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Monday, July 21, 2008

On Poetry: Soldier Boy - David Orr

In a half-filled auditorium, a poet was reading a poem about the death of a child. Autumn leaves fell, night descended, the hours became slow and cold and endless; it was pretty sad stuff. Afterward, an audience member came up to say how much he’d enjoyed the reading and how sorry he was for the poet’s loss. “I appreciate that,” the poet responded, “but the thing is, I’ve never had any kids. That was just a poem.”

The point, of course, is that the news we get from poetry isn’t like the news we get from newspapers. Nor is it like the news we get from memoirs, which we assume (or at least hope) will be reasonably accurate about the facts. Geoffrey Hill’s elegy “In Memory of Jane Fraser” moves the reader despite the fact that Fraser never actually existed; Paul Muldoon’s “Cuba” makes a subtly potent political statement even though its main character — “my eldest sister” — is a fiction. To borrow an apt phrase from the unfortunate James Frey, poetry may not get the details right, but at its best it has “emotional truth.”


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