I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last few years. A poem is a work of the imagination, so how it matches up to objective reality is, strictly speaking (and I speak no other way) irrelevant. However, I have, as many of you know, a background in science, specifically geology, chemistry and biology. So I try to get my facts right, if my poem includes facts. Much of my poetry concerns itself with the physical world, the world of landscapes, animals and plants. Here the reader can be pretty sure that I won’t muck about with reality (unless I want to).
When it comes to poems dealing with the human condition, human behaviour, human reactions, the reader can’t assume that I’m the central character – I may be writing in the persona of an imaginary person. Equally, when I describe events or situations, they may be purely imagined. It’s the same for a novelist: you don’t (or shouldn’t) assume that the stories are autobiographical. They are created in the mind of the writer, and I think most of us accept that. It should be the same with poets. We can make up stuff too.
That said, when I make up such fictions in poems, I aim to portray emotional truth. I think I know what I mean by the concept – being self-consistent and reflecting actual emotions as accurately and honestly as I can. Actors rehearsing plays are often called upon to portray emotions in their faces and their actions, even if, say, they’ve never murdered, been raped, or stolen from a bank. They can do it because they have in their minds a memory of analogous experiences, and they can extrapolate from them to increase the intensity of their performance, so that an audience will accept its emotional verity. That’s what I aim for.