Poetry & Reality

Sometimes (in libraries or bookshops), poetry gets classified as “non-fiction”, which always interests me.  It seems to imply that it is real, true or factual.  Sometimes, of course, poetry is all these things and sometimes it is completely fictional or even absurd. 

Poets often play with the truth to make the poem better.  I’m thinking of a conversation between Sam Hunt and Hone Tuwhare that Hunt relates in his recently published memoirs “Backroads”.  He’s referring to Tuwhare’s poem “Flood” that finishes:

“Shall I be able to ford

the river soon: visit

a lean Aunt?”

Hunt says he asked “Who was your lean Aunt, Hone?” and received the reply “I don’t know; it may have been my mother.”

But, of course “visit my mother” wouldn’t work nearly as well as “visit a lean Aunt”.

So, it pays not to take poetry too literally.  Certainly, much of my own poetry is completely fictional, although I often weave reality and imaginings together.  I would be alarmed to think people were regarding some of the things I’ve written as factual, or that when I write about “she”, I’m always really  referring to myself.  For the record, I don’t suffer from trichotillomania (a complusion to pull out one’s hair).  Also for the record (because people sometimes think the “you” in my poems refers to my current partner), I don’t cook chicken for dinner for Peter and me.  Nor do I think for one moment that the astronaut artist Alan Bean is putting backyard dirt on his paintings.  I’m sure he is a man of integrity; the poem is purely speculative.

But most  poetry has a kind of truth about it, even when it’s not factual.  Does that make it non-fiction?  No more than a novel or a short story, perhaps.  I think poetry sits best in a category all of its own.

Speaking of poetry, tomorrow (Sunday 21st Feb 2010) is the first of the Ballroom Cafe monthly poetry sessions. 

Poetry Cafe, Wellington, NZ

Sunday 21 February 2010, 4pm – 6pm
Ballroom Cafe, cnr Adelaide Rd and Riddiford St, Newtown

This will be a regular Wellington event on the 3rd Sunday of the month – a mix of open mic, music & guest poets.  A fine complement to the regular Poetry Society gigs on Monday nights.  I’m looking forward to it!


  1. I think it’s wonderful the way a poem changes its reality at different times and when read by different people. Personal pronouns aren’t nailed down the way they generally need to be in other writing styles. The US poet Alicia Ostriker says of one poem that ‘you’ changes from her lover to her mother to God, depending on the poet’s mood – the reader’s mood – on whoever’s listening – the weather – whatever.

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