Monday, October 25, 2010

Truth in Poetry

The other day I was checking out the Poetry Daily site and I came across an opening line that brought me up short:

Discovered in a New Zealand school's basement: a colony of garter snakes

It set me to musing on truth in poetry. I recalled a favourite poem by New Zealand poet Lauris Edmond, The condition. In it, she tells of standing on a bridge with a friend, watching trout, when he tells her that if they go upstream, they suffocate. I heard that this is not in fact true, but when he was told so, she refused to change the poem, because her very dear friend had told her so, and he must be right.

Well, In this case I can't see how the poem can be changed without destroying the poem. And besides, since she refers in the poem to what her friend says, there is no actual untruth in the poem - it is true that that is what she was told. It didn't really spoil my enjoyment of the poem to find that trout can, in fact, safely swim upstream.

But back to the Poetry Daily poem, Ourobouros. What is it that stopped me at the first line? Simply that there are no snakes in New Zealand. No native snakes, and no introduced snakes. Not in the wild, not in zoos, not in pet stores, not brought in for movies. They simply aren't allowed. So there is no way that anyone ever discovered a single garter snake in a New Zealand school's basement, let alone a colony. (Come to think of it, most schools that I know of don't even have basements).

The strange thing is that it seems totally spurious to set the poem in New Zealand. Substitute "New England" for "New Zealand" and the poem seems to work fine, though New England residents may tell me otherwise. I can just imagine that the poet may have heard this anecdote somewhere, and misheard "New Zealand" for "New England" so that's what she wrote when she developed her poem. It is probably a fine poem, but it lost all credibility with me as soon as I read the first line. I don't believe all poems have to be factual, but I do think that there are times when a little fact-checking is necessary.

I'd be interested to hear other opinions: do errors of fact matter in a poem or not?

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