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Is Poetry Fiction?


Gary Lehmann



            Ever since 1956 when Robert Lowell published Life Studies, poets have had the idea that real poetry spills your guts on the page revealing all your worst fears and most closely held secrets.  This confessional style has emotional impact, and it is effective in some hands, but its prevalence in American poetry today has obscured the underlying character of poetry.


            Real poetry is an account in fancy words of something real, but it is a show, a rendition, a collaboration between what really happened and the artistry required to write a good poem.      


            Is poetry fiction?  Yes, in a word, yes!  Poetry is a story written up with artistic affect in mind.  It’s not true in all the details, but it is true in all the important ways.   Poetry is true to life, not necessarily true to the facts of the real events depicted.


            Let me give an example.  You once had a lover when you were a teenager.  The two of you got on quite well, but the word love was never used between you.  There was some magnetic attraction, but you were both afraid of crowning -–or cursing— the relationship with a word that implied more than you were ready to accept. 


Then, one night after a movie, you were saying goodbye at the bus stop where you had to part company and the word slipped out.  It was a tender moment.  There was a kiss, the first real one between you, and the whole relationship was cast off into another direction in an instant you had both worked to forestall.


There, now that’s a poetic moment, perfect grist for the poetic mill.   Only it didn’t happen that way.   The incident at the bus stop is when you both realized that something had changed.  That’s when the kiss occurred, but it wasn’t until a phone call later that night that one of you uttered the word love.  


Do you tell the truth or the real truth?  That’s why poetry is fiction.  It has to tell the real truth, not the factual truth.   It’s under an obligation to make the edges fit together closer than life actually fits in real time. 


            In reality, this relationship between truth and fact can get rather complex.  So, I want to illustrate my point with a passage from T.S. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes.  Sweeney is one of Eliot’s least read pieces of poetry.   The character Sweeney is a crude bruiser.  He is talking with his friends and to Doris.  He is wooing her with some fancy words.  The poem doesn’t say where they are, but I envision them in a course London pub in a rough part of town.   In telling his story, Sweeney references Paul Gauguin.


Everyone knows the story of the well-educated French stockbroker, Paul Gauguin who abandoned his family and the repressiveness of Europe for the sexually permissive world of the Coral Sea.  He starts in painting and living with naked native girls in Tahiti.  His paintings explode with new-found energy and purpose.  Twelve years later, he dies .   Somehow, Sweeney is invoking this passionate paradise in his pitch to Doris.


            Under the bamboo

Bamboo bamboo

Under the bamboo tree

Two live as one

One live as two

Two live as three

Under the bam

Under the boo

Under the bamboo tree


Where the breadfruit fall

And the penguin call

And the sound is the sound of the sea

Under the bam

Under the boo

Under the bamboo tree.


            Where Gauguin maids

In banyan shades

Wear palmleaf drapery

Under the bam

Under the boo

Under the bamboo tree.


Tell me in what part of the woods

Do you want to flirt with me?

Under the breadfruit, banyan, palmleaf

Or under the bamboo tree?

Any old tree will do for me

Any old wood is just as good

Any old isle is just my style

Any fresh egg

Any fresh egg

And the sound of the coral sea.



            I want to skip forward in the poem a bit.  Sweeney’s real world bears no relationship to “palmleaf drapery.”  Instead he lives in a world that is dark and circumscribed by brooding psychological tragedies waiting to happen.    So it is with some inner compass that Sweeney next tells Doris the story of a girl “done in” by a man, perhaps based on a story he read in the newspaper.


I knew a man once did a girl in

Any man might do a girl in

Any man has to, needs to, wants to

Once in a lifetime, do a girl in.

Well he kept her there in a bath

With a gallon of lysol in a bath


This went on for a couple of months

Nobody came

And nobody went

But he took in the milk and he paid the rent.


What did he do! what did he do?

That don’t apply.

Talk to live men about what they do

He used to come and see me sometimes

I’d give him a drink and cheer him up


He didn’t know if he was alive and the girl was dead

He didn’t know if the girl was alive and he was dead

He didn’t know if they both were alive or both were dead

If he was alive then the milkman wasn’t and the rent collector wasn’t

And if they were alive then he was dead.

There wasn’t any joint

There wasn’t any joint

For when you’re alone like he was alone

You’re either or neither

I tell you again it don’t apply

Death or life or life or death

Death is life and life is death

I gotta use words when I talk to you

But if you understand or if you don’t

That’s nothing to me and nothing to you

We all gotta do what we gotta do

We’re gona sit here and drink this booze

We’re gona sit here and have a tune

We’re gona stay and we’re gona go

And somebody’s gotta pay the rent


When you’re alone in the middle of the night and you wake

in a sweat and a hell of a fright

When you’re alone in the middle of the bed and you wake

Like someone hit you on the head

You’ve had a cream of a nightmare dream and you’ve got the

            Hoo-ha’s coming on you

Hoo hoo hoo

You dreamt you waked up at seven o’clock and it’s foggy and

            It’s damp and it’s dawn and it’s dark

And you wait for a knock and the turning of a lock for you

            know the hangman’s waiting for you.

And perhaps you’re alive

And perhaps you’re dead

Hoo ha ha

Hoo ha ha




Knock Knock Knock

Knock Knock Knock





            At first blush, T.S.Eliot’s dive into a low-life London bar bears no relationship whatever to his own life.  It’s an act of pure poetic fiction, and yet, maybe not.  


Like Paul Gauguin, Eliot was an ex-patriot.  Gauguin was born in Paris but lived the most important part of his years in the South Seas.  T.S.Eliot was an American who became a British citizen.   He was born in St. Louis, MO, was educated at Milton Academy and Harvard University.  He got a scholarship to attend Merton College, Oxford, where he found himself an outsider in the tight literary scene during First World War.  


Then he was introduced to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a ditzy socialite, rich, well-connected and very much the insider.  She was vivacious and lively.   Sometimes, she was almost too lively.  Her enthusiasms bubbled over into hysteria verging on madness.  Still, Vivienne had everything Eliot needed to succeed as a writer.  


They were married in 1915.  She took his poetry on as a project to focus her mind.  He went about becoming one of the greatest poets in the English language.  Over the next twenty years, doors were opened for him, publishing opportunities arose from no where, invitations flowed like water, and introductions, appointments, poetry readings and such materialized. 


But Vivienne’s condition continued.  It embarrassed her family and imperiled Eliot’s standing amongst the intelligentsia. In 1938, the decision was finally made to commit Vivienne to a mental hospital north of London.  It was a mutual decision between Eliot and Vivienne’s family, but everyone had lingering doubts.  Locking her away seemed so drastic and final. 


Once she was institutionalized, Eliot moved on and never looked back.  To all the world, he “did a girl in” and no one ever knocked at the door, but the poetry tells the truth.  Not the facts, but the inner truth.  It says loud and clear that somewhere inside that well-combed exterior, Eliot grieved for her or at least doubted himself.  Their relationship was rocky and uncertain, but there had once been a certain amount of affection, and he never knew for sure if committing her was the right thing to do.  Had he used her shamelessly?


Later on, some of her family, who DID visit her from time to time, began to feel that she was as sane as anyone and that her condition was a kind of female hysteria that passed with time, but she died in Northumberland House still judged by society a crackpot.   Eliot never once visited her.


Is poetry fiction?  Yes, in a word, yes! 


In this illustration, Eliot wrote from his heart but not about the exact details of his break-up with Vivienne or her break down.  Still, Sweeney’s story manages to get it all in.   Emblematically, Eliot captured the feeling that he experienced when he “did a girl in.” It’s as if Sweeney is Eliot’s raw underbelly, his alter-ego, his non-Prufrock self.


Even the Gauguin passage seems to fit.   When Gauguin abandoned his family to go to Tahiti, he did it to advance his art, which it did in a spectacular way.  Gauguin ignored the toll his personal decision took on his family.  Despite the fact that Vivienne catapulted his poetry to the forefront of British verse, Eliot never visited his ailing and institutionalized wife -- not even once.  


Poetry is a story written up with artistic affect in mind.  It’s not true in all the details, but it is true in all the important ways.   Poetry is true to life, not necessarily true to the facts of the real events depicted.  Is poetry fiction?  Yes, in a word, yes!


1731 words


Gary Lehmann     Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Gary Lehmann’s essays, poetry and short stories are widely published – over 100 pieces per year. The Span I will Cross [Process Press, 2004].  Public Lives and Private Secrets [Foothills Publishing, 2005]. His most recent book is American Sponsored Torture [FootHills Publishing, 2007]. Visit his website at




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