facts and fictions

A few more thoughts on the subject of how accurate we should be when we write poetry:

A few days ago, I had cause to look up Keats’ On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, and I read the Wikipedia page. (The poem appears there, too.)

Despite what it says in the poem, it wasn’t “stout Cortez” who stood “Silent upon a peak in Darien”, but Nuñez de Balboa. But although the error was identified, apparently

“Keats chose to leave it in, presumably because historical accuracy would have necessitated an unwanted extra syllable in the line.”


Although I can see the poetical arguments for preserving the mistake, I am not sure I would have done so, as it is a clear factual error.

However, in my Notes for a November Poem, the first person narrator includes the phrase

[…] No still small voice
commands me from the prunus.

She’s confused, of course, seeing the red leaves of autumn and being reminded of God speaking to Moses from the burning bush but getting the story mixed up with the voice that spoke to Elijah. It could be argued that this is a mistake in the poem. Instead, I think it gives a little more depth to the narrator, it says something about her fallibility.

Despite my claims to the contrary, some people assume I am the narrator of my poems, something that I almost always deny. Somehow, though, I don’t feel the narrator of Keat’s poem as separate from the writer, and I think the historical innacuracy distracts from the piece.

So, am falling into the trap I so strongly warn against? Am I being unreasonable in thinking I should be allowed a fallible narrator but that it is Keats himself who is speaking?

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

8 thoughts on “facts and fictions”

  1. If I want to learn some bland grey facts about American adventurers, I’ll read an up-to-date history book. But if I want good poetry, I’ll read poor “innacurate” Keats, and if I want good prose, I’ll read poor outdated Prescott.

    And what’s wrong with fusing two Biblical images together? It’s the task of a poet to transform, not merely to reproduce.

    – – –

    Do you use multiple narrators? I do. The most frequent is a kind of drunken archimandrite, but there are others. The confusion between narrator and author becomes significant to me only when all the different narrators are assumed to be the same.

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    1. I don’t think they were what I’d call American adventures.

      I totally agree that a poet transforms rather than reports, but, as I’ve said before, I have this idea that there are some things that should be described accurately, even by poets. I’m trying to work out where the limits are, that’s all. Ever the optimist, I was hoping you (and others) would respond which might help me.

      As for narrators, of course “we are legion”. My most usual narrator was probably middle-aged, confused, bloodied but not totally cowed, ten years or more ago, and hasn’t changed much since then, although I think her voice has got stronger. There are others, mostly human, though not all female.

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      1. “Poems are lies,” says Plato. “So what?” say I.

        Truth is more important than accuracy. It’s perfectly possible to tell the truth about something while getting all your facts wrong, accidentally or on purpose – which is what Plato means when he accuses poets of lying.

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  2. If you argue against a fallible narrator, don’t you also argue against Humbert Humbert? Not really the most reliant of narrators. Is Humbert a victim or a “monster of incuriousity”?

    Was Lady Macbeth a shrinking violet or a calculating witch? (We only have her words for the killing of King Duncan)

    Ray Bradbury was once told he was wrong about Fahrenheit 451 and that it wasn’t about Television crushing books (as he’d wrote it) but about the destruction of information by the Government.

    He walked out. One can only imagine what Keats would think to the Internet. (Though you could always check his Facebook page)

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    1. Sadly, I’ve never read Nabokov, but I do think there’s a difference between the narrator of a book who is recounting what happened (or even what is happening) and a character in a play where you may not have an insight int o their motivation, but you see and hear the actual words they speak.

      As for Bradbury, I’ve always defended the idea that once a poem is out there with its reader, the poet has to accept how the reader interprets it according to their own personal experience and cultural background etc; I suppose the writer of a novel should do the same.

      Imagine all those tragic Shakespearean characters with their doubts and soliloquies having access to FaceBook. Or, perhaps better not imagine it. It really doesn’t bear thinking about.

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