Literary journalism loves lists, and lists are (usefully for literary journalism) always controversial. Robert McCrum's 100 best non-fiction books in The Guardian will be no exception, I'm sure, but what immediately puzzles me about the enterprise is the inclusion of a handful of poetry titles.
Anyone who, like me, spends a good deal of their time browsing second-hand bookshops will know that the classification of poetry can sometimes pose problems. Really, the best solution is to have a section marked 'Poetry' and leave it at that. However, poetry titles do sometimes get lumped in with the 'Non-Fiction' section and even (oh, horror!) with the other books on a shelf marked 'Literature' (I think 'literature' is being used here in the sense of 'to be read out of a sense of duty, not for pleasure').
I can just about understand McCrum's inclusion of Hughes's Birthday Letters or Plath's Ariel, given that they are on some level autobiographical works. I was recently re-reading Plath's poems in the Collected volume edited by Hughes and was struck by the way that Plath re-cycles experience almost immediately into poetry; she goes into hospital and writes hospital poems, then she starts bee-keeping and writes about a visit to a meeting of the local bee-keepers' association, etc. So far, it could be argued, so 'non-fiction'.
|'Reading' by James McNeill Whistler|
The case seems less clear for Eliot's The Waste Land or Edward Lear's nonsense verse, however, which also make it onto the list. McCrum offers the justification that, whereas the novel is easily defined, non-fiction includes just about everything else. I'm not really convinced by this, but there is a more important point here about the perception of poetry and the limitations that critics and readers impose upon it if they understand poetry as belonging to that over-arching category of 'non-fiction'.
This perception is common with many people who are starting to write and share their own poetry. When I work with writers new to the form, suggestions for changes are often resisted with the insistence that 'it really happened like that!' My (perhaps rather heartless) response is normally 'I don't care!' What matters is what works for the poem, not what really happened. This practical aspect of writing poetry tells us something about what poetry is trying to be.
In the 1970s, the critic Phillipe Lejeune proposed the notion of the 'autobiographical pact' as a way of distinguishing autobiographical writing from other kinds. Lejeune argued that autobiography was characterised by a conventional understanding between author and reader, namely that what the reader was being presented with was an account of a real life, which had been lived by the person whose name was on the cover of the book.
To extend Lejeune's notion of such a pact between author and reader, I would argue that non-fiction operates with a different implied understanding. Non-fiction books are those which, however artfully, want to say something about the reality of the world, or to reveal some aspect of how that world is in fact. They are asking the reader to share in an interpretation of the social or natural world as it can be found outside of the text.
This is not, to my mind, what poetry does. To adopt and somewhat adapt a notion from Niklas Luhmann, I would argue that what poetry does is to announce to the reader that it is not the world. The poem claims its own space, apart from the world, and leaves the question of its relationship to the reality of the poet's own experience, and that of the reader, open.
In other words, the poem is an aesthetic object that challenges the reader to make sense of the it in relation to their own experience. How they make that sense, and how the encounter with the poem might enrich their understanding of the world, is deeply personal. In this respect, reading a poem is an act of creative imagination.
To return to the example of Plath, the poet might easily have written a memoir detailing a spell in hospital, living with small children and a difficult husband, her experience of depression, and so on. Instead, she wrote poetry, which is not simply 'non-fiction' because the material she worked with was her own experience. Her work may get pigeon-holed as 'confessional', but it is the transformation of life into poetry, not into reportage.
Why does this matter? It has been observed often enough that the 'I' of lyric poetry tends to make us think of the poems as confessions, that is to say as accounts of personal experience, and therefore as somehow 'real'.
I remember being at a reading by the brilliant Jonathan Edwards when an audience member expressed shock that many of the poems that Jonathan had written about things that had happened to his family were, in fact, completely invented. Jonathan's straightforward response was that he was writing poetry.
Without putting words into Jonathan's mouth, what I think he meant by that was that he wanted to write something that would move people and that would open up their own thinking about what the experience of family might mean to them. The poems were not there to tell them what family is, but for them to find out what it means for themselves.
When we reduce poetry to 'non-fiction', then, we miss something fundamental about what reading poetry could be as an experience for readers, leaving us with an impoverished understanding of this art form. Let's hope The Guardian now does the decent thing and creates a list of the best 100 poetry titles. I have plenty of suggestions.