Two years ago, I attended a talk about book publishing organised by a local writer’s group. A woman raised her hand in the middle of the discussion and asked whether poetry is fiction or nonfiction. A writer I know insisted that I should give my two cents worth. I said that poetry can be both nonfiction and fiction. But the speaker seemed unimpressed and argued that it is nonfiction, based on his findings on Wikipedia. However, here are a few comparisons to consider.
Poetry is fiction
It is a creative transfiguration of reality, an instigation of the reader’s interest by leading them to feel and experience the meaning of the poem. To feel and experience, for example, self-discovery after a heartbroken relationship, in in this excerpt of Derek Walcott’s Love After Love.
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
Also, a poem can be inspired by the image of an object. The poet doesn’t necessarily have to be there to experience it. But it helps. This stanza was inspired by a maple leaf I found on a street in Vancouver, Canada.
I found the maple leaf under the steam clock,
with your fingers pinching the edges. Snowflakes
kissing the strands of my raven hair, I should
take this gift of fortune you said,
before the next humane gust of icy spring.
A poem can be written imaginatively in one’s language with a sprinkle of mythology, for example I can imagine a woman and the serpent shapeshifter in the following stanza:
She dressed in a polka dotted gown,
chasing butterflies in pastoral harmony, while
adjusting her rose filtered bonnet,
From afar, pupils of amber translucent,
callus and rusted skin, eyes like hunting a prey.
Poetry is nonfiction
It deals with something pragmatic. A political/social activist may write a poem to address domestic issues, as a “wake-up call” to the nation. Warsan Shire’s poem “Home” has been circulating around Facebook recently, addressing US President Trump’s recent immigration ban. The poem has became “the rallying call for the refugees and their advocates.”
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of shark.
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city
running as well
your neighbours running faster
than you, the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind
the old tin factory is
holding a gun bigger than his body,
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
A poem can be nonfiction if it is written as a first-hand experience, but still have room for creativity. For example, pregnancy loss and bereavement poems can be written in a melancholic yet melodious metaphor as a coping mechanism to reflect and express the poet’s traumatic experience. And it works therapeutically for most, likewise I’d written and published a poem entitled “To My Vanished Self” for the demise of a loved one.
Take it from Kim Dower who mentioned in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly that ‘the best poetry is the best fiction that lifts us out of ourselves and our lives, while simultaneously connecting us to ourselves and our lives.’ A good poem is to grab and connect us with the poet’s emotion, whether it will break the heart, give one a great laugh or to show readers the fresh perspective of life that they may resonate or relate to it.
Unlike prose, poetry is a standalone genre. Therefore, to compare whether it is fiction or nonfiction is like comparing two sides of the same coin.