Poetry essay: poetry – nonfiction or fiction, personal or impersonal

Two ideas that may come up in writing poetry, is whether poetry should be nonfiction or fiction and whether it should be personal or impersonal.

There are four categories that could be made.  Poetry could be personal nonfiction, impersonal nonfiction, personal fiction or impersonal fiction.

Personal nonfiction is the type of poetry where a poet writes about something they have, are or will experience.  A poet writes about something real from their own perspective.  Examples might include, a poet writing about a disease they have or a poet writing about some experience, like moving to a new place.  Additionally, a poet could write about a real experience that someone they personally know is going through, doing so from their own perspective.

Impersonal nonfiction, is where a poet writes about something real, without a fictional backdrop, but the thing they are writing about does not personally affect them.  Good examples of this type of poetry, would be poetry about social issues or poetry about current events.  For example, a poet might write about homelessness, without themselves or someone they know being homeless.  If they do it in a way that doesn’t include a fictional homeless person, for example, but rather simply talks about the issue, the poetry would fit into this category.

Personal fiction poetry, is where a poet writes about something that affects them, but with a fictional story element.  For example, a poet might write a poem that is a fictional conversation between themselves and a dead relative.  The main framework is fictional, but there are some realistic elements, and the poetry is personal to the poet.  Another example might be metaphorical poetry, where a poet uses a story element to talk about something that has a reality basis in their lives.

Impersonal fiction poetry, is where a poet writes about something that does not personally affect them, and they use a story element as the vehicle.  For example, if a poet writes a poem about a person who is homeless, but the poet isn’t homeless and doesn’t know anyone who is, then the poetry would fit into this category.

There are a number of issues to consider when deciding what type of poetry to write, and in evaluating the merits of each kind of poetry.

Personal nonfiction poetry

Personal nonfiction poetry can be good in that it allows a poet a direct vehicle for expression.  The poet writes about something in their lives in an overt way.

This type of poetry has the benefit of being real to an audience.  If a person writes poetry about a condition, and they have that condition, and their audience knows it, it can give their poetry authenticity.  It avoids possible situations of disillusionment.

Another benefit, is that since this type of poetry is a real description of something personal, the poet doesn’t have to invent something.  They don’t have to invent situations, or characters, or metaphorical vehicles.  They simply have to talk about something real.

There are some drawbacks to this kind of poetry.  One is, since the poetry is personal nonfiction, the poet is putting part of themselves out there.  There is a sense of vulnerability involved.  Depending on the content of the poetry, it might be the equivalent of the poet letting others read their diary.  This is the kind of thing, that later on, a poet might regret.

A second drawback, is that if this is the primary kind of poetry a poet writes, it can be limiting.  If a poet only writes about things that have affected them, and they only do so in a real way, then they miss out on poetry about a wide variety of issues and topics.  Using the example from above, if a poet wants to explore the issue of homelessness, but they nor no one they know has been or is homeless, then they would not be able to do so, if they only wrote using this type of poetry.

A third drawback, is that to some, personal nonfiction poetry can come across as “basic” in a way.  It is the first type of poetry a poet might write.  It can be narrowly focused and miss out on talking about “big” issues.  This characteristic can make the poetry seem simplistic to some readers of poetry.

Impersonal nonfiction poetry

Impersonal nonfiction poetry can be useful in a number of ways.  For example, it can be used to explore “big” issues.  A poet can talk about current events or history or social issues and do so even if those things have not personally affected the poet.  Although this type of poetry can be focused on small things, when it is focused on big ideas, it can be poetry that a wide audience can take something from (whether they agree with the poet’s perspective or not).

Also, this type of poetry, although impersonal, because of its nonfiction element, doesn’t have the problem of being perceived as disingenuous.  For example, if a poet wrote about war, without a fictional story element, it could be seen as the poet writing about an important issue.  This could be the case, even if the poet has never been personally affected by a war, for example by never having been a soldier or someone who knows one.  By contrast, if a poet were to write about war, but did so from the perspective of a grieving loved one who has lost someone in a war, if this isn’t personally them, or someone they know, they could come across as disingenuous to their audience.  This might be the case, even if the poet was simply using the fictional element to explore the issue or make a point.

One drawback to this kind of poetry, is that it might not be too expressive for the poet.  Because the poet is writing about impersonal subjects, they might miss out on exploring elements of themselves.  Even though the poet is talking about something real, because those things aren’t personal to them, they might miss out on elements of self-discovery.

Personal fiction poetry

Personal fiction poetry, if utilizing metaphor, has the benefit, that a poet gets to explore issues and ideas connected to themselves, but do so in a way that provides a barrier between them and their audience.  It’s almost like wearing a costume and a mask in a play.  It allows the person to express themselves, without necessarily being themselves.

If the poet writes about personal subjects in a fictional, but direct way, it can give the poet an opportunity to explore ideas that there is some lack of connection to.  For example, a poet could write about themselves in a situation they have never really been in.  This could allow the poet to explore the idea of how they would act, and also, how that situation might differ from their reality.

A drawback to this kind of poetry can come from the fictional element.  Since the fiction is mixed with something personal, and therefore real, especially with the metaphorical type of this poetry, there might be some who find the poem “unreal” in some way.  This is different from something that is either completely real or completely fiction.  An analogy for this might be amateur wrestling vs. professional wrestling vs. a circus.  Amateur wrestling could be viewed as real.  A circus, which although is arranged, practiced and staged, might not be viewed as fake.  Professional wrestling though, which is in an in between place, can be seen by some as “fake” because it straddles that middle line.  This same idea could apply to personal fiction poetry.

Impersonal fiction poetry

Impersonal fiction poetry has the benefit of being very open.  Because the poetry is completely made up, the poet can explore all sorts of issues.  The poet isn’t limited to things that have actually happened or that have personally affected them.

This type of poetry can be a good way to talk about issues, because the story element allows the poet to explore the issue in a personal sounding way, even though the poetry is impersonal to the poet.

This type of poetry most closely resembles fiction story writing.  If a writer is familiar with fiction writing, and wants to explore poetry, this type can be a way to do so.  If a poet is familiar with fiction writing, this type of poetry can give the poet another outlet.

One drawback to this kind of poetry, is that since the poet is writing about things that haven’t affected them, they might not know the reality of the subject.  If a poet hasn’t, for example, had cancer, they might have trouble writing a poem that expresses some aspect of it.

Another drawback, is the idea that this type of poetry might come across to some as without “right”.  In other words, there might be some who think, “What right does a poet have to talk about an issue in a personal sounding way, if they haven’t been through it?”  Using the example above, some might question a poet’s right to talk about cancer in a personal, emotional sounding way, if that poet, or someone they know, hasn’t had cancer.  If someone has cancer, they might take some offense.


These four categories of poetry all have uses and can be used at different times and in different situations.  Depending on what the poet wants to express, and how they want to express it, they can use one of the categories as a vehicle.


P. S. As tomorrow is Thanksgiving, there will be no new post on M. Sakran’s blog of and about poetry and poetry related things from November 23, 2017 – November 26, 2017. The next new post should be on Monday November 27, 2017.  Happy Thanksgiving.