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How Can Poets Write about Subjects Beyond their Own Experience?

I was reading the Amazon reviews of ‘Falling Man’, Don DeLillo’s novel set in New York around 9/11, unsurprised at how polarised the reviewers were. I liked the novel and found DeLillo’s attempt to get inside the head of a terrorist quite absorbing and, in the last few pages, breathtaking. However, it’s hard to write on subjects with which we have no personal experience. We always risk being found lacking or unconvincing, precisely how some of the reviewers found the book.

How do poets write about subjects well beyond their own experience? Let’s take war, for example. The poems recently commissioned by Carol Ann Duffy for the Guardian and published under the heading, Exit Wounds, were attempts to write on war by poets with no direct experience of it. I don’t really want to discuss how successful or unsuccessful these specific poems were. I’d rather consider the question of how poetry can do it well – poetry, that is, from those who haven’t been directly involved.

David Harsent’s Legion won the 2005 Forward Prize for Best Collection for a book largely concerned with war. Jane Holland’s Boudicca & Co graphically recreates the battles of a first century woman ruler in Britain against the invading Romans. Christopher Logue re-conjures Homer’s Iliad in his epic War Music. I thought all these books were convincing in their diverse depictions of war.

So what makes a poem convincing when it clearly concerns something the author has no direct experience of whatsoever?

This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. Imagination. Research to get the facts right. Language and imagery that compel. Rhythm.

    Poems about ‘what we know’ can get too self-absorbed, without the distance that the reader necessarily has coming to the poem.

  2. Imagination, yes – the research isn’t so important. What about that old favourite, poetic licence?

  3. an ear for the stories of the world, an eye for the detail of the world, a humility in not making easy judgments…the imagination at its best …Stephanie Norgate

  4. Imagination certainly but also some research to try to get a detail that fixes the reader’s attention. Why not borrow from another’s experiences (acknowledge), or histories or photographs?

  5. “The most important thing in this business is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’re made.” (Bob Monkhouse)

    What matters in writing is not what you know but what you can persuade people you know. It’s possible for someone to visit a country and write about it with less assurance than someone who did no more than read about it.

    Partly, as Robin says, it’s about choosing your details well. They really can add verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. If ever I try to write about Beijing, I shall remember what my son told me from his time there; that at New Year the streets smell of gunpowder from all the fireworks.

    Kipling alludes to this technique in “The Finest Story In the World”:

    ‘”One minute, Charlie. When the sea topped the bulwarks, what did it look like?” I had my reasons for asking. A man of my acquaintance had once gone down with a leaking ship in a still sea, and had seen the water-level pause for an instant ere it fell on the deck.

    “It looked just like a banjo-string drawn tight, and it seemed to stay there for years,” said Charlie.

    Exactly! The other man had said: “It looked like a silver wire laid down along the bulwarks, and I thought it was never going to break.” He had paid everything except the bare life for this little valueless piece of knowledge, and I had traveled ten thousand weary miles to meet him and take his knowledge at second hand. ‘

  6. I agree with the necessity for research and details, but am not sure what the question is meant to make us think about – after all novelists frequently write about things they have not directly experienced. Is the question based on the assumption that the majority of poets’ work is autobiographical? Of course writers all draw on personal experience to create their work, but with imagination, research, and empathy we can put ourselves in another persons’ shoes.

  7. Imagination and research, particularly of those precious, small details that thoroughly convince the reader to have confidence in the writer’s knowledge.

    Might also help if we lost interest in writers’ biographies so that we don’t know whether the poet has direct experience or not. No one expects a crime novelist to have commited a murder so why expect a war poet to have experienced war when access to first hand accounts from people who have directly experienced war are available?

    Poems should stand or fall on their own merit. Poem A cannot be compared with Poem B on the basis that the writer of Poem A spent five years researching the subject but the writer of Poem B spent an afternoon, since the amount of research is no reflection on the quality of the resulting poems.

    There is always a risk that someone with direct experience will criticise the poem as it differs from their own personal experience. A bomb disposal expert criticised the scene in “The Hurt Locker” where a staff sergeant is asked by a colonel how many improvised explosive devices he’d diffused. The bomb disposal expert’s view was that the answer was completely incredible. The film clearly showed the staff sergeant pushed into giving an number and having no idea because he didn’t keep a record or count so he gave a number off the top of his head. The point was that the number was incredible and the colonel failed to recognise it as being incredible because those in command are so detached from those on the ground. So the criticism was misplaced because it misunderstood the aim of the film director but the criticism was a risk she was prepared to take. Just as DeLillo was prepared to take the risk by attempting to get inside the head of a terrorist.

  8. Increasingly I find myself writing about things beyond my experience. I was suspicious of trying but found that actually, it is possible when you embed yourself in imagination. I think if you can conjure a strong empathy for people and situation then you are capable of writing authentically. I also research details to add to the authenticity. A little bit of real detail goes a long way. I can read anything if the voice is authentic. Sometimes the story/experience may well be true but I disengage because the voice lacks a humanity and therefore falls short of real authenticity. But of course this is just personal taste.

    You can also draw on similar experience or emotion to write about something you haven’t experienced. e.g. death of a parent to write about death of a friend. Experience is often on a sliding scale and no one is surely so fully removed from anything in this day and age of embedded journalism and an invasive media, that they can’t find a way to the truth of a subject without having been at the very crux of the experience.

  9. In reply to Emma, actually in the wake of the rise of “real-life” stories, novelists are getting this problem too. Linda Grant relates how a woman at a reading suddenly realised that she, Grant, was too young to have written her novel “When I lived in modern times”, set in the 40s, from personal experience, and got quite accusatory, as if she had caught the author out in a fiction…. See

  10. It is curious the way poets, probably more than writers in other media are generally assumed to be writing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and that it must have happened to them. Actors can learn to inhabit an alien character in a situation that is not their own and find a totally convincing way of relating, digging into the emotional core and finding connections in their own experience. Writers must be similarly at liberty to range wherever they choose, to use their intellect and imagination to live in new worlds. Surely that’s part of the joy for both writer and reader. The trick is to make it real and convincing, and that’s the difficult bit.

  11. I pick up Jaqueline’s point about “finding connections in [the poet’s] own experience” and agree that we can make poems about the unknown resonate by calling on what we do know and understand. The story can be an imaginative fiction, but an emotional or intellectual bond can be created with the reader by using the imagery and language of the familiar. For example, I know nothing of the life of a soldier in the theatre of war, but imagine there could be extreme loneliness and extraordinary friendship. Language and imagery of loneliness and friendship could illuminate the story in my fictional war poem.

    There is always the risk that a poem on the loneliness of war might become a poem about the war of loneliness, but that may work just as well.

  12. I’m not sure I think poetry is the best medium for the sort of poems you’re talking about. I find that good poetry is primarily concerned with language and the relationship between words and poet and reader. Of course, this is not to say that a good poet is a navel gazing, meta-poet; but I would suggest that there is in poetry a formal bias which detracts from the experience of narrative you might get from, say, a novel. So a ‘convincing’ poem, I suppose, is merely one that negotiates these inherent tensions the least falteringly.

  13. M Yoxon, doesn’t it depend how you handle narrative? If it’s one damn thing after another, maybe poetry isn’t the best medium, though to be honest I don’t much like plot-driven novels either. But if you see narrative more cinematically, hopping from one lit moment to another without bothering with all the getting from A to B, it’s perfectly possible to do that in a poem. Or a poem sequence, which is a useful halfway house between poem and novel, giving the poem’s intense lyric moments together with the novel’s character and situation development. And what about novels in verse, like Browning’s The Ring and the Book?

    I think good poetry *depends* on language and the relationship between words and poet. But i would hate to think that was what it was *about*, because it doesn’t sound like enough to be about.

  14. I don’t really understand M Yoxon’s view on poetry ; language surely is the vehicle which the poet uses to mainline emotion, experience and sensations direct to the reader. There is less time and space literally to convey that message (generally) so yes the language is distilled to the strength of raw alcohol to make it effective in that condensed moment, so quite obviously it is of vital importance. Whether the experience has been genuinely encountered by the writer or otherwise, is quite irrelevant it seems to me, the only reason a poem would be ineffectual about ANY subject is because it is an ineffectual poem, it is not the medium per se that makes it a lesser one. Yes, you will have a more protracted tension, release of information, character development etc in a novel, but that is not to say that a successful poem cannot build, deliver and explode that pressure to at least the same, but hopefully more dramatic effect in it’s “abbreviated” form of writing. M Yoxon makes poetry sound flat when it’s power lies in its complex multidimensional structure – at least a double helix (!).

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