Apologies to Chicago or ‘Truth’ in Poetry

As I wrote awhile back, we visited Chicago this summer. I got to read at the Uptown Poetry Slam and see old friends. We also drove around the city (driving the Loop on Sunday morning was delightful!), took the dog to the Montrose dog park, had Leona’s pizza in my old neighborhood, and had a thoroughly wonderful time.

That all got me thinking about a poem I wrote several years ago that is in my new book Time Capsules. The poem is “Travelogue,” and it was written on a cross-country trip as an experiment in writing very autobiographical poetry about what was happening as it happened. Mind you, this could be dangerous to do while driving, but never fear, I did stop to write most of the time. Occasionally, I jotted a line or a few words on a scrap of paper, but mostly composed in my head or waited until I could take a break to write. Everything in the poem happened in one way or another, though I quickly found that memory became a theme even though I had planned to write about the present. Past memories and present experiences merged, which should probably not come as a surprise, since I was driving for days by myself with just a cassette player and my dog to keep me company.

Though my goal was to write the truth, I also realized quickly that the truth is a slippery concept in a poem. Hence my need to apologize to Chicago or to my friends who stayed there, at any rate. While driving the interstate in heavy traffic, I was caught in a long traffic jam. This reminded me of some of the reasons I left the city — the traffic, the concrete, the heat in summer, the crowds of people — all of which could be exciting and oppressive, especially to a kid from a small town.That section of the poem ends:

             …Now I
remember why I left Chicago.
It was not the traffic really,
but all that concrete and so
many people going nowhere.

Though true for me, and certainly true of the traffic jam I was in as I drove I-80, I felt even as I wrote it that the last line both was and wasn’t true. There are so many people in Chicago, but many are going places, even though at the time I left, I felt I needed to move on to go where I wanted to go. So for my friends who have gone many places while staying in Chicago, and even for myself, now that I see where I might have gone had I stayed there, the last line isn’t true. And yet in the moment of composition it was the truest line I could write. To say more would have overburdened the poem.

Of course, this is the case in any poem, and it’s not just a matter of poetic license. The demands of the form you are working with or the demands of the thematic choices you have decided on (to write the truth as you see it at the moment of the writing, for instance), affect what you can or should say. The sound of a word or the length of a sentence can demand that you need to tell it ‘false’ in order to reveal the ‘truth.’ The truth of any situation is complicated and has many facets; a poem often can only hold some of the many ways of looking at it.

For “Travelogue” this was even more the case than usual, since I was weaving together the surreal experiences of memory and a long drive. And as with any autobiography, experience became subjective even when ‘recorded’ as it was happening, since it was filtered through my experience of it and my thoughts and memories. This became a theme for the book as a whole, or at least for parts of it, as the working title of the collection remained “Travelogue and Other Poems” for quite awhile.

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