If you are writing (or are thinking about writing) narrative poetry, particularly in the first person (i.e. the persona poem), the Poetry Foundation has a good article by Kathleen Rooney on poetry that appears to be autobiographical, but isn't. While defending the right of poets to be completely imaginative and fictional in what they write, Rooney recognizes that sometimes readers of poems or collections that appear to be autobiographical and yet aren't can feel cheated when they discover the 'truth'. Whereas a reader comes to a novel expecting to read an invented story, poetry readers sometimes are lulled by the emotional responses they have to poetry into forgetting that a similar contract exists between writer and reader in poetry. In short, they can feel emotionally manipulated when they discover an experience they had assumed to be true isn't.
Though I also defend the poet's right to be inventive, just last week when reading Frances McCue's The Bled (Factory Hollow Press, 2010), about the death of McCue's husband, I became overly concerned with how her husband had died, which is not made clear in the collection of poetry. It is understood that her husband had been young and healthy and the death thus unexpected, and that there was some trauma to the head that partially or perhaps fully resulted in his passing, but it wasn't until I tracked down a newspaper interview with McCue that I realized that her husband had collapsed while playing basketball and hit his head when falling, and died. Perhaps I should have picked this up from the poetry--there was a poem about her husband on the basketball court--but somehow I didn't. And when I did learn it, I wondered if it helped me understand the work more than I had previously, and wondered why it had mattered to me. And I couldn't say that having the knowledge was helpful on the level of understanding the art, but it gave me some sense of reality that apparently I had wanted, even while I agree with Rooney that the poet doesn't owe that to the reader, and the reader shouldn't assume it. The vagueness of the cause of death had made me wary of McCue's 'truth', but why should it have? She didn't own me a true story, and even if presenting a true story, she didn't owe me all the details. This is poetry after all, not reporting. But still, I had been disconcerted enough to try and find the details on my own.
Rooney's article covers both her assessment that it is the reader's failure of imagination that results in their own disappointment as well as an opposing viewpoint of critic David Ulin, who says “the tension between the confessional voice and our knowledge that what it is
describing didn’t really happen, is too substantial, and the poem collapses
under its own narrative weight.”
While I agree with Rooney fundamentally, I can see the need to be sensitive to what Ulin says, to the reader's experience. Hmmmmmmm. Food for thought, particularly regarding what I'm writing currently.