Emotional truth

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.

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About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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3 Responses to Emotional truth

  1. Jim Murdoch says:

    I read something online a while ago about a poet who gave a reading after which someone came up to empathise over the subject matter of one of the poems assuming the poet was writing from personal experience. When the person discovered that the poem was actually a work of fiction the expression on their face said it all; they looked as if they had been short-changed in some way.

    My new collection of poems (which will be out later this year and contains many non-autobiographical poems) is called This In Not About What You Think and in the introduction I point out that it will be impossible for readers not to join up the dots, not to read into things, that it is human nature to add 2 and 2 and get 5. The extra 1 comes from the reader. Readers always bring a part of themselves to any work and so it will always be greater than the sum of its parts. Truth is complicated. I have a very awkward relationship with it.

  2. sunnydunny says:

    I’ve had that experience too Jim. I don’t know why readers seem to assume that poems always tell the truth, while novels can be flights of fancy. I enjoy creating characters and writing poems in their voices; it’s part of the craft.

    I look forward to reading your collection, and I promise not to join up the dots.

  3. I understand completely what you are both saying here. However, in a deeper sense than personal experience and factual autobiography, the author of poem or novel will inevitably intrude her or himself into the work – ethically, moralistically, spiritually, emotionally, whatever.

    I think most readers accept the obvious truth that a work of fiction and imagination can have many voices, and is not some facsimile of the writer’s own literal experiences. But the personality, beliefs, standpoint, politics, concerns, morality etc of the author will still, in most cases, shine through in a body of work.

    No, poems don’t always tell the truth. But the good and the great ones do!

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