If you write, and you are not a journalist, and you don’t write fiction, people want to know why. These are hard questions to answer. Sometimes one admires fiction too much to attempt it. Sometimes one lacks the gift for invention. No one gets at the particular challenges of the fact/fiction relationship—or indeed, the exigencies of the creative process—better than Robert Lowell. Especially the poem “Epilogue.” Lowell’s work may be a monument to unapologetic narcissism (an artistically necessary narcissism, defenders could say, or at the very least indivisible from either his genius or his illness) but here, it seems to me, there is only enough self to propel the project at hand. If you listen to him read it, he sounds downright humbled by the weight of creative challenge. As a friend pointed out, it is interesting that his stepdaughter should title her memoir—so full of his destructive recklessness—Why Not Say What Happened? After all, this poem is more introspective, less destructive, than so many others. That is for her to say, of course. In a way, it’s the best memoir title in the world.
Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.