Where does inspiration lie? Everywhere!

This is my attempt to pounce on and then shape the words I breathe.

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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Truth and Poetry, Part One

Truth has been troubling me lately.  

By "troubling," I mean that it insists on being considered from more than one perspective, and it will give me no peace until I do that.   

By "Truth," I mean truth itself in as much as I experience it.  

As a Quaker, I am a Friend of Truth, which means that I do not have a double standard that lets me lie if I have not taken an oath.   Telling the truth got me in lots of hot water when I was a child, but I could not even lie to avoid punishment.   I laugh about that now although I would live it the same way again.  But I did not discover Friends of Truth until I was fully 30 years old and working alongside them to create the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice.   

Early Quakerism (1660-1760) believed so much in truth and individual experience that it warned against the art of theatre.  Theatre encourages people to act, speak, show things that are not themselves, and deliberately participate in untruths.  It was seen in the same light as gambling and horse racing.  

Things change.  In my 1980s political activism, I had experienced theatre as an essential tool.  It (1) communicates to and convinces audiences of hard truths and (2) re-energizes those who already believe its message.  And when I discerned that my ministry would be in theater, members of the Friends Meeting in Albany, NY helped me season the decision that moved me across the country and earned me a PhD in Dramatic Arts.  

When I moved to Philadelphia 20 years later, I planned to research and write about the late addition of theatre departments at Quaker Colleges—not until the 1960s.  I had just been part of a controversial staging of a “gay” play; and I wanted to examine religious strictures on theatre, dance, and certain populations.   Instead my ministry took me to inner-city public school teaching for the next eleven years. 

Now I am a retired teacher and a poet.  Truth has been troubling me again.  In my poetry I make up persona and experience; I invent situations rather than always tell my own.  Indeed, I distance myself deliberately at times when I seem to be spilling my guts.  It doesn’t always interest me to be plain and simple and straight forward; and if it doesn’t interest me I do not think it will interest my reader.   I use devices to get at a Kind of Truth, but not the one I was talking about earlier.  This behavior borders on equivocation.  "But everyone does it."

Two nights ago, however, I found myself playing the poetry game in front of a Meeting for Worship.  I entertained instead of telling the truth.  I wanted to get a laugh and I did.  Does everyone do that? I wanted to hide that I was in physical pain (chronic condition, long story), and so I talked about going to graduation at my old high school.  This was not a lie, but it was an omission of truth that could ultimately mean I did not ask for help.  Does everyone do that too?  And who cares?

I do.  I told the truth before worship ended, and the corrected lies became a ministry in our silent meeting.

But I believe now that there is a place for a Poetic and Literary Truth that is both different from  and more inclusive than Day to Day Truth.  It doesn't belong in between God and I, but it is part of a God-given ministry of some importance.  

(to be continued) 


  1. Hi Susan,
    I tried to leave a really long comment on your poem "What He Meant", only to have my comments disappear twice. Then your poem disappeared too. I guess its magic time was up, just as you say in the header of the blog. In any case, I'm shortening that comment to this: great words, well said. The title was fine, but I'm leaning towards your alternate, "the answer".
    Thanks for your comment on my poem translation too. I only saw it today, as WP had marked it as spam.

  2. Thank you, Chris! I fixed that a few days back.

  3. It is not completely clear to me what you are getting at. But is it that after a while you start writing to please a potential reader? Because that is what I am accusing myself of at present. Almost tempted to switch off comments and ignore stats, just to be myself. It becomes a game, trying to see what style and subject gets the attention. But it backfires when you suspect others are doing this.Then the objective of poetry is out of the window. I have reached a critical stage now and am so disillusioned both with myself and others, that I feel I have to disappear. Trouble is that I have come to love poetry and form, particularly cadence, with or without rhyme. And would I write it for myself alone?
    Do we all crave an audience, or is the audience the justification? I am not sure.
    With me visual is more important than verbal. Slightly, but it takes precidence. That is why get hurt that nobody reacts to by images and presentation, which i spent a lot of time and energy on. Finding a balanced audience seems impossible. Most people are totally word oriented or picture oriented. I seem to float in the middle and get disappointed in either camp. Being new to and overwhelmed by poetry I find it hard to take it lightly. The haste with which we write and read is also hard to take.

  4. Hmmm--no, that is not quite what I am getting at, but it is also an important point. I'm talking less about writing to please than about hiding and not letting people see me. I can see how the two situations could be one and the same at times, especially if the reason for hiding is to be more like others. I hide impulsively at times, without realizing it, when the situation does not warrant or benefit in any way from the deception. Now, I also have a bit of a chameleon problem which is very evident when i pick up the accent of a person I am talking to. This can happen with other behaviors as well.

    I think audiences are necessary. It is a good exercise, though, to step back and to see what i am willing to do for an audience, which you--bless you--are beginning to do. I do not feel the poets we are putting in the audience place right now have anything invested in our copying skills and attitudes tho' they share forms and recommend trying them.

    I am also guilty of not valuing the visuals as much as the verbal images. Perhaps you could remind us when you introduce a poem that you weigh both equally? That would help me distinguish you from the Illustrators. When I decorate a poem, I haven't always considered multi-level and multi-form writing.

    Gosh, I am glad we're using this blog to start a dialogue. Welcome and many happy returns of this day!


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