A Confessional Poet that Lies

If God is in the details, what if the details are a lie?

“You do not do, you do not do…,” says Ms. Sylvia Plath, one of the first aptly titled Confessional poets, in her poem “Daddy”. Now over 50 years later, the child of Sylvia and her brethren of poets (i.e. Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell), I am struggling with a Confessional dilemma. In most cases, it’s a sure bet that if I write a poem, it’s probably about me or someone I know and the poem is true to a fault. If I said the man was wearing a jade colored wool coat when he pushed me in the gutter, guess what, he was wearing a green coat and the gutter smelled. Recently I’ve been trying to push past my inclination to confess and instead tried to move outside the realm of my actual reality and write about experiences that haven’t happened to me. But a funny thing happened on the way to that market:

Last quarter, when I competed against my students that I teach at NC High School in a slam competition, I told them after I’d performed (but before they scored it), that the poem about a girl whose mother had breast cancer was not actually about me. I thought I was clearing myself of getting “sympathy points” and I wanted to be judged by my poem and the performance. This was a miscalculation. The students were at first disbelieving. How could I write such a convincing piece without having experienced it? This made me pat myself on the back. But then the reaction turned again. How could I lie to them? Not only did they give me a very low score but they all agreed that they felt cheated and that I had played on their emotions. Is this true? Yes, I’d told them that my poetry was usually based on personal experience but have I painted myself into a corner? Can a self proclaimed confessional poet write outside the confession box? And if so, what’s the price?

I am often envious of my fiction and non-fiction classmates here at EWU because the world they write about seems so much clearer. The fiction MFA’ers are allowed to create whatever truth, whatever meaning they want, to tell a story. On the other side, here at Eastern, value is placed on the facts in Non-fiction and a story has power because it’s true. And then there’s poetry, stuck in the middle, with the ability to choose truth or create truth but bound by the rules of the other two genres. Here’s a small example:

“He says love is never given freely

while one of his hands presses lopsided circles

into the flesh of my upper thigh. He says

love comes with promises and obligations…”

This line is from my poem “Pillow Talks”. This line is not true. It’s not true because what he actually said was more crude and less poetic, something along the lines of  “I just want to (enter expletive here) but we can be friends.” But what I heard was the line above. Oh dear. But I do have an inkling of insight into my own questioning: Honesty is the best policy when it has more power than anything created, when knowing the truth is profound because it’s true. But where does that leave me as a confessional poet, except constantly questioning if a lie, prettied up in a metaphor, is better than the truth?

13 Comments

  • Marina Thomas says:

    “To thine own self be true.” And out of these words a poet was born, or did the poet birth these words? A poet, I believe must write, not evaluate. Great piece.

  • Daniel Romo says:

    For me, the bottom line is creating a great poem. If I lie, oh well (provided I don’t hurt anyone I care about). It’s just a poem.

  • BMac says:

    So after reading this I had to go and look up two standard definitions-truth and confess in the Webster-Merriam dictionary and I wasn’t satisfied with either to make my point. These standard definitions didn’t work for me, and the standard definition of being a confessional poet does not have to limit what you write as truth. I personally believe the truth is always there whether it has happened consciously or not.

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    Lots of interesting questions here. I don’t agree, though, that fiction writers are “allowed to create whatever truth, whatever meaning they want, to tell a story.” The fiction writer doesn’t create the truth or meaning, I don’t think. The reader does. The writer has to create the characters and interactions and a world and moment in time that the reader will believe, and from which a reader will draw conclusions that lead to meaning. Maybe that seem like splitting hairs, but I don’t think so. I can’t create whatever truth or meaning I want. Whatever I do, the reader has to believe it and create meaning based on it. That limits me significantly. So while fiction writers aren’t limited by facts as they occurred, I think we are limited by what can be perceived as true or believable in any given story. And, again, the reader will find or create meaning based on that. The same might be true for poetry.

    • Monet Thomas says:

      Maybe splitting hairs a little but I take your point. I generalized both fiction and non-fiction. Please do not take me behind the riverpoint parking lot and beat me.

  • thelinebreak says:

    The only thing the poem has to be true to is itself. It it sounds true, if nothing is kicking out the reader in disbelief, then the poem is true. Most poems operate like this. If you try to control the poem, it will fail you. The poem needs to be what it is, not what you impose on it, even if it is the truth you experienced.

    The truth the poem experiences is all that matters. It is the only truth to be concerned with when writing poems.

    Oh, please don’t worry about whether you portrayed your truth correctly. Just write a beautiful poem and there will be truth. As Keats said, “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    I feel you can be just as confessional when you’re making shit up. But we’ve talked about this before…

  • Leyna Krow says:

    I think the key difference is between truth and honesty. We can still be honest while making shit up. That’s what makes good fiction (I think) and so maybe it’s good for poetry too. Truth without honesty…meh, hollow and pointless. But that’s a problem for the non-fictioners.

    • tanya.debuff says:

      Truth is subjective and multidimensional–there are a million things that are truths for me but may not be for someone else (not changing the fact that they’re still truths for me). There’s emotional truth and factual truth, and they don’t necessarily match up. But that’s what makes something an essay, the way it questions and puts up two things for examination that on the surface should not go together. That might apply to all genres, actually. Emotional honesty is not the same as emotional truth, I don’t think.

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