosophers of the quotidian; we observe, we reflect, we record. Our success is determined, in many ways, by how readily our work allows consumers of our art to access our culture’s philosophy and history. Interpretation and accessibility depend on certain important elements of our work: perspective, clarity, and, of course, truth.
But what does that mean?
Truth comes down to the realization that ultimately, all we can do is write what we know, what we are, what completes us as the sum total makeup of our parts. It’s what I believe has been the key to my recent surge in productivity. I’ve stopped swinging for the fences. I’ve abandoned the unhealthy obsession with writing “literature” or a poem “for the canon” and I’ve started to just be honest with myself and write what comes easily and naturally. To write not just what I know, but what I feel is part of me. Little wonder then that my home town features prominently in the fiction I’m producing or that my students and colleagues and family members are working their way into the poems I’m constructing. And as Brad wisely warned us earlier, I’m not being stupid about it, I’m changing the names to protect the innocent. It doesn’t make a poem or a story or a novel chapter any less “true.” The truth of poetry is not the truth of history, but neither is it necessarily the truth of reality.
One of my fondest memories not just of my undergrad years but of my entire life, is sitting in the audience as National Book Award-winning author Tim O’Brien visited our campus. More than merely read from The Things They Carried, he performed what he read, hardly needing even a glance from time to time at the text. Just thinking and reflecting back on that night still leaves me slightly breathless. As he has said many times of the stories in that book, none of what Tim O’Brien read to us that night ever happened. Yet every bit of it was true.
The fact is, you can tell a true war story without the events of that story having happened because the truth of a work is in the bones of the work. What you mean to convey as truth. In his latest post on 5Writers, Brad Windhauser mentions David Sedaris and the comments he made in defense of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Sedaris’s take on the controversy is the writerly take: Frey may have fabricated, but that doesn’t make his book any less true. This, I’ll submit, is what we poets have always known. The truth of poetry is not necessarily the truth of history because poetry will never depend on the necessity of fact.
Paradox? I don’t think so. Does it matter that Kiowa didn’t die in a Vietnam shitfield but in a firefight outside Da Nang? Doesn’t make him any less dead. Does it matter that the most recent poem I wrote is completely about my wife but features things we never did together? Nope. Not a bit. The facts of the poem don’t match the truth of the poem, but the meaning remains the same. Does it matter that Phillip Levine didn’t stand in the rain for two hours waiting for a job in “What Work Is”? No, it doesn’t matter, because the poem is
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
before you realize they called you there four hours early to see how many people wanted a job and see how long they were willing to wait to get that job. That’s truth. Truth is universal. Truth is subjective. Truth is relative. And in much the same way our strongest lies are the ones we mix together with a good bit of truth, truth in poetry is strongest when we dress it up in the obfuscation of field-leveling details, when we mix in the lies, lies that make the truth easier to swallow, easier to see, easier to accept and embrace–happily–because we’ve found a truth that speaks to us, reconciles with what we’ve experienced in life, and allows us to be content.
Lies make a poem pretty. Truth makes a poem strong. Balancing them successfully makes a poet.