One of the very first times I read a poem at a literary festival, the woman who was compering the event stood up at the lectern after I had read and asked what my mother thought about being cast in one of my poems as rather drunk and rather mad. The poem in question was ‘Spinning Plates’ with its opening line ‘My mother was mad as mercury…’. The idea of the event was that this person would quiz the poet about their poem and they would then get a chance to respond. So I stood up and said ‘My mother doesn’t read much poetry but I credit her with the intelligence of knowing that a character in a poem is not necessarily a real-life person’.
Perhaps my answer was a little too barbed and snitty, but it is one of those fundamental issues in poetry that gets my hackles up, rather like being asked the question ‘Are you still writing poetry?’ Both problems often come from people who are not poets or afflicted with the poetry bug themselves. And only recently a neighbour of mine, with the best will in the world, wrote a lovely and flattering email to me after having read my new pamphlet First Hare but they too said that they found it ‘uncomfortable reading’ considering that they knew my mother, me and my wife. They feared that I had spoken in too raw and candid a way about my life and my loved ones.
The thing is that poetry in bookshops, if it ever makes it that far, is it is often (bizarrely) classified as ‘non-fiction’. This too gets my hackles up because for me poetry is as fictional a form as novel writing – both take often real-life experience and transmute it via the imagination into something altogether other. I tried to explain it to my neighbour in a way that I hope wasn’t patronising, but I see it like this:
You can make a purely factual point in writing. For instance, you can write ‘The Battle of Hastings, 1066’. No historian will disagree with you (I hope, though Starkey might!). But where does this get us? You could write a book about the Battle of Hastings that is the most meticulously researched and factually sound of the lot of them but in the end it might end up a bit dull and worthy for its slavish adherence to facts. It would certainly be the case if you put it in the form of a poem. However, if you wrote about an ancestor who fought in that battle it suddenly becomes more interesting because it is closer to home. It doesn’t matter if this ancestor actually lived or not. But then again, if they did and you wrote a scrupulous and factual account of your family history, you’d probably discover that we are more boring than the family stories make out.
This is what I do in my poems – I use the real, material world in my poems and turn actuality and my experiences into something altogether more dramatic but imaginary. Poets like novelists are just yarn spinners. You can write something factually correct that is emotionally and aesthetically wrong but you can also write something that is an utter cock and bull story that is in fact emotionally resonant. It is about the feeling and atmosphere a poem conjures up, not whether or not it can be verified in a rational and scientific way. You sit down to write a poem with a vague sense of the narrative you want to convey and sometimes as you start to write you find your hand being hijacked by another force and a different poem unfolds. As such, the speaker of my poems is not necessarily me but someone (a la Norman MacCaig) speaking in my position. My family are not necessarily the family that populate my poems, Though they might recognise aspects about themselves, they have been replaced by something else.