[A/N: Here it is, I promised an article about poetry… so this one has poetry in it, and is about art in general. Close enough.]
I remember sitting in bed in August, back home in Kuwait. Everyone was sleeping, and I was prowling the internet out of boredom and insomnia.
Funny enough, it wasn’t until my mother called me that I realized it was past midnight: officially August, 2nd 2012. And it wasn’t until she mentioned it that I realized 22 years ago on that day, Kuwait was invaded by Iraq, despite the fact that I had been working all summer on a project about the occupation.
After that realization all of a sudden the interviews I conducted earlier, which I had ignored revisiting, sprang into my head and I wondered: can art heal?
The project I am working on involves getting the personal stories of people in Kuwait or fleeing during the occupation and trying to translate that to different artistic mediums. So far, translating those experiences to my own head has been a problem, its a difficult position artists find themselves in often: truthfully putting yourself in the position of someone else.
Its been months of mental blockage for me, because there is no way I know exactly, without a doubt, what it’s like to be ten years old and see two teenage boys get shot in the head in front of their own mother. Nor do I know what its like to be molested by a soldier in front of my husband. Or to try to sleep after seeing soldiers walk around wearing gas masks like something’s coming. None of that. My life has been (thankfully) relatively peaceful.
Let’s assume, art is responsible for being truthful. Since the “A Million Little Pieces” debacle with James Frey, writers specifically, but artists generally, have been trying to define what truth is in art more vehemently than before. Is it an issue of labeling fiction vs non-fiction? Is it creating art from your own experience solely? What about memory- two people can remember the same event differently for many reasons…
There is also factual truth versus the emotional truth of a moment. We like to think truth can be objective, and in some cases it is: who, what, when, where. These can be verified easily like following someone around with a camera. Why is always a big issue: why did someone act this way, why didn’t they make this choice etc.
The “why” of it all is a big part of my project. Not only do I have to consider why I am taking this on, but through the poems, which I wrote in the voices of other people, I have to answer why (and how) they felt one way or the other. That means knowing them, that means gleaning some form of truth from the interviews I conducted, the verbal and non-verbal communication.
So far, I’d like to think I am being truthful; that in some way I am honoring their experiences. However, I don’t have a way of verifying that at this point (when the work is done, I’ll try to contact people to read through it).
There are poems from the 1400s and 1600s we still try to find motives for, and overtime people come to accept them as truths: Yeats wrote this poem for his daughter, Bronte for her mystery lover, etc.
Let’s look at a contemporary example: John Berryman.
In his “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” Berryman writes of about 17th century poet Anne Bradstreet’s life, while putting himself in the poem. Coupled with some truths about Bradstreet’s life, Berryman adds his own made-up “history” within the poem. When the poem was praised no one raised the issue of truth, even when it was first published without any notations. A novice to Ms. Bradstreet would not have been able to glean the real from the make-believe.
Similarly, Jim Harrison took some liberties with another dead poet. His book “Letters to Yesenin” are filled with what I like to call “psyche assumptions”. He assumes things of Yesenin a dead Russian poet, but because of his voice, and his willingness to place himself in the poems (since the poems are mostly about his own issues) creates a bubble of trust in each poem. Not once do I not believe him, and I’ve read those poems over and over trying to dissect them. (Also, he’s my favorite poet to return to for various reasons.)
In both these cases, there wasn’t an uproar the likes that James Frey could attract. Is it that readers do not expect truth in poetry? Or is it that the emotional truth is enough? Or is it (again) just an issue of labels?
Should we start categorizing poetry like we do prose?
In a journalism class I took, a student said, “if art isn’t factual, then art is a fallacy.” Or something to that effect. But are facts the only kind of truth?
Does Berryman’s fictional unrequited love of Bradstreet detract from the reality that humans sometimes “linger, diminished, in our lovers’ air?” Does Harrison’s descriptions of Yesenin’s suicide take away from that moment he “looked at a photo of my sister. Ten years dead.” and says “show me a single wound on earth that love has healed.”
Aren’t these moments we find true universally? So is truth, factual truth, the end goal, or are we looking (as readers and writers) for more?
Let me know what you think in the comments section!