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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)