I know someone who writes a lot of poetry using his memory of what the circumstances of his life were when he was young. I suppose such writings have their place but the more I consider it, the less I believe that poetry should be a historical record. Lets leave writings like that to the historians, the biographers, the writers of memoirs. Poetry should deal with the imagination, and sometimes when you try to get the right facts and the right feelings you sacrifice any imagination and in that way leave confusion.
I admit that this is a large step away from what I think is the root of all poetry – the transmission of valuable information from one generation to the next, the education of those not directly involved in events, as well as communal entertainment. The poet carried in his words and songs and recitations the stories, the joys and the trials of the people. The important thing to remember is that he used images, that is, imagination to carry these rather than verifiable facts.
That doesn’t mean facts don’t make poetry; rather it goes to show that good poetry makes facts. I could cite several examples of imagination in poetry creating an existence so real it becomes real. Let me take you to my own work, a chapbook titled Bailey’s Mill. The little book consists of thirteen pieces of different types of poetry but they are all part of one story, the tale of a man, Elias Bailey who came here fleeing the American Revolution to begin a new life. He built a mill to service the local farm settlement; this attracted other enterprises, became the basis for a village. He controlled the village until it was divided by a wet/dry question. When fire destroyed his mill he blamed his opponents without proof and the bitterness destroyed the whole community. It can be seen as a classic tale of the overreacher, one man who took on more than he was able to handle.
The wonderful thing about the sequence is that it is not “real.” Certainly, it was researched. Bits and pieces from different sources were used to stitch together a believable story. But there was simply no Bailey’s Mill except in my imagination. Facts and images together made for a poetry that was real, so real I still get asked where someone could find this town, where it used to be.
So a number of facts are the foundation. The poetry lies in the use of imagination to tie them together. The truth brought forth is the emotion that seem to resonate from the fictional Bailey through the writing of a poet to the feelings of the listener/reader.
More than just memory. More than a flight of imagination. Always asking for a subtle response. And that is how good poetry should work.