An interesting bit that appeared in the New York Times Book Review a long while ago. I often use it with students.
Authors are sometimes startled by the way people respond to their work. In “Affirming Limits” (University of Massachusetts), Robert Pack describes a woman who interpreted one of his poems more emotionally than even he might have wished.
Having just given a reading of one of my own poems, I was delighted when a woman from the audience came to the podium and took my hand in both of hers, in what I assumed was a warm gesture of appreciation and approval. “I feel so sorry for you,” she said; “believe me, I understand.” At first I thought she was commiserating with me for an unsuccessful performance, and then I realized she must be referring to a poem I had read about the death of “my brother” in a hunting accident. The poem contains the lines: “But at his funeral I would not cry / Certain that I was not to blame for it.” I apologized to her, explaining that I never had a brother, that I invented the brother for the sake of the poem. If my hand could have been detached at the wrist, she would have thrown it on the floor, so violent was her disgust with me. “You mean you lied,” she said; “you took advantage of my sympathy.”
I didn’t have the wit then to say that is exactly what poems ought to do. Poems tell personal lies in order to express impersonal truths. And even if I had so replied, I doubt that she would have been convinced and not felt cheated. The intimacy of lyric poetry seems to invite a response that assumes an autobiographical revelation has been made, that the poet has offered a confession to the reader.