Exam time is icumen in, and many poor souls in schools up and down the country are wondering what to say to the examiners about poems, some of which are mine. This post is aimed at making sure they don't say some of the things I've recently heard people saying online.
I've blogged before about the perils of assuming that "the narrator" of a poem, especially one in the "I" voice, is the same person as "the poet", or that everything recorded in a work of art Actually Happened. A discussion I've lately been involved in on Facebook, though, makes it clear that some readers, even if they know it ain't necessarily so, think it should be; furthermore that they make a difference between novels and poems, at least lyric poems, in this regard. It's fine by these folk for novelists to make up a world; it may even be ok for writers of long narrative poems to do so, but there's a feeling that a lyric poem should come "from experience" (I have actually seen the phrase "from the heart" but am trying to forget it) and that if it's in the "I" voice the "I" should be the poet telling (heaven forbid) the truth about himself - whatever that is, and assuming he even knows it.
I don't know where this notion came from - the earliest real school of lyric poetry in Europe would surely have to be courtly love, which existed to celebrate purely imaginary love affairs - but it horrifies me quite a lot. For the record, when poets are minded to write about their personal experiences, they are very likely to distance the poem by putting it in the third person and making it happen to someone else, for the excellent reason that it avoids the danger of sentimentality. The most autobiographical poem Kipling ever wrote was the third-person "Merrow Down", which purports to be about a bereaved Neolithic father. By contrast The Changelings" (courtesy of Tim Kendall's blog "War Poets") is first-person and deals with experiences that weren't the poet's own at all; it's very much in persona.
I used to write poems in persona if I thought they might otherwise look too personal. These days I tend to third-person. But even if they do spring partly from my own experience, that is no reason to assume they won't also be adulterated with my reading, or other people's experiences, or, shocking as it may be to some, imagination... The fact is, poets are licensed liars; it's what we're good at and we can no more leave the facts of our own lives unembroidered and unimproved on than we can anything else. Nature is often a lousy writer; she gets details and endings wrong and frankly we can do better.
In a recent interview on this blog, my friend the poet Paul Henry described how he had excluded some of his best work from his Selected Poems because he was tired of seeing them read as autobiography. In the FB discussion I referred to earlier, someone said he felt "betrayed" on finding that a poem of Robin Robertson's in the "I" voice was not necessarily All True. Well, attend, O Best Beloveds in the AS-Level exam class, for I am about to utter a profundity: if you want The Truth, you go to the shelf in Waterstones marked Biography. (You still won't get it, but you will get something that aspires to it.) But if you're reading poems, and commenting on them in exams, remember that the "I" voice is correctly referred to as "the narrator". He/she is not, to your knowledge, "the poet", and there's no rule that says they should be.