Friday, May 31, 2013

Poetry, Footnotes, Fiction & Outright Lies

Poetry at its very core is language.  That is the craft side of the equation.  As far as content goes, however, poetry is fiction, or at least has some fictional elements.  Poetry can relate true events well enough, but in figurative language (metaphor, simile, etc.) comes hyperbole and exaggeration, and therefore, fiction.  So if poetry is fiction, and for the purposes of what I want to discuss here it is, then some further discussion is needed regarding my decision to use footnotes in my new book, Hobble Creek Almanac.

Footnotes are usually reserved for documents which use source work and are trying to establish a quality of verisimilitude, factual reliability, and credence.  As such, poetry usually relies upon the epigraph to provide source and lineage for the content or ideas within the poem.  And while some poets have begun to use a notes page to provide further explanation and clarification for their poems, few indeed, have been meticulous as T.S. Eliot was with his notes for "The Wasteland," and even then, his footnotes were authentic.  My purpose is to follow in the path of writers  of prose fiction who have employed fictitious footnotes and quotes to help round out the fullness of their stories.  We see examples of this in epistolary novels and more recently, Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods, where he does a phenomenal job at blurring the line between fact and fiction, indeed causing the reader to  question such distinctions. 

In my book, I use footnotes, quotes, and epigraphs in much the same way.  First and foremost is my need to tell real stories, events which really happened.  I felt I owed it to the reader to provide the basis for my poems, or at the very least, the appearance for a basis.  There is a certain confidence in citation, especially when discussing events from 150 years ago.  Do I expect my readers to look up those citations?  Perhaps, but they will be disappointed if they look all of them up because not all of my footnotes are real.  So why have false footnotes in a manuscript?  Why worry about such things in a book of poetry?  Well, continuity for one.  I like the idea of consistency, and if footnotes serve to bolster the confidence the reader has in what they are reading, then they will, in the case of persona poems, help to make that persona appear all the more real.  As with any such things, there is a delineation between the poems where I am supposedly presenting history and persona, and the section of the book where I want people to hear my narrator's voice. The absence of footnotes in that section highlights the difference.

Quotes are another means, especially in poetry, where the poet attempts to provide a provenance to the reader, saying in essence, "Here is where this poem comes from."  Quotes used as epigraphs are an admission of influence.  Some poets love them and some poets hate them.  I love them, and possibly other poets hate them for the same reason I am unable to comprehend notes pages at the end of a manuscript:  If I can't figure something out from the reading of the poem that was essential, then why wasn't it better communicated in the poem? Accordingly, I have quoted people and poems legitimately, and I have made up some entirely.  Again, it is a matter of creating as complete a picture I want to create for the reader.  This is part of the art of my book, to present a unified image for the reader and not worry whether every word is accurate or historically absolute.  After all, I am creating fiction.  What does it really matter that I have cited books which do not exist, or created quotes where none existed before, or even created people altogether in order to "quote" them?  In the end, the book works as art or it does not.  How I got there should be of paramount concern to me, but not all that important to the reader.

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