Last night at the bar, they played “September” by Earth, Wind, and Fire, just after midnight. One thing I don’t miss about pegging my life to the academic calendar is the notion that Labor Day weekend is a cliff at the end of summer, where it seems like all the fun and joy of summer is coming to an end. I’ve been working the same amount as I do in winter, so it’s just another weekend to me: and furthermore, one with a bonus day to spend with the Fellow. But all of my collegiate friends are sighing about going back, and my teacher friends are crying a little on the inside, and I find myself enjoying the world just as much as I did last weekend. (The trade-off, of course, is the fantastic flexibility of a college schedule, which trumps this realization by far.)
Oh well. On to the prompt!
This week: “lies, damn lies, and statistics“
Mark Twain made the famous quote, if you’re not familiar with it, that these are the “three kinds of lies.” And Neil Gaiman made the observation, in his graphic novel series Sandman (one of my favorites!) that writers are liars. In a very literal sense, he’s right, when it comes to fiction: by definition, a novel is one extended, elaborate lie, but when it’s tentpoled to the world we know, remember, and experience, and the purpose of it is to entertain, we treat it as a (mostly) harmless yarn. I think poets are held to a higher standard of factual accuracy, because the impulse is to describe rather than invent. As flowery as the descriptions may get, poets are not expected to obscure the “real world” of everyday sight and feeling too much, generally speaking, and I say, why not?
Today (despite the half-Quaker sensibility I was brought up with) we’re going to tell some tall tales, little white lies, and just the facts ma’am. The first layer of this is to come up with three levels of untruth that you want to work into your piece. As Twain wryly suggests, besides having a pretty straightforward, recognizable lie, and a whopper that forms the crux of the poem, you want to include a “factual” (perhaps numerical) assessment that comes from nowhere.
Half of you will read what I’m going to say,
and the other half will not…
Maybe you want to start your poem with that. Maybe you want to use the statistic as a descriptor: if you’re writing about birds, you could say every white crow is as smart as we are, or if you’re writing about roads, maybe we could stretch all the interstates to Jupiter and back. Essentially, these claims turn into hyperbole, which I normally eschew; but when you divorce the numbers from any emotion (“I loved her with the million vessels of my heart!”), they flatten out and become more uncertain. It will add a layer of calm to the poem if you assert these false factoids in an authoritative way, which you will need…
…because now let’s talk about the meatier lies. Come up with something truly unbelievable. It could be that the sky is actually red, that blueberries hold the secret to immortality, or that Basho actually invented the sonnet. Your goal is not necessarily to convince the reader of your lie, but just to make it sound as though you so thoroughly believe it, that it’s something inseparable from your worldview. Then, with things that are moderately plausible, support your claim. Talk about reading X or Y in a magazine, or hearing it from your cousin– even if you read no such thing and have no cousins. Describe things you’ve tried which you wouldn’t do, odd occurrences that haven’t happened, and so on. I think this is the easiest part of the piece, since we fudge little bits of truth in poems anyway. The difficulty is that the rest of them are usually real, and we’re trying to get away from that here. Pull the foundation out from under your house of lies.
So maybe you’d have something like this:
A thousand monkeys with typewriters
might come up with all the sonnets that have ever
been written: there’s one for every five people
on the Earth. The secret they don’t tell you is
how Basho came up with the first one, like a tulip bulb
planted upside-down and carried on the trade winds,
spreading in sharp iambic brushstrokes
from shore to shore.
The scientist on TV talked about how blueberries
have two hundred and twelve chemicals
that hold the cells together. And if we ate enough–
well, maybe we’d just stop aging completely.
What kind of purple-stained immortals
would we be?
There’s no reason not to be inventive and lyrical with your lies; in truth, I don’t think I’ve made mine very attractive, but this is just for example purposes. You should try to find ways to stitch these lies seamlessly together, so that at some point, you can’t tell where the biggest fibs are. Leave your reader wondering if this or that statistic or fact is actually true: the unexpected thing is that your poem is a complete lie, so they’ll think that something must surely be real. (A caveat on that: there is sci-fi and fantasy poetry out there which could be considered complete fiction as well, though it too is usually grounded in human experience. And then you have things like Jabberwocky which defy all classification. If you want to try going either of these routes, you’re welcome to, but it won’t be as fun, because your readers will figure out the jig pretty quickly. Unless you have very lenient readers.)
Finally, I’d like to suggest two additional bell-whistles. There is the fib form, named after the Fibonacci sequence, where each number is the sum of the two previous ones (0 1 1 2 3 5 8 13…), so that the poem’s lines have syllables corresponding to those numbers. (First line has one, second line has one, third line has two, etc.) I like the idea of using this form for its name’s double meaning, and writing a chute of lies with it. You can vary a little by having a moment when you reverse the sequence and decrease the syllables to the end, too; after 13 syllables, the lines usually get too long for their own good, so it’s could place to stop or switch gears.
And the other thing you can do is think about that “writers are liars” bit above, and get meta-poetic. Show complete cognizance of the fact that your poem is a liar’s paradise, under the surface of your words. I leave it to you to figure out how you might do that, since I think it will be different for each person, but draw into the open the fact that writers lie, while simultaneously lying your head off. And the skill that comes from all this is to build up the smooth transitions between truth and embellishment, without being too obvious about it– but then, I might be lying now, mightn’t I?