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Poet and literary critic Lesley Wheeler writes in her new hybrid essay collection Poetry’s Possible Worlds:

“The distinction between [fiction and nonfiction] rests not in intrinsic differences but on information external to the text. This story is on the front page of a trustworthy newspaper: factual. That one appears beside a moody illustration near the end of The New Yorker: you think ‘fiction’ and you assume references are invented or at least disguised and manipulated.”

My co-author Nathaniel Goldberg and I draw a similar philosophical conclusion in our Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith: “A discourse is a fictional or factual diegesis if and only if read as that kind.” And we include an example that vacillates according to the kind of “information external to the text” that Wheeler mentions.

The New York newspaper The Sun published Richard Adams Locke’s “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made by Sir John Herschel” in daily installments in August 1835. Though The Sun proved extremely untrustworthy, most readers read the story as factual—until they got to descriptions of bat-winged creatures building temples on the moon, and even then many believed the hoax until the newspaper announced it was fiction the following month. Had the story originally appeared in the New Yorker (though hybrid newspapers like The Sun may be the closest early nineteenth-century equivalent), or at least been identified within the publication as fiction, probably no one would have read it as a work of nonfiction. 

Note the point that Goldberg and I share with Wheeler: “Great Astronomical Discoveries” is not intrinsically fiction, even though its author wrote it as fiction. That’s because, in our shared view, the status of something being fiction or nonfiction is determined entirely by the experience of readers.

When Wheeler writes “you assume references are invented,” she means references to some world: “The effects readers experience as they enter possible worlds—such as transportation—don’t rely on the authors’ intent to mimic verifiable events, or, for that matter, to distort or ignore them entirely.” It’s about the world a reader imagines.

Goldberg and I discuss that too: “when a factual diegesis refers to the actual world, and a fictional diegesis refers to a merely possible one, each does so by reporting on its respective world.” Wheeler’s invented references are understood to report on a merely possible world, though she’s equally interested in the actual world. Both are kinds of possible worlds. Goldberg and I explain: “While there is only one actual world, which is itself possible, there is an infinity of merely possible worlds.”

Poetry’s Possible Worlds explores that infinity through the world-building enacted by readers of poetry.

Disproving Marie-Laure Ryan’s claim that a short lyric poem such as William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say” is not “a system of reality,” Wheeler reports her experience of its reality: “I visualize an old-fashioned kitchen with an early-model icebox and linoleum table, the kind with a corrugated metal rim. Williams is wearing a light button-down shirt, cuffs open because it’s summer, and his posture is cocky.”

That’s not the kitchen I see, but the fact that I do see some kitchen (the one from my childhood home) proves her point. She continues: “As a reader, I may be an outer-limits case, yet where there is plot and character and sensory detail, imaginative world-building is possible.”

Later she describes a bar she imagined while reading another poem: “I mentally placed it … not in a pub I had really visited but in my Universal Fantasy Tavern. Like many people who seek to lose themselves in books, I recycle imagined settings to save attention for other elements of the work and speed immersion. None of this was conscious until I started researching the cognitive science of literary transportation, but I must have generated many of these spaces as an untraveled preteen.”

The term “transportation” is apt because it implies transportation to somewhere—though apparently never to the same place. Goldberg and I acknowledge this point in order to set it aside: “no two readers may read the same discourse in precisely the same way. Even so, typically there would reman overlap. If extensive, call the resulting diegesis ‘the diegesis.’”

Rather than setting them aside, Poetry’s Possible Worlds delves into those individual readerly worlds fully, revealing that “Taking Poetry Personally” (the title of the introduction) is an inevitability to be embraced rather than ignored. In the process, she also reveals the underappreciated fact that poetry relies on and produces the same levels of transportive and immersive world-building as longer works of fiction.

Poetry’s Possible Worlds is itself narratively immersive, merging a sequence of literary essays with a novel-like progression of short memoirs about not only the author’s reading experiences but the personal life experiences that surround them and give them context-specific meaning. I read early and multiple drafts of each chapter, but as I reread passages now, I am transported to events in my own life too.

The chapter exploring the thresholds of a poem by a poet she met while on a Fulbright in New Zealand includes the sentence: “Meanwhile, my husband, Chris, planned to work on a novel in our rented house.” My Alzheimer’s-suffering mother haunts the chapter on poetic “Fiction”: “Chris reproached himself for having missed so many signs, but Judy was smart enough to mask incapacity.” “Voice,” which explores another poet’s creative relationship with her husband, includes: “Chris and I are fascinated by literary couples.” But more revealingly: “You’d think Chris, whose first book was a novel, would believe in narrative. Yet since our first years together, Chris has resisted transforming real experience into tales.”

Do I co-write works of philosophy to avoid writing memoir? Possibly. But as Wheeler tells her readers: “All literature, however, even when it’s autobiographical, is fantasy.” Poetry’s Possible Worlds is one of my favorite works of fantasy, and not just because I’m married to the author or because the Acknowledgements and the book as a whole concludes on this sentence: “My real and imagined worlds are indebted to him.”

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