Autobiographical Poetry?

Why do people reading poetry written from a first person point of view default into thinking that it is autobiographical?

The poetry I write comes from my life; however, it’s not necessarily representative of my life. It often comes from an event I witnessed that sticks with me because it’s strange or slightly off from the norm, and that event ferments in my imagination until it grows into something interesting (I hope) that I can write about.
For example, a number of people contacted me regarding the poem, “Weekend Getaway” (below). Granted, most of those people got in touch with me because they wanted reassurances that I wouldn’t let a suicidal man drown in Lake Michigan without trying to do something about it, or, at the very least, reporting it. I think they wanted reassurances that the version of me they had in their heads still matched who I was in real life because after they read that poem autobiographically, the two didn’t quite jive, and they were concerned.

I will freely admit that there is some truth in the poem, a kernel of truth if you will. My wife and I were on the 11th floor of a hotel in Chicago after a long day of city adventures with the kids, and we did see a fully clothed man on the beach walking toward the freezing water, and I was drinking wine, but that man simply washed his face and hands at the water’s edge; he didn’t walk in and drown himself.

So, from the point in the poem where he walked up to the water’s edge all the way to the end is entirely made up; it’s fictitious. It came from me wondering what would’ve happen had he walked in and drowned himself. Then I wondered if there were actually people who were so callus that they would have viewed reporting the drowning as too much of a hassle. Why even bother? And then I wrote a poem from that person’s point of view.

Perhaps one reason readers tend to foist autobiographical readings onto poems is tied to the same curiosity that causes us to gawk at traffic accidents as we drive by, rubbernecking the whole time, happy it wasn’t us twisted and entangled in the metal wreckage. Perhaps I’m biting the hand that feeds me by complaining about not being given the fictitious benefit of doubt in my poetry; perhaps part of what makes the poem interesting is the tension that is generated in the reader’s mind. Did that event really happen to the poet? Did he/she really react that way? Perhaps it’s just one of the hazards of being a writer, and I should stop complaining.

Weekend Getaway

The TV flickered quiet
in the dark hotel room
and the kids slept
Their wind-burnt faces
beneath better bedding
than we had at home

I poured red wine into a thick sink glass
and felt the ease of alcohol unravel
the city anxiety from my shoulders
as the gritty red stained my teeth

I looked at Lake Michigan
from my borrowed eleventh floor window
like a king considering his kingdom
removed from the sound
removed from the people

That’s when I saw him
His body packed thick
with homelessness
He walked with resolve
toward the water’s edge
without stopping
without a discernable
pause he walked
straight into the cold arms
of Lake Michigan

Holly shit, I whispered
What? My wife asked
and walked over just in time
to see the icy waves
grab him
and pull him
under the moonlit swells
and he didn’t come up
We both stared
holding our
and still
he didn’t come up

We should call someone,
she exhaled

Right, I said
Let the kids sleep...
I’ll call from the front desk

But I never made it past the hotel bar
where I ordered a glass of wine
and as I sipped
I drifted
further and
from the urgency
of the moment
and with each swig
it felt less real
And I became unsure
of how to explain
what I’d just seen