Honesty vs. Truth in Poetry.

I was reading The Bloomsbury Review the other day — the new issue (May/June/July 2009) just arrived in my mailbox — and came upon something that caught me more than a little off-guard.

The cover story is an interview with Greg Kuzma (“Poet, Critic, Editor, Publisher, Teacher, Mentor, & Screenwriter’), someone whose work I was previously unfamiliar with.  His bio is quite extensive, with “more than 30 books and chapbooks to his credit”, and he’s a much beloved teacher.  So I was more than a little shocked to read

“I used to be a poet who only wrote out of inspiration and I never revised anything.  And screenwriting is all revision.  I have fallen in love with polishing, and rewriting, and solving problems within the screenplay.”


“To my knowledge [these poems] are the best I could possibly do.  They’re as factual and as honest as they could ever be.  And when everybody was leaving the reading, I heard a couple people saying things like, ‘He seems so sincere!’ And I wonder if people, when they read some of these things, think I made them all up.  I would prefer that they not think that.

I’m trying to be faithful and truthful, and I don’t think there’s enough respect for that.  Maybe that’s where creative nonfiction is headed.”

With all due respect to Mr. Kuzma, who is clearly very successful, so whatever he’s doing is working for him, but — reallyScreenwriting is all revision, but he doesn’t revise his poems at all? All these years of writing and publishing poems, and he’s fallen in love with polishing his writing in another genre entirely?

And when I think about the best poems I’ve read, or written, what I’ve admired about them had nothing to do with whether they were “factual” or “honest”.  Poems are not autobiographies.  Even Sylvia Plath, when speaking about her poems, was always at pains to differentiate the persona from the poet.  What’s important is fidelity to the poem, not some literal story.  Haven’t we all heard the one about the student writer in her workshop protesting, “But that really happened!”

This is old news, an old debate.  But it bothered me.  A lot.  I gasped when I read it.  Swore audibly.  I read a poem.  Which I didn’t care for.  Which is not the point.  Many poets write poems I don’t care for.  I don’t care for some of my own poems.

But it seems to me that this poet cares for his stories more than his poems.  I don’t mean the screenplays, but the stories which inspire his poems.  And I guess I’m just hoping that he’s not passing this misplaced fidelity on to his students.

8 responses to “Honesty vs. Truth in Poetry.”

  1. everyone edits everything. i even edit phone messages.

  2. I wonder why it should bother the author of this blog so much that there is a poet out there with a differing opinion of poetry than her own. No, it is not true that everyone edits everything. I may be editing this comment, but poetry for many often comes from a very deep and perfect place within, emerging already whole in form. For those with such a connection to their writing, editing may not be necessary. A screenplay is really a very different matter, if only because it tends to be so much longer. I for one enjoyed reading of Greg Kuzma’s experiences, found them to be insightful and helpful, am grateful for the chance to have read them here but only wish the related commentary on this blog was more accepting.

  3. I’m reminded of a wonderful story that came up on WomPo lately — the fact that even Allen Ginsberg, the main proponent of “first draft, best draft,” gave out a lot of advice when it comes to revision.

    And there is such a difference between poem and autobiography — and not many people talk about that!

  4. LOL Issy — voice mail was a curse & a blessing –being able to change, or even delete, a message left in the heat of the moment, I was a bit neurotic about it for a while!

    Ashira, thank you for reading & commenting. I’m glad you found something to enjoy.

    Thank you, Emma, for that graceful reminder. It struck the perfect note.

  5. How poetry is synthesized is often of less concern to readers and writers than to those who seem to think they can teach it. By the way Marie, your constant internet use is destroying the environment. Please stop, for the children’s sake…

  6. Hi Marie, I stumbled across your blog from She Writes…and I really like what you’re saying about Greg Kuzma. I don’t know his work well — though I believe I’ve read poems in the past by him. I’m surprised, too, that he admits to not revising. If it worked for him, okay, I guess that’s fine — though I cannot help but think his poems could have been EVEN BETTER with some revision.

    I remember reading an interview with Billy Collins in Paris Review & he spoke AGAINST revision — though it was a qualified kind of statement — and I didn’t want my students to read it because I thought it would reinforce their not changing anything in their work. He was talking about getting through a whole draft in one sitting so you could capture a particular moment — doing that before revising — and maybe that’s good advice.

    Keep on with your blog! I’ll have to read some more of it.

    best, Patricia

  7. Kevin, I can’t stop! I’ve already sacrificed so much for the children — Please don’t make me give this up too!

    Thanks very much, Patricia! While I understand the rationale behind the Billy Collins advice, I find it impossible to follow. Unfortunately my method is much more tedious & fraught w/ uncertainty!

  8. Guys I love poems especially when they are so talented and written as well with as much effort as it seems in the poem. Poems are probably the best I can write in english and I’m definitely proud of that. I honestly agree and give a thumbs to issy I also edit my text messages before I send them on to one another. 🙂 😉 😛 😀

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