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Essay

Based on a True Story. Or Not.

Does it matter if a poem that seems autobiographical is actually fictional?
Lars Plougmann

The first time I saw the poet Brian Russell read was at the Dollhouse Series in Chicago in December 2012, although his reading was not really a reading at all. He had all of his poems memorized, and delivered them in a direct and unpretentious style, saying each word with emphasis while looking up and out at the audience in a way that more closely resembled an autobiographical monologue à la Spalding Gray.

The poems were from his wonderful debut collection, The Year of What Now, winner of the 2012 Bakeless Prize. Virtually all of them are written from the first-person perspective of a husband, and are addressed to a specific “you” who is the husband’s wife, suffering from a potentially deadly disease, presumably cancer. Like Gray, Russell appears—both in his in-person delivery and on the page—to inhabit the words so deeply that I assumed the poems were written from his own experience of having a spouse diagnosed with and treated for a possibly terminal illness. For example, in the poem “Lightness Arises from the Usual Gravity,” he writes of “the social worker slash / amateur psychologist assigned to us” that “I’m sure there are a hundred other / couples like us in this hospital / alone   clearly we appear to her a common / strain of the same basic devastation.” I thought the “I” must certainly be Russell. But I was mistaken.

To be clear, Russell himself never once indicated that this was the case. The presumption of autobiography was entirely my own, but I am not alone. When I emailed him to confess my mistake, he was sympathetic but unsurprised, and wrote back that the first time he read from the book, “someone came up to me beforehand and said they were very sorry to hear about my wife and hoped that she was okay. She was standing right next to me at the time, and I was like, yeah she’s right here.” Ever since then, in an attempt to head off any confusion, Russell begins his readings with “a quick and general statement about the book’s narrative arc” and makes a point of calling the narrator “the husband.”

“It’s not my intention to trick anyone,” he says. “After readings, I’ve had people tell me very difficult personal stories they were reminded of based on one poem or another. In every case, they’re more interested in that I got the experience right and don't care that I’m not the husband.”

Tom Sleigh, in his judge’s introduction, writes that Russell’s work “doesn’t parade the autobiographical in your face, though the conventions seem at first to be autobiography.” This idea of “seeming” invites the reader to think about how works of art—especially poetic ones, where autobiography is often assumed—are received and acclaimed when they are billed as being “Based on a True Story,” or not. How do we read a poem differently when the poet’s authority comes from the recounting and shaping of a personal experience versus the adept use of rhetoric and pure—or almost-pure—imagination? Does the fact that Russell’s poems are fiction diminish their power or impact?

In his (largely positive) review in the Los Angeles Times, David Ulin says yes, maybe their impact is diminished. In one of my favorite poems in the book, “Preface,” which presents the prospect of picking out clothes for the spouse’s funeral, Russell writes, “I don’t want to think about it   about going / through the closet  through all the clothes / I told you you didn’t need” which sends the speaker back into a memory:

new year’s eve in Chicago  my god
do you remember how cold it was that year
standing outside the bar with
everyone we knew   we weren’t ready
for another year   you couldn’t stop
shaking   I couldn’t get a cab   we were still
warm with whiskey   the pure
happiness of being young but old
enough to know it

Here, Ulin claims that “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.” That particular poem is one that made me tear up when I heard Russell recite it, even though I knew that the events described therein had never happened. I was able to imagine that task—dressing a dead spouse for the last time you’d ever see her—vividly thanks to his words; I could feel the terrible abjection that would come with such a responsibility. Ulin’s critique reminds me of how sometimes, when I show Rilke’s “Song of the Little Cripple at the Street Corner” to creative writing classes, some students ask whether Rilke really was disabled. This is a fair question. Yet when I say no, he wasn’t, and tell them that this is a persona poem, some of them say they don’t like it and can’t relate because Rilke himself was not “a cripple.” This reaction always seems a catastrophic failure of imagination and empathy. It doesn’t seem like a bridge too far to imagine that burying a spouse would be devastating, that being a social outcast through no fault of your own would be demoralizing.

Perhaps we should consider that the aim of poems that employ fiction may be not only to engage us emotionally—in a manner that various readers will find either moving or fraudulent—but also to ask us to assess our expectations. In the case of Russell, these are lyric poems but with a narrative arc, and though they are rooted in true feeling, the incidents are almost entirely fabricated. But “fiction” is not synonymous with “falsehood.”

So while I disagree with Ulin, my point is not to take issue with his interpretation, which is intelligent and understandable. My point, rather, is that Russell’s poems—and others like them—provide an occasion to think about how our understanding of a poet’s biographical particulars affect our reception. Reasonable readers will disagree, of course, on what this reception should be, and Russell’s book can be taken as a provocation to engage in compelling thought experiments: What if we found out that Wilfred Owen hadn’t actually fought in World War I? Would his condemnation of “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori” be any less moving if we did not know that he was killed at the age of 25 in November 1918, just one week before the Armistice? Or what if we found out that the collection Black Aperture, about the author’s brother’s suicide, a finalist for the National Book Award, was totally made up and that Matt Rasmussen was an only child who not only didn’t have a brother who killed himself, but didn’t have a brother at all? Would it matter if Patricia Lockwood, author of the phenomenal viral poem “Rape Joke,” had not been raped? 

In short, if we are angered, confused, or disappointed upon discovering that a poem we took as autobiographical is not, then whose liability is that? If we feel as though we’ve somehow been cheated, is that on us? I’d argue that it probably is. Every text has a narrator or speaker, and we assume at our peril that any given “I” either is the narrator or is even closely associated with some poetic persona the narrator is crafting as an alter ego. 

A caveat: I am not trying to excuse (because they are inexcusable), or even really talk about, literary hoaxes such as those perpetrated by JT LeRoy, James Frey, Nasdijj, various fake Holocaust memoirists, and their ilk. Rather, what is of interest is how, if we are reading published literary prose, we have a reasonable expectation of being told up front—on the cover, most likely, or in the table of contents if it’s a magazine—whether or not something is fictional. Such labels are rarely present with poetry.

Sometimes a poet will play with expectations of autobiography directly, as in Weldon Kees’s sonnet “For My Daughter,” whose first lines are “Looking into my daughter’s eyes I read / Beneath the innocence of morning flesh” and whose shocking last lines are “These speculations sour in the sun. / I have no daughter. I desire none.” Usually, though, poets don’t tell us how to read their poems.

Part of what is exciting about The Year of What Now is that it affords us a chance to question the widespread default of taking poetry as nonfiction.

In fairness, this default comes from somewhere—from the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for instance, who used real-life anecdotes to enhance their poems’ “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” (It’s hard not to hear sardonic echoes of Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”—“My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart / With tender gladness, thus to look at thee”—in Kees’s sonnet.)

So too has our assumption of poetic autobiography been bolstered by the confessional poets. Anne Sexton’s poem, “The Truth the Dead Know,” for example, opens with a note stating that both her parents have died within months of each other: “For my mother, born March 1902, died March 1959 / and my father, born February 1900, died June 1959.” It’s a beautiful poem, rhymed and full of haunting and haunted images. But would it lose its pathos—its relatability—if we were not informed that its emotional content arises from real events?

W.H. Auden apocryphally left one of Sexton’s readings complaining, “Who the hell cares about Anne Sexton’s grandmother?” Whether or not he ever said this, his question serves as a reminder that true confession has not always been the automatic mode of poetry; yet the rise of this mode has been so meteoric and far-reaching that it’s become hard for many readers to consider that a poem with a first-person speaker might not be autobiographical. If anything, it’s almost easier to picture a contemporary reader getting upset if it turned out that Sexton’s material about her family were not true.

Fans and critics of Sylvia Plath, too, have fixated for years on trying to sort out how much of her work is autobiographical, and also on how much the quality of the work depends on its relationship to “reality.” Robert Penn Warren said of Ariel that “it scarcely seems a book at all, rather a keen, cold gust of reality as though somebody had knocked out a window pane on a brilliant night.” Similarly, Peter Davison said of the book: “No artifice alone could have conjured up such effects.”

Criticism in this vein suggests that the fact that Plath’s work transformed reality into poetry is what makes the poems good. But imagination can also be a form of transformation, and artifice, too, can be a kind of magic. Even if we’ve never suffered the horror described in a horrifying poem, surely we can imagine that horror as the reader. Surely we can be shown that horror by a writer who is also imagining.

Decades after Plath and Sexton’s deaths, plenty of critics still valorize “reality.” Take, for example, Sharon Olds’s latest book, Stag’s Leap—an exploration of the author’s recent divorce—which won both the Pulitzer and TS Eliot prizes. Carol Ann Duffy, chair of the final judging panel for the latter, writes, “I always say that poetry is the music of being human, and in this book she is really singing. Her journey from grief to healing is so beautifully executed.” The beautiful execution obviously counts for a lot, but one wonders whether Stag’s Leap would be less of a prize winner if the journey had not taken place anywhere except Olds’s imagination. The citation from the Pulitzer committee calls it “a book of unflinching poems […] that examine love, sorrow and the limits of self-knowledge.”

Such words as “unflinching” raise questions about the balance that we, as readers, should be maintaining between having feelings about the poet in relation to having the feelings involved in the poem. Is being moved by a fabrication any less valuable than being moved by a candid confession? Should we praise or pity a poet for surviving a brutal experience, or should we praise the poem for moving us to feel praiseful or pitiful? If these things should even be separated, whose job is it to separate them, poet or reader?

None of this is to say that Olds’s work—or the work of any such skillful and gifted memoirist—is not brave and worthy. It’s just to say that such means are not the only way toward bravery and worthiness.

As Russell told me over email: “I’ve never understood why fiction writers are given all this leeway that poets are not. I think there are two problems going on. One—to begin with the expectation that poems are tiny little true stories (even if that’s what the precedent has become) is a false premise. You’re faulting the apple for not being an orange. Two—to attempt to make quality-based judgments on pieces of writing on the sole basis of ‘true’ vs. ‘invented’ is completely irrelevant. A true story can be incredibly powerful, but it’s not inherently so. And I don’t know that I would even agree that a true story has a higher ceiling for being ‘good’ than an invented story. Imagine how bankrupt literature would be if we were forced to write only what ‘really happened.’ Are we disappointed that Nabokov wasn’t a pedophile? If poetry is going to willfully limit itself to the true story then poetry is its own worst enemy.”

When Robert Lowell’s landmark book of confessional poetry, Life Studies, came out in 1959, the Kenyon Review declared—correctly—that these poems “have made a conquest: what they have won is a major expansion of the territory of poetry.”

Similarly—though headed in the opposite direction—Sleigh argues in his introduction that The Year of What Now “seems to me to represent a way forward for other young poets in its wide engagement with the world.”

To use a spatial metaphor, in an autobiographical poem, the poet is inviting the reader into her house: “This is my private house, and I will let you in, but it’s still my house.” In a book such as Russell’s, the poet is inviting the reader into a shared imaginative space: “This is a space which belongs completely to neither of us.” And this latter invitation yields a critically different kind of engagement. A confessional poet is primarily asking the reader to witness, whereas a poet such as Russell—whose work employs fiction—is primarily asking the reader to imagine. These poems do not merely encourage readers to watch and be amazed by his and his wife’s suffering, but rather encourage us to think much more broadly about how terrifying love is. 

  • Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...

Essay

Based on a True Story. Or Not.

Does it matter if a poem that seems autobiographical is actually fictional?
  • Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...

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