Poetry and truth



“I’d like to offer a few thoughts about truth not from the point of view of the philosopher but from that of the poet (receiving thereby a significant demotion in Socrates’ rankings in the Phaedrus, from first place to sixth out of nine. Poets follow such types as household managers, financiers, doctors, and prophets, and outstrip only manual laborers, sophists, and tyrants). The tension between poetry and truth gave Goethe the title of his autobiography, Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (“From My Life: Poetry and Truth”), written between 1811 and 1833. W. H. Auden borrowed Goethe’s title in 1959 for a prose sequence on love, and, in 1977, the poet Anthony Hecht (a great admirer of both poets) took the same title for a poem in which he considers, among other things, Goethe, the Second World War, and the thorny relationship between truth and art. Hecht conveyed the truth of his war experience as a poet not as a journalist or historian.

That poetry greatly enriches our experience is not a hard case to make: the Iliad, the Aeneid, BeowulfThe Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, and Paradise Lost. It’s impossible to imagine our lives—our language—without them. When we say, “His voice was stentorian,” or “He is to the manner born,” or “It was sheer pandemonium,” we employ just a smattering of the countless words and idioms derived from these works, which are woven into the fabric of our daily talk. And, of course, these works routinely speak to one another, like cousins sharing news of distant relations at a holiday dinner. One work allusively gossips about another work, a practice to which T. S. Eliot—with his footnote-bedizened Waste Land and its references to Dante, Shakespeare, Kyd, Nerval, Baudelaire, the Upanishads, etc.—was rather a latecomer.

So keen is Shakespeare on the story of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, for example, that he mentions her four times in The Tempest, twice in Titus Andronicus, and once each in The Merchant of Venice2 Henry VI,Antony and CleopatraHamlet, and Romeo and Juliet. Now it is likely that Shakespeare borrowed these references to the “widow Dido” in The Tempest not from the Aeneid but from Montaigne’s essay “Of Diverting and Diversions,” in John Florio’s translation of 1603, but this is just a further example of how such references are cross-pollinated and propagated.

In fact, as Eliot knew, allusion itself is a great propagator of culture.The story of Dido for Shakespeare is a liquid bit of cultural currency, known to all, a story that plays equally well in the upper stalls and down among the oyster shells. Hamlet himself enacts a similar bit of cultural recuperation, recalling for the players Aeneas’s tale to Dido: “The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms,/ Black as his purpose, did the night resemble/ When he lay couchèd in the ominous horse . . .” From Timaeus to Virgil to Montaigne to Shakespeare: as stories and references find their way through successive generations of writers, they are revised and revitalized. Allusion is one of the ways that poems mean.

We love these great poems for the stories they tell and for the history they contain. They give important information about who we are as a people, the roots of our customs, our words, our values, and our beliefs. They are roadmaps of our humanity. James Joyce once said about his novel Ulysses, to Frank Budgen, as they were walking together along the Universitätstrasse in Zurich in 1918: “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” And indeed the novel follows the Blooms and Dedalus from street to street, and from beach to bar to bedroom. But clearly this kind of information is not all that is being communicated by a work of fiction or poetry. Indeed, it could be argued that this sort of knowledge—the kind regularly imparted by a newspaper column or a search engine—is almost incidental to the real work of the poem, whose ultimate object is the education of the emotions.

The poet Mark Strand, who died this past November, once told Wallace Shawn in a Paris Review interview that “You don’t read poetry for the kind of truth that passes for truth in the workaday world. You don’t read a poem to find out how you get to Twenty-fourth Street.” In other words, poetic truth does not inhere ultimately in the denotative language of the poem. For facts, we have much more effective means of communication: the instruction manual, the brochure, the travel guide, or the public lecture. When Goethe takes “Poetry and Truth” as the title of his autobiography, what he is suggesting in part, I think, is that experience, in a work of art, may be rendered most clearly, and in a sense most truthfully, by attending to something beyond the verifiable facts. Fine, you might say, but doesn’t art, then, become, as Jacques Maritain wrote, “a world apart, closed, limited, absolute”—not the apprehension of reality but a replacement for reality, an illusion? This was a mote to trouble the mind’s eye of Plato.

Adefinition of poetry put forward by the poet Yvor Winters in his book Primitivism and Decadence (1937) sheds light on the question. A poem, Winters wrote, is a statement in words about a human experience—so far, so good, no?—a statement, he was quick to add, that pays particular attention to the connotative or emotional charge of language. Now, we all know where to find the denotative meaning of a word: we go to the dictionary. The connotative shades of a word, however, are harder to locate precisely. Take, for example, the word prison. The OED reports: “Originally: the condition of being kept in captivity or confinement; forcible deprivation of personal liberty; imprisonment. Hence (now the usual sense): a place of incarceration.” Clear, certainly, but a little dry. One could not say that this definition contains the complete meaningof the word.

Connotation communicates the emotions associated with a human experience. When we attend to the connotative or associative charge of prison, we think of, say, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”: “A suffocating odour pervaded the prison! . . . I panted! I gasped for breath!” Or of Richard II in Pomfret Castle, only moments before his death: “I have been studying how I may compare/ This prison where I live unto the world. . . .” Or take Dante’s Ugolino, who, after his children have succumbed one by one to starvation in their shared prison, gives into his unspeakable hunger: “Then fasting,” he confesses, “had more power than grief.” Isolation, deprivation, dankness, threat. Connotation comprises all of the associations—visual, emotional, sonic—that have accrued to a word in all of its uses. The job of the poet is to manage or marshal these emotional charges of language as aptly as possible with regard to a specific experience.

For Winters, poetry—and, in its concision, lyric poetry, especially—is the highest linguistic form because, taken together, connotation and denotation compose the “total content” of language. It’s true that the two exist together in other kinds of writing, a novel, say, but poetry, by dint of its meters, lines, and highly wrought rhythms, modulates feeling with the greatest control. Connotation in poetry, then, acquires what Winters thinks of as a “moral” dimension. In order to render human experience truthfully, connotation or “feeling” must be precisely managed:

The artistic process is one of moral evaluation of human experience, by means of a technique which renders possible an evaluation more precise than any other. The poet tries to understand his experience in rational terms, to state his understanding, and simultaneously to state, by means of the feelings we attach to words, the kind and degree of emotion that should properly be motivated by this understanding.

The term “moral,” then, refers—at least in this instance—to a fairly technical process of selecting the best words in the best order for a given subject. “In so far as the rational statement is understandable and acceptable, and in so far as the feeling is properly motivated by the rational statement, the poem will be good,” he tells us.

Winters’s detractors—who feel that he, in his adherence to reason, quashes emotion in poetry—miss the point, I think. For Winters, emotion, expressed in the proper degree, is the whole ballgame. But this question of degree is crucial; if the feeling in a poem is either overstated or understated, the poem falls down. Excessive emotion, a form of sentimentality, obscures the experience under consideration, while the opposite of sentimentality—a kind of cold reportage—can also be a failure of evaluation. Understatement of the emotion robs experience of its humanity. The statement “Three prisoners were publicly executed in a detention center” crisply relates the facts, but in “The Shield of Achilles” Auden affords the reader some inkling of the feelings involved:

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot

     Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)

And sentries sweated for the day was hot:

     A crowd of ordinary decent folk

     Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke

As three pale figures were led forth and bound

To three posts driven upright in the ground.

The mass and majesty of this world, all

     That carries weight and always weighs the same

Lay in the hands of others; they were small

     And could not hope for help and no help came:

     What their foes liked to do was done, their shame

Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride

And died as men before their bodies died.

We would not expect this sort of account from Anderson Cooper, but we should not accept anything less from our poets. As William Carlos Williams wrote famously, if somewhat blowzily, in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”:

        It is difficult

to get the news from poems

     yet men die miserably every day

        for lack

of what is found there.

But what, exactly, is found there? And could one possibly die from the lack of it?

One thing found there is song. From ancient times, poetry and music were a single expression. The Greek word mousikedenotes a combined expression of words, music, and dance. The critic H. T. Kirby-Smith tells us that, in the Greek rites, “Dance movements were coordinated with the audible part of the performance by the lifting and clumping down of an enlarged shoe worn by a leader, or by the raising and lowering of a staff.” Poetry and song—or incantation, or chant—often worked together as the basis of religious worship in ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Hebrew, Egyptian, and Greek.

Poetry without music is a relatively recent development. A pronounced separation came around 1550, before which, Kirby-Smith notes, “the concept of a unified performance combining melody, words, and dance had never completely faded out.” The songlike cadence of poetry, in fact all of prosody, is in itself semantic and carries an emotional charge. Every syllable, every phoneme, is highly ordered in such a way as to communicate feeling.

I welcome comments and criticism

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