Poetry and personal blog – Spilling my guts to strangers

Up until now, I hadn’t really considered this question because the answer seems obvious. In my view, at least, of course poetry is fiction.

But recently, as I am promoting my little ebook of poems, the obvious answer is not so obvious to everybody. For instance, when I am registering to have my link added to an ebook directory, it’s hit or miss whether “poetry” is included in the fiction or non-fiction category. Sometimes, “poetry” is in neither category but in a limbo of its own.

Bloggers who provide book reviews often stipulate what kind of books they are interested in reading, which is something I scan carefully so as not to waste their time or mine by sending them a query. If they say they read all kinds of fiction, I assume they mean poetry as well. However, I have received followup messages to my queries stating the contrary.

To my thinking, poetry is the ultimate fiction, even though I am the first to admit that when I write I draw heavily from my real life experiences in the tradition of “confessional poets” such as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell, and more recently Marie Howe and Sharon Olds, to name a few.

The best poems in the confessional tradition are the ones that are relevant beyond the poet’s life to touch readers where they live. This requires taking “poetic license”–that is, embellishing or toning down an actual incident or even never mentioning it but letting symbolism carry the weight of the emotional truth of it all. The world portrayed in a poem is not the real world, it is artiface.

Even the most straightforward descriptions of nature or objects in the physical world are highly influenced by the perspective of the poet and the unique language she or he chooses to express these thoughts.

It strikes me that even in non-fiction, writers bring their own perspective to the work. Textbooks often have to be reissued because of outdated perspective in the face of new information or simply modern thinking. I’m wondering if perhaps biographies could just as easily be considered fiction?

What are your thoughts?

[This post was included in the September 2012 edition of the Third Sunday Blog Carnival.]

© Sweepy Jean and Sweepy Jean Explores the (Webby) World, 2011

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Comments on: "Is Poetry Fiction or Non-Fiction?" (69)

  1. Adriene, I’ve always considered poetry to be in the fiction writing camp. Non-fiction, to me, always means it has source material that it’s being written about (an incident; scientific or political theory; someone’s life, etc).

    No matter how autobiographical the poetry may be, it’s written in a diffused way, not presented in straight facts (or, well, we hope real facts in non-fiction).

    Maybe there should be Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetic Fiction…and then all the sub genres of that like there are in Fiction and Non-Fiction.

    Now I have a headache. :)

  2. A Pakistani Boy said:

    I think it’s a bit of fiction and reality. Depends upon the poem really

  3. I’ve always put poetry in it’s own section since I’m not experienced in the genre, I thought it could be either. Sure, most poetry I read is fiction, but I have the feeling there are poets who write nonfiction poetry. Regarding reviews, I write reviews for many fiction genres, but not all, poetry included, but my coauthor might, You’ll have to leave her a comment and ask her :)
    -Elia

  4. To me,, in my own humble thinking, it’s actually neither unless one writes his or her poems as prose. It is, imho, it’s own seperate entity. The thought process is so different, the rules, if any there be, are also totally different so that is is as to compare apples with oranges. The narrative of fiction the press for truth in non-fiction don’t exist in poetry. Poets create their own world where truth is in the opinion of the reader although as Ezra Pound so brilliantly observed “Give the poet credit for everything in the poem” it follows it’s own logic to wherever it might end up, Prose doesn’t really do that.
    Very interesting post though!

    • You make a really good case for poetry being in a different category. I especially agree that the thought process that goes in the writing poetry is very different from prose. However, I can’t help but think of books such as the classic Slaughterhouse Five, which is based on a reality but is quite fantastical.

  5. Scott Mitchell said:

    Good observational writing. I like your work too.
    In my opinion poetry could be either and each poem could have it’s own realm attributes. While the writer is putting down true inspired thoughts, well, so does a fictional novel writer. For myself on the other hand, I could never say my own work is fiction because it’s from such a deep part of me that is possibly all that I am in written word. And some poems are from memories, described exactly as happened in an attempt to be artistic and interesting. Maybe there should be a third category for what poetry is :D
    Blessings…

    • “it’s from such a deep part of me that is possibly all that I am in written word” That’s a profound statement and one that I completely get and relate to. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the third category theory. It is definitely interesting! Thank you so much for your comments, and blessings to you too!

  6. oneshoeshy said:

    Well, there’s the banal WikiAnswer: “Poetry can fall into both categories. A poem can either be on an imagined topic of the author’s choice or on objects and happenings that are real, such as nature or life. More often than not though, poetry is simply categorized as poetry and then separated by length, subject, or even the rhythm, prose, and/or rhyme of the written/spoken piece.”

    But although I don’t like labeling things, when you posed the question, I immediately began thinking about recent campus discussions on teaching what is now called creative nonfiction.

    To quote another: “Although [creative nonfiction] sounds a bit affected and presumptuous, … the word “creative” refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction—that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner. To put it another way, creative nonfiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exist more interesting and, often, more accessible. … The essential point to acknowledge here is that there are lines—real demarcation points between fiction, which is or can be mostly imagination; traditional nonfiction (journalism and scholarship), which is mostly information; and creative nonfiction, which presents or treats information using the tools of the fiction writer while maintaining allegiance to fact.”

    Whither poetry?

    • Thanks for added these definitions, Thom. I’m especially intrigued by this

      “creative nonfiction, which presents or treats information using the tools of the fiction writer while maintaining allegiance to fact”

      I wonder if that is even possible. Isn’t being creative with fact a form of lying? ;p, Are we talking here about what Truman Capote did with “In Cold Blood”? Where does poetry fit in, indeed, and also, what is nonfiction, fact, and truth?

  7. I think non-fiction and fiction are long lost lovers who are often ripped apart by time, space and disagreements. But they never truly separate totally from one another. The love is too strong. :-)

    http://lyricfire.typepad.com/lyric-fire/2011/10/lyric-fire-opals-for-october.html

  8. My poems and prose are non-fiction, as is all my writing. Maybe one day I will be brave enough to broach fiction, but for now, no. Thanks for asking!

  9. OH no… a question akin to

    We’re going out for a drink, yes?

    We’re going out for a drink, no?

    I think poetry is non-fiction refined. The fact is a poem is a factual creative act, trying to convey a truth, even if that truth is to revel a lie.

    Non-fiction is often as narrative driven as fiction, and artistic license taken all the time in emphasizing this fact over that, this player over another, or that quote over that one.

    Back to a truth. I have no idea.

    Regards,
    Doug

    • Lol! WIth yes or no tacked on to the end of a question, I get confused about whether I should agree or not. Refined non-fiction: I like that definition. At the heart of every poem is a distilled truth.

  10. i’m sorry i don’t get poetry as in the style… but i must say there is truth in the verse

    A

  11. Great question…I think a little bit of both. If it is an inspired piece then Fiction…if it comes from an experience lived then Non- Fiction( if you lived it…then it was factual) …I think you can feel where the author is when he or she puts pen to paper…but then a little of themselves will always come through …whether it be fact or fiction…this really makes you think…so I say…a little of both and as Stuart said…maybe they need to re-define how it is labeled…great post Adriene.

    • Thanks, Raven. Putting poetry in it’s own category makes sense mainly because the reader may have no idea whether the poem is about the poet or not. I’m not sure that is it necessary to know for sure in order to enjoy a poem.

  12. I am with you, poetry is fiction. Of course, we draw from our lives–how can we not–but what ends up on the page isn’t word for word. I have a fondness for story poetry, and given I am a fiction writer, you can imagine I bring in non-facts. Although, saying this doesn’t make it so Readers assume what is written is real. What can you do?

  13. I don’t think you can pigeon hole it without understanding the context behind it. I think more than often it is fiction but I know I have both, I have poetry that is fiction and poetry that is very much non fiction and reality, if we start going down the route of categorising poetry as fiction then suddenly doesn’t every story regardless of how real it is become fictitious.

  14. My poems tend to be creative nonfiction, based on personal experience. I’ve never considered poetry to be fiction. It almost defies category. To me, poetry is simply language wearing its Sunday best.

    • A lovely description, Debra: “poetry is simply language wearing its Sunday best.” But by adding perspective to your experiences, does that change the function of the poem, and thus make it more than non-fiction? Is memoir creative non-fiction?

  15. As a poet, I dislike labeling poetry either fiction or nonfiction. It is neither, I believe, something altogether different that defies a label. Why does poetry need to be labeled anyway? There are plenty of things [in science, too] that are difficult to categorize into A or B or C. It seems to me that labels are just an attempt to make things more understandable, but they also blind us to a broader understanding that goes beyond the obvious and superficial.

    Thanks for the question. I have never thought before about this – poetry as fiction or nonfiction.

    • I understand what you mean, Diane. Maybe deep down, at the heart of my question, is a fear that perhaps poetry has become something that is unknowable in the minds of the general public, to the point where they don’t know what it is or how to process it.

  16. Speaking from an artist’s viewpoint, I don’t consider whether poetry is fiction or nonfiction. Unlike other forms of writing, I see poetry as the writer’s way of painting images using words. To me, poetry, like art and photography, evokes pure emotions. So I see poetry as an art form. That may be why putting verse with my paintings and photos satisfies the artist in me.

    Excellent, thought provoking article Adriene.

    • Cath, I think this is the strongest argument so far for poetry being something “other than.” Like you, I believe a poem stands alone outside of any particular reality. In my mind that meant a poem is a fiction but your comparison of it to a painting or a photo is quite striking.

  17. Poetry to me is like learning a whole new different language… I get some and miss out some…

    • It’s true, The language of poetry does require something different from the reader than that of prose. But the more you keep reading the better it gets. It’s well worth the efort. :-)

  18. The way that new scientific discoveries can often disprove previous accepted theories or fact would suggest that even non-fiction is fiction, and fiction become non-fiction.
    Even history is re-written as new facts emerge.
    So whether poetry is fiction or non-fiction we’ll be debating forever.

  19. I consider poetry fiction because i actually enjoy some of it, unlike non fiction ;) i agree all writers bring something of themselves to writing no mater whether it be non fiction or fiction.

  20. Interesting! Got me thinking but I totally agree with what you said that poetry is fiction drawing from real life experiences etc.

  21. Interesting…though I feel it is a bit of both fiction and non-fiction as we draw from our personal experiences.

  22. Good question. Though I think it depends on what the subject of the poem actually is. You can be certain anything named ‘Xanadu’ or ‘Jabborwocky’ is most likely Fiction. ‘Oh Autumn Leaf’ and ‘Winter Wonderland’ I’d classify as Non-Fiction.

    Sure, some of the events may not have actually happened, but a poem is capturing feelings, not actually true events. The feelings one has about real life objects and situations are ‘Non-Fiction’ ones.

    If that makes sense.

  23. What a thought provoking post!

    My first thought was that it is non fiction as it comes from the author’s heart and frame of reference. That said, the author’ voice can be heard in all types of literature.

    I started reading your 30 poems, 30 days book last night and would put it in the non fiction catagory as you describe your thought process while writing your poetry.

    As you stated in an earlier response, “Not an easy call!”

  24. Yes, my book does have almost equal poetry and prose. Thanks for downloading and reading it! You and the other commenters definitely gave me something to think about! :-)

  25. I think that poetry can be both fiction and non-fiction. This was certainly the case with Sylvia Plath. Lovely that you mentioned her in your post.

    Take care!

  26. I’m having this same problem trying to publish my poems!

    To me, it’s obviously fiction. Have you ever read a cookbook that called for a “thirstful dollop of slivered onions, onions, like the ones my mother clothed me in, layer upon layer of tearful familiarity.” (wow, I just came up with that right now but it’s pretty good!)

    I think the only reason we use labels in the first place is for publishers (and readers) to pigeon-hole themselves into a blindsided alley eating the same non-marshmallow mingled oat square cereal they’ve known since childhood. And nothing else.

    Fine. I’ll play that game.
    My poem about dragons = fiction.
    My poem about homesick pirates = non-fiction.
    My poems about unrequited love… far too real. (I’m not sure if that’s a :( or :), so I’ll do a :/

    In the end it’s all about getting people to read it!

    On another note, I have a long poem I consider to be an “epic.”
    Very legendary, very heroic, and it takes me 7.5 minutes to perform (8 with dragon voices).
    But how many lines does the heartless suit in marketing require to officially call it an “epic?”
    They won’t even read the darn thing if it’s over 40…

    Shameless plug: http://www.justinmatson.com

    • Indeed, Justin. A lot of it is marketing, which doesn’t help us or the reader. Probably another factor is that so many people find poetry to be mysterious or not understandable, they’re not sure what it is. Thanks for stopping by and consider your shameless plug successful: I’ll stop by to give your blog a look! ;p

  27. [...] D. Joyce presents Is Poetry Fiction or Non-Fiction? posted at Sweepy Jean Explores the (Webby) World. I thought this was a question with a  simple [...]

  28. Very thought provoking post. Poetry is a stand alone category…or at least should be, imho…poetry ultimately addresses star bursts of emotions, it can use various narrative formats for doing so, it can draw upon the poets own experience or observations, it’s really quite fluid and upto the poet how much is fictitious and how much autobiographical/factual.

  29. Which text on earth is not fictious?

  30. They’re all just labels…you know, like in a music store. They have to find a label so they’ll know which bin to stick it in. It’s a convenience. But I can tell you this: I just wrote my autobiography, and even though it’s classified as “non-fiction,” I’m pretty sure there’s some fiction in there–things I simply didn’t remember clearly.

  31. [...] D. Joyce presents Is Poetry Fiction or Non-Fiction? posted at Sweepy Jean Explores the (Webby) World. I thought this was a question with a  simple [...]

  32. Interesting question. I just dabble in poetry, so I’m unable to answer.

  33. Poetry is poetry – that is its category, however you can write fictional as well as non-fictional poetry. I sometimes write observations in the form of poetry or pick a theme or historical topic and write a poem about that, equally I have written poetry that is complete fantasy or internal reflections so – yes, in my opinion it can be either. Good question to pose though. :)

  34. [...] imagine a lot of people wonder where the line is between truth and fiction in a poem, particularly when you write in a personal style, as I often [...]

  35. In reference to categories–which is what I was looking to define and how I came across your blog–I read on another site that “creative non-fiction” is, according to this “Creative Non-Fiction Collective” expected to, like other non-fiction, be meticulously fact-based and the “creative” part is just a method to make the facts more engaging!

    I found that very disappointing because I really liked that term (or maybe I liked what I thought it meant). Naturally, this category thing is all just a bridge to engage potential readers since part of our brains want to know what’s the what BUT, “poetry” is like the black sheep of the literary family.

    It’s amazing how agents and publishers will go out of their way to make it harshly clear that they do not, at all, take on poetry! “It doesn’t sell!” They say. Whatever!

    I am putting a new book out that definitely puts a creative or imaginative spin on something very true and real but I think the most real thing about it is the feelings between the lines and the feelings that fueled it. Still, it is totally prompted by real life incidents but very distilled and impressionistic…kind of like portraits. And other parts are totally imagined. It’s a mix.

    One can sketch a face to be photograph-like so is that non-fiction or simply capturing a truly perceptual moment? Faces change.

    Still not sure how to classify my new book that is comprised of monologues, dialogues, poems and stories?? Any suggestions?

    • Hi, Pamela. I’m glad you found this post. I’m not sure that I have an answer for how to categorize your book. It sounds interesting. How about “creative memoir”?

      As I have mentioned before, categorization is really a marketing tool, which in this day and age is everything. Categorization tends to stifle creativity as some people will tend to write in the genre that sells best. For the rest who want to express themselves more freely, it’s more of a struggle to be seen by a public trained to view art and entertainment wrapped in neat packages.

      Again, I think that we all bring our unique perceptions to both real and imagined events and therefore, as we tell our stories, it’s all a type of fiction.

      I really enjoyed your comment, Thanks.

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