The lie that tells the truth
by Todd Boss, poet
I am the poet in my family, and I’m glad I don’t have to deal with me.
I’m often asked what it’s like to write about my loved ones—about my wife and my parents in particular. I’m quick to point out that poetry has more to do with fiction than with fact. They might be based on my life experiences, but my poems are not wholly autobiographical.
Imagine you had a compulsive liar in your family who lied about you because he discovered other people found beauty in his lies. Or imagine you had a comedian in your family who used you as the butt of your jokes because he loved making people laugh. Imagine you had a pastor in your family who embroidered stories about you in order to inspire his parishioners.
The best lies have a little truth in them, and the best jokes have stingers. Good poems have truth and stingers, lies and jokes.
Poems about happy childhoods don’t tend to be very compelling; poems want something to rub up against. A good story has a conflict and complications. A good song has something to resolve.
A happy childhood is what I had, growing up on the farm between two kind and loving parents who challenged and inspired me, but you wouldn’t know that from my poems necessarily. My wife is thoughtful and warm-hearted and generous and amiable but my most compelling poems paint her otherwise. I write plenty of harmless, adoring poems about the people in my life, but editors don’t seem to want those, and so they tend never to see the light of day.
Poets know there’s a difference between the poet and what we call “the speaker” of a poem. Although the speaker might sound a lot like the poet, might even call his children by their real names, there is always a danger in asserting that the poem’s thoughts or emotions can be attributed as the poet’s own. They might have sprung, after all, from a particular moment or a dream or a conceptual project that has nothing to do with the people implicated.
It’s too bad nobody explains this to the people implicated. Of course, even if someone did, the people implicated would still come away feeling misrepresented, because … well, they are. Why do I misrepresent them? Usually because the poem isn’t really about them, it’s about me or an idea or an emotion or something that sometimes even I can’t explain. “Tell all the truth,” said Emily Dickinson, “but tell it slant.”
And so, dear readers: This disclaimer. My wife is not a raving lunatic, my mother isn’t trying to destroy our marriage, my father isn’t jealous of his brother, I didn’t grow up poor, and there was no ice on the roadway when the family piano went off the back of our pickup truck—heck, I’m told it wasn’t even wintertime (although that’s how I remember it)! My work is misrepresentation in the service of art. With a little representation thrown in.
And to my loved ones, a repeated apology: You give me love and I make you the butt of my jokes. You support me and I obliterate you with lies.
You encouraged the family poet. Sometimes, for your sakes, I wish you hadn’t.