No News from Poems: Story Truth and Happening Truth

Crow Drive

Crow Drive – copyright 2013 Paul Vreeland — “All photos are lies.”
Coming soon, the “No News from Poems: The Photography Companion Piece

As I write this, Mary-Ellen is taking the train back to Hartford after having visited Hilda’s gallery in the backwoods of the western Massachusetts boondocks. She’s trying to digest the intensity of Hilda’s questions, knows that something of inner significance has transpired, and, in trying to recollect what has happened, finds little to hold on to, except the gift of Cézanne’s pen. And so it is in my unfinished novel — a work of fiction. I’m lying.

Picasso is reputed to have said, “Art is the lie that tells the truth.” During the past several weeks I’ve been preoccupied with the nature of art and truth, more precisely the nature of writing and truth. It started during a working session of a writers group I belong to. We were critiquing a poem about an event in the author’s life, and I suggested the deletion of a couple of words that I thought weakened the piece. The author, a seasoned journalist, defended her work claiming that she wrote about the event as it happened and, if the words were taken out, she would be lying. Too late for her to heed the advice of Archibald MacLeish: “Young poets are advised by their elders to avoid the practice of journalism as they would wet socks and gin before breakfast.”

Well, poetry is not journalism. We know that. And if my friend’s work was edited to become a stronger poem and a journalistic lie, what truth would the poem then tell? So how is art the lie that tells the truth? On one level the question is a philosophical one, and there is no shortage of verbiage on Historical Truth vs. Poetic Truth. But I am not satisfied with the answers Aristotle and Plato offer.

Why am I taken up with this? Why has it become an issue that I cannot let drop? I have found that writing is an exercise in honesty, a striving to become ever truer to a voice, and in the case of the unfinished novel, writing truer to the wills of characters like Mary Ellen and Zach. Honesty is more than an moral imperative; it’s hard work and it takes times. This is the third revision of “No News from Poems” because the earlier drafts weren’t as honest to this essay as I want to be. And it is through writing, and through the help of others in the writers groups I belong to who critique my work and point out my weaknesses, that I discover what I am about, and what I want to say.

Why am I taken up with this? I do a slow wake up and realize that Mary-Ellen has brought me back to this. She is the immediate reason why I need to explore the question. You see, Mary-Ellen is an aspiring journalist and her writing is paralyzed by the thin line between writing from the head and writing from the heart. I’ve given in to Mary-Ellen before because she is my character and I want to know who she is, what makes her tick. She is also the reason I’ve read David Halberstam’s The Making of a Quagmire, and Capote’s In Cold Blood. Zach, another character in the unfinished novel has asked me to read The Port Huron Statement. Mary-Ellen and Zach are fictional characters living out a life in the canyons and ideological divides of the 1960s. They’re fictional characters, the fruit of my lies, and they are influencing the decisions I make about how I spend my time. Mary Ellen may be the immediate reason for this questioning, but I’m beginning to see how larger “issues” are slowly being worked out through her. She has had the upper hand this month.

In an earlier chapter Mary Ellen read the serialization published in The New Yorker magazine that later became In True Blood. She made a trip out to Holcolm, Kansas, to see how the landscape compared with Capote’s descriptions. She wanted to know if he was telling the truth and if he could be trusted, because the idea of narrative non-fiction meant something to her.

What truth would the poem tell? What truth will Mary-Ellen reveal? Whenever I have questions I research. Google first, libraries second. Using Google I find a curriculum for high school students particularly relevant—David Reynold’s “The New Journalism: Narrowing the Gap between Fact and Fiction” offered by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute[1]. I know that I am on the right track because In Cold Blood is one of three books it features. In lesson one, Reynolds asks his students to define “fact” and to identify the types of literature where facts are found. Another lesson assigns them the task of determining what is meant by “the truth.”

Working my way through Reynold’s curriculum I read The Things They Carried next. What a treasure. Tim O’Brien, writing about writing, offers more answers to Mary-Ellen’s question. He’s is an excellent writer, and I find The Things They Carried a compelling read. O’Brien talks about the vagaries of Truth in a chapter entitled “How to Write a True War Story.” He says, “It’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way.” Obrien

O’Brien is beginning to talk about the same problems of honesty that I mentioned above. Again, it’s not an easy matter of just sitting down, picking up the pen and deciding to write the truth. I identify with him because he’s honest about his struggles with honesty; howbeit I think he’s been more successful. I appreciate the example he offers of his story, “Speaking of Courage.” That story is followed by a confessional chapter entitled “Notes” in which he explains how “Speaking,” first published in The Massachusetts Review in 1976 and later anthologized in the O’Henry Awards Prize stories, was true, but not true enough. “Something about the story had frightened me,” O’Brien wrote. “I was afraid to speak directly, afraid to remember – and in the end the piece had been ruined by a failure to tell the full and exact truth about our night in the shit field…. When the piece appeared in an anthology of short fiction, I sent a copy off to Norman Bowker [his combat buddy who inspired the story] with the thought that it might please him. His reaction was short and somewhat bitter. “It’s not terrible,” he wrote me, “but you left out Vietnam. Where’s Kiowa? Where’s the shit?” Eight months later Bowker hanged himself.

If I were teaching Reynold’s curriculum, I might ask the students to read “Speaking of Courage” and note only the facts. I might ask them to re-write it as a newspaper article. Playing the news editor, I’d ask them, “So, what’ve you got?” Perhaps the exercise would prove the point that Reynold’s makes:

Facts rarely appeal to the emotions and almost never approach the implicit reasoning for actions; they contain small conflicts if any, and similarly do not require or inspire passionate responses.

It’s easy to write the facts, especially when they’re fresh. Journalism must, by nature, respond to calls for immediacy. The information must be “timely,” and if it is not timely it’s not journalism. What appeals to emotion and reasoned response comes later through reflection. There is a distancing in time and space between an event be it a mortar attack or the announcement of this week’s market price for potatoes, and the stories and poems the event inspires. “With distance, one also sees more clearly,” writes Yahia Lababidi. “Art as I understand it, and this includes philosophy, is about cultivating a certain distance so that we might, in turn, lend our vision to those in the thick of historic events. Which is to say, one cannot evaluate the play while sharing the stage with the actor.” We need both “speed of coverage and slowness of reflection.” Lababidi writes with an inspired eloquence, and her article, “Poetry, and Journalism of the Spirit,” is the most insightful I’ve read this month. I recommend it highly. http://mantlethought.org/content/poetry-and-journalism-spirit

“It’s time to be blunt,” O’Brien writes opening a chapter titled “Good Form”:

It’s time to be blunt.

I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.

Almost everything else is invented.

But it’s not a game. It’s a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough. I remember his face, which was not a pretty face, because his jaw was in his throat, and I remember feeling the burden of responsibility and grief. I blamed myself. And rightly so, because I was present.

But listen. Even that story is made up.

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.

I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.

“Daddy, tell the truth,” Kathleen can say, “did you ever kill anybody?” And I can say, honestly, “Of course not.”

Or I can say, honestly, “Yes.”

Time enables O’Brien to distance himself from the mortar attack he writes about in “Courage.” And having had the benefit of even more time and distance, he sees it from another vantage point, retells the story and offers another truth. Vision, re-vision.

It’s time to be blunt. I’ve written hundreds of pages about the war in Vietnam—a war I didn’t experience directly. I wasn’t there; I didn’t go. I wrote my war stories, The Biography of Not Being There, about my time in the US Army in 1969 in the first person. I tried to be honest. But my attempts were not honest enough to satisfy me. Now the unfinished novel finds Mary-Ellen and Zach caught up in the events of that same time. The stories I tell are informed by my experiences, but the novel is fiction, and I know there are things that will happen in the story that will surprise me. Something compels me to write about being young in New England during that era. Is it survivor’s guilt that drives me? I don’t know. A lot of it, whatever it is, has to do with the truth and the betrayal of truth. And a lot of it, whatever it is, has to do with vision and re-vision. There are some truths that become evident when presented in the first person, and other truths are discovered in the second. Some truths can be presented through the immediacy of journalism, and different truths through the lenses of fiction and poetry.

In 2011 Tim O’Brien spoke at the Arlington Public Library. He read his short-story, “Ambush,” and confessed that it too is purely the product of a novelist’s imagination. None of it is true, he said, and then described it as being “completely and utterly true–truer than true,” explaining how art is the lie that tells the truth. “When you turn on the news,” he said, “what do you get, eight died today by an IUD in Bagdad. You get a number and maybe a place, and that’s it. You get very little beyond that.” The intent of this story “Ambush” is to look at one event, one death and to “give a face to something that is largely anonymous.” He said:

“I participated in dozens, scores, maybe fifty ambushes… and this story is a way of gathering together all that terror and all those long nights in the dark waiting to die or to kill–one or the other—into one story focused in time and in energy and geography—a single trail junction—bring together those myriads of forgotten places, forgotten nights that was my time in Vietnam into something you might see and smell and feel. It’s a way of collapsing my own thoughts years afterwards, looking back at those long nights into a single event in the hope that you might feel something of what I felt…”

You can watch O’Brien’s hour-long presentation on line. http://library.arlingtonva.us/2011/04/30/author-video-tim-obrien/

The Things They Carried is about a soldier’s experiences in Vietnam. It’s a book that explores the process of writing and the efficacy of fiction. It’s also a book of moral philosophy. It’s a book I would recommend to Mary-Ellen. The trouble is, Mary Ellen, taking a train back to Hartford, is occupying a space in time predating the publication of The Things They Carried. The trouble is, Mary-Ellen can compel me to read her book list, but I can’t compel her to read mine. The trouble is Mary-Ellen doesn’t know that while she rides that train towards Hartford, Charlie Company is preparing to enter the village of My Lai and that the American nation will be victimized by undifferentiated story truths and happening truths.

The men of Charlie Company, preparing to go into My Lai, were told that whatever they would find was the enemy. “There are no civilians,” Captain Medina said. News of the subsequent massacre of mothers, infants, children, and old men was suppressed. But the persistence of Seymour Hersh, a dedicated investigative journalist, brought the My Lai massacre and the cover up to the public’s attention in 1969, and he received the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

At the time I was a boot-camp recruit at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and I wanted to rub the My Lai massacre in the faces of my superiors. I remember the day they had us run at sandbags with fixed bayonets. We were to scream and run and stab the bags. The drill instructors watched as I ran and stabbed the bags, screaming, “Kill the babies. Kill the babies,” thinking is this what you’re training us to be?” A few months later a coalition of artists in New York City took the now famous colour photograph of dead My Lai children and made it into a protest poster. One weekend I went to New York and brought copies of the posters back to the base and distributed them, an action for which I could have been charged.

O’Brien helps me to understand that there is nothing moral or immoral about the average soldier’s participation in a war. The men of Charlie Company were broken men. And how can you expect someone who has lost a moral compass, someone who has grown up in a church and has heard the sermon “Thou shalt not kill” and then has come under the authority of another who says, “Kill and if you fail to follow orders, you will be shot for treason,” how can you expect that person to account for the truth. There are no standards for a broken man. The survivors of Charlie Company, like the survivors of the Rwandan genocide, like the First Nation survivors of the residential schools, spend years grappling with the story truth and the happening truth. After more than forty years, O’Brien says he’s still sorting it out. Is it possible that we are all victims of history, that we are all suffering forms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, that we are all trying to find the honest stories that tell us who we are and what really happened to us? Or maybe the trauma hasn’t ended yet and there is no “post.” Maybe we’re holding on to moral compasses that no longer work as they once did. Is it possible that we are listening, waiting to hear our true voices and to recognize ourselves? I feel that part of me is locked in 1969—a part of me that needs to tell a story, and retell it in order to catch a glimpse of what really happened, or is still continuing to happen.

“And so it is that I have come to realize the role of poetry in times of crisis: Vision.” writes Yahia Lababidi. “By ‘vision’ I mean that unblinking witness is only half of the equation. This is what I mean by seeing over the head of the times. It is not enough to bear witness to Now; journalists, to an extent, do that. Poetry lends us a third (metaphysical) eye, one that collapses distances, at once reminding us of our essential selves and who we can become. This vision provokes more insight than mere sight…Poetry, at its finest, can restore our sight.”

Earlier in this post I wrote, “Poetry is not journalism. We know that.” I could be wrong. Jane Dwyer Garton writes of a collaborative effort between the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Poetry Foundation: “Make It News: A Symposium on Poetry and Journalism.” Garton describes the second part of the 2007 symposium that “looked at the poet as journalist and the journalist as poet to examine what poets and journalists can learn from each other. The premise of the session: ‘Increasingly, poets are writing documentary poems that ‘report’ on an event. Many journalists also turn to poetic prose in order to convey a perspective that cannot otherwise be presented.’[2]

I think of two Nova Scotians. Both journalists, both poets. Alden Nowlan and George Elliott Clarke. Clarke said, “I’ve always thought that there was an artistic component to journalism, that it was related to poetry and that it was good to try and blend them as much as possible.”[3]

And Alden Nowlan. Here’s his poem “In the Newsroom”.[4]

Phone the woman’
whose husband and kids
were killed, we need
more information, the
editor says.
And each time you expect
they’ll hang up
after cursing you
for the ghoul
you know yourself to be.

But that almost never happens.
Almost always they sound
very formal but pleased
the newspaper has called.
Often they’ll insist
you hold the line while they check
a date or a spelling.

Not having had time
as yet to remember
that death is permanent.

How I love Nowlan, and how I love this poem. And yet, as I include it here, I notice that Nowlan uses the same words as my fellow writer in the writers group. You remember how I suggested the deletion of certain words to make her poem stronger? They’re here. The words “almost always”. But in this case I say, leave them in. Leave them in.


[1] http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/2006/3/06.03.09.x.html

[2] “Take Me to the Intersection of Poetry and Journalism” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jane-dwyre-garton/take-me-to-the-intersecti_b_155276.html).

[3] “Poetic Journalism,” by Nina Paris in The King’s Review http://kjr.kingsjournalism.com/?p=198

[4] from The Best of Alden Nowlan – selected and introduced by Allison Mitcham, Lancelot Press, Hantsport, NS, 1993.