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?