Monday, May 18, 2009

Accuracy in Poetry

At the Poetry Salon I recently attended I read my poem "Invective Against the Bumblebee." The poem begins as follows:

Escapee from a tight cell, yellow-streaked,
sex-deprived sycophant to a queen,
you have dug divots in my yard
and like a squatter trespassed in my garage.

Now when that poem was first published in the journal PMS: PoemMemoirStory, line 4 of the above stanza read "and borne a hole through my garage door." I was satisfied with that line, and I clearly remembered those dreadful bumblebees making their ugly holes in the garage door of our first house. So the image seemed right to me.

However, when I was assembling my second manuscript, I sent the collection to a friend for editing. She told me most emphatically that I was flat-out wrong. Those weren't bumblebees; they were carpenter bees. I wasn't at all happy to hear that. And did it really even matter?

I did some research and discovered that my reader was absolutely right and I was wrong. And I decided that it did matter. The line was presented as factually accurate and so it needed to be right. The poem is a curse poem in which I hurl one accusation after another at the bumblebee. All the other accusations are factually accurate. I went back to the poem and reworked that line. It was frustrating, but as so often happens when we are forced into a late revision, I think I ended up with a better line. It's certainly more musical.

So that's the poem that went into the book. After the reading was over on Sunday and everyone was chatting and devouring goodies, a woman I didn't know informed me that bumblebees are not yellow-streaked. You can imagine that I was not happy to hear that! I was so sure they were. And I was sure that my earlier reader who is very nature-savvy would not have let such an error get by her. But the woman was so insistent that I had to wonder if she might be right.

As soon as I got home, I did a quick Google search. Here's the definition I found for "bumblebees": "common name for any of a group of large, hairy, usually black-and-yellow, social bees." See that yellow part? Victory! And for further proof, here's a picture. See the yellow?

A friend I told about this said it didn't matter anyhow, that the line needn't be literal. I disagree. I think that if the information is presented as factual then it should be accurate. If I'm writing about a dream or a trip to fantasy land, I can play fast and loose with the facts, but not when what I'm presenting is presented as reality. I wanted to suggest that the bumblebee was cowardly in its attack on a child. If I'd stuck with my original line, I would have had that implication but would have lost the accuracy of the image. I wanted both implication and accuracy. Happily, I've ended up with both.

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  1. This is a fascinating topic to me and contains the seed for endless discussion. I think what is defined as accuracy in a poem depends on the poem and the poet’s vision. Sometimes the vision behind the poem, that is what one is trying to disclose – let’s say the theme as opposed to the subject – requires discarding some factual accuracy to get to the thematic truth. It’s what I think Faulkner was getting at when he said, “Facts and truth really don't have much to do with each other.” It’s as if facts are so many layers of rind that must be peeled away to get to the core vision. Sometimes peeling these layers away is the process the poem leads us through. But sometimes it’s necessary to leave a few of them out of the poem altogether as they can be so much distracting detail.

    For your poem, the factual detail of the incest was clearly needed.

  2. Wow, was that an unfortunate typo. I meant “insect,” obviously. Sorry about that.

  3. Bumblebees also respond to vocal commands whereas carpenter bees just build crap. Karen Carpenter bees don't eat well.

    Things to know.


  4. Michael--That's the best typo I've ever seen. I wouldn't delete it if you begged me.

    Rebecca--No bumblebee has ever paid the slightest attention to any of my vocal commands.

  5. Diane,

    Glad you enjoyed the typo. Here’s a true story about one that’s just as good.

    I worked at the American Bible Society on a project redesign committee. I issued a memo about time and effort on the project and, being a poet, couldn’t resist using the subject line, “Clocks and Muscles” over the abstract terms. However, before sending the memo to the vice presidents of the organization, our committee secretary left out the “l” in “clocks.”


  6. It's a difficult question. I've got a factual error in the first poem of my new book. I agonised, and left it in. And now it's too late.

    Williams Empson corrected a line in one of his poems where he referred to 'Professor Charles Darwin' - Darwin was never a professor. But I think the alternative phrase 'did not the adroit Darwin' is worse.


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