A not infrequent problem that a poetry editor must face is a contributor’s intransigence. Sometimes this resistance is on metrical issues or diction, but there are a few poets who dig in their heels on questions of “truth” and “honesty,” as if a poem were a legal deposition or a tax return that had to be absolutely faithful to real-world events. This type of Honest-John poet exasperates me more than any other, for recalcitrance on matters of fictive illusion indicates a very basic misunderstanding of the poetic task. A poem doesn’t necessarily have to represent anything that has actually happened, or what the poet actually thinks or feels. A poem just has to be an effectively constructed poem, nothing else. And you as the poet have to be willing, like any other mature artist, to reshape a poem’s structure, wording, and descriptive register in whatever way is required to bring that poem to perfection. When a poet tells me “I can’t change that word, because to do so would be false to the experience the poem is relating,” I realize that he has failed to grasp one of the fundamental facts about literary mimesis. Poems aren’t about you and your feelings and your experiences. Poems are about being poems. Does that mean that a poem can be totally cut off from the rational world, like some stupid langpo or flarf or other navel-gazing fakery? No, not at all. Poetry is a linguistic act, and language is a common tool, not solipsistic masturbation. If you are going to compose in a language, you have to employ it in conformity with the entire range of syntax, idioms, and semantics that embody the language’s tradition and accepted usages. In short, your poem has to mean something. But it can mean something totally fictive and imaginary. It doesn’t have to be a courtroom witness, sworn in to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Many people today have a visceral reaction against this fictive freedom, because they have been raised in an atmosphere of what I call “moralistic authenticity.” They have been trained by modern psychobabble to believe that when it comes to emotion, complete honesty is essential, and anything else is unhealthy or “repressive.” For such people, any kind of fictive reshaping of an experience is an evil distortion that only serves to falsify your genuine personhood and imprison you in “denial,” or whatever other cant word they use nowadays to denigrate rational detachment and distance. But poetry has never been about the expression of feeling, except at a secondary or even tertiary remove. When it comes to emotion poetry’s job is evocative, not expressive. The task is to call forth emotion from the reader via the adept manipulation of language skills, not to express one’s own personal emotions like a baby crying in a crib. This is why so many excellent and moving poems are structured around situations or predicaments that on the surface might well be considered hackneyed, stereotypical, or formulaic. The narrative armature of the poem doesn’t matter a whit. All that matters is the poet’s linguistic expertise in creating a verbal artifact. Consider Longfellow’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus”—a poem derided today as lachrymose and sentimental by the fashionable snots in the po-biz scene. The poem’s narrative line is absurdly simple, as in a TV melodrama. The captain of the schooner Hesperus takes his young daughter with him on a voyage. He disregards the warning of an older and experienced sailor concerning the threat of inclement weather. A storm arises, and the ship is in trouble. The captain lashes his daughter to a mast for safety, and attempts in vain to save the Hesperus. He and his crew are killed, the vessel is driven onto a reef, and the dead daughter—still lashed to the floating mast—is found the next day by a fisherman. End of poem. Recounted this baldly, the poem seems somewhat cornball and operatic, like an old “Perils of Pauline” silent flick from 1914. And yet “The Wreck of the Hesperus” is one of the best ballads of the nineteenth century. The language and the images are unforgettable. There’s the description of the young girl, given with unashamed poetic force: Blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax, __Her cheeks like the dawn of day, And her bosom as white as the hawthorn-buds, __That ope in the month of May. And there’s the dazzling alliteration and assonance marking the terrible approach of catastrophe: And fast through the midnight dark and drear, __Through the whistling sleet and snow, Like a sheeted ghost, the vessel swept __Tow’rds the reef of Norman’s Woe. The emotion in this ballad is fictive—that is, it is created by the poet out of whole cloth. Longfellow may have heard of various ships lost off the coast of New England, but the poem’s story and characters, the shipwreck and the deaths—these are all products of his imagination expressing its virtù in a rarefied and almost hieratic language. It most emphatically is not about a personal experience expressed in a confessional mode. The grief in Longfellow’s poem is conjured up, not reported, as it would be in some tedious modern effusion that says “I just broke up with my girlfriend and I’m so depressed about it.” No one cares about your breakup with your girlfriend, but serious readers do care about the imaginary and heightened verbal artifice that has given us “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” That’s what fictive mimesis is all about. Other examples could be given without end. Hektor’s farewell to his wife and child at the end of Book VI of the Iliad is deeply moving and compelling, most especially in the overall context of an epic that focuses on human helplessness in the face of divine acts, and in contrast to the selfish and disordered love of Paris and Helen. The scene refers to no real event, but it is pure poetry nonetheless. Tennyson’s dramatic monologue “Ulysses” shows with great skill the tenacity and vigor of an old age that will not surrender peacefully to inaction and torpor, but there never was a king named Ulysses ruling over Ithaka or anywhere else. The monologue is pure verbal pyrotechnics. It will be objected, of course, that the above examples are not lyric poetry, and lyric poems are the only things we are allowed to compose now. Well, ask yourself this: why is that so? Is the expectation that all serious poems these days be in the lyric mode the result of a stricture laid down by some authority, or is it because vast numbers of persons have been brainwashed by “moral authenticity” and in consequence are incapable of writing anything else? That’s a chicken-and-egg question one would be hard pressed to answer, but a good guess is that the two factors now feed off each other like saprophytic parasites. On the one side we have the academic pontificators, announcing the hegemony of the lyric mode; and on the other we have the great mass of wannabe poets champing at the bit to “express themselves.” What a convenient racket, especially for the hucksters who run profitable workshops. But the larger point is this: whether you write in the lyric mode or any other mode at all, your poem won’t be worth spit if you do not demonstrate a sophisticated command of language and a willingness to use that talent unashamedly, noticeably, and vigorously. And that has to be the case even if you are being scrupulously honest in a poem, or if you are lying through your teeth, or if—like most practitioners of the art—you are somewhere in between those two poles. You can’t have undue regard for some stupid bugbear called “verisimilitude” or “authenticity” or “what really happened.” And don’t ever, ever tell me that the truth is more important than your art. Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide. He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.