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Monday, June 18, 2012

Truth and Poetry, Part Two



In my poetry and fiction I fabricate stories, narrate from perspectives I could not possibly experience directly, and even--when using my exact experience--distance it from myself in some way so that the reader can not assume that I am the "I" that is the voice in the poem.  I seem to use these devices at random--and though there is always a  purpose to my strategy--I am not sure I can always articulate the reasons behind my choices.  Are my poems untruths, then?  

This question came to me because of new experience I am having workshopping my poems in two on-line groups.  The posted poems are exceedingly  good, and the comments range from helpful to outright praise.  But those who comment often speak to the writers as if they were the voice and as if they experienced the emotions and actions they present in their poems.  And the writers' responses often second that impression.  Except in the allegorical types of poetry, then, I feel out of step.  Should I change my ways, or frame my poetry in a fictional contest?  
I think, if I am not telling the truth, I am also not lying.   I write what I know, following the advice Audre Lorde gave me long ago.  But I remember also what Aristotle insisted was the difference between poetry and history: They are two different kinds of truth.  He even implied that poetry's truth was superior.  Here are his words--and yes, I am trusting the translation:  
. . . . [I]t is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen- what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen.
       Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.
      By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages. 
      The particular is- for example- what Alcibiades did or suffered. . . .

Aristotle is one dead white male that I don't mind referring to because I believe that he was trying to save education and literature and art back in his day just as many are trying to do now.   His teacher, Plato, and his time were trying to banish art and poetry and theatrical expression from political authority.  The evidence of this is in Plato's Republic, which preceded a new stress on military and local authority and seemed necessary for the obedience required in a more fascist state.  In The Poetics, to which I refer above, Aristotle is trying to establish the necessity of poetry by showing that it too has formal rules that could be quantified and then obeyed.  The Classical Age and its Ideals, according to Aristotle, had to embrace poetry as well as what actually was more controllable.

Two types of truth exist: poetry and history--maybe even more.  And many kinds of lying exist.  Adrienne Rich describes two in her essay "On Lying."  One is lying directly and the other is lying by omission. Plato (and my contemporary faith) show another kind of lying: saying words and taking perspectives that are not our own, IE acting and "playing at" as one does on the stage or when quoting another's truth.  And that is another subject for another time.  In the meantime, I console myself that my poetry fulfills some kind of ministry, even if as yet I do not know what that is.

(I'll be back to provide the links.)






8 comments:

  1. very nice one....SUSAN..

    Poetry

    Picnics poetry’s first goal is to promote and advertise Poetry so that we can take advantage of the significance of arts and culture in the promotion of positive human interaction.

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  2. Thanks Adele. That is an important goal. How do you see that fitting in to truth?

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  3. I too have noticed that there often seems to be a desire on the readers part to believe that the voice of the poem is the same, on all accounts, as the voice of the poet. (I myself give in to this temptation every chance I get.) In part I think poetry itself is to blame. One of its most striking "devices" is an illusion of intimacy. Rarely in life, with the people we share it with, do we get to hear such bare-bones words about love and death, grief and longing, as in a good - or even decent - poem. A lot of us crave this intimacy. And there it is, so readily offered to us, as it seems. I try to embrace this illusion by seeing it all as a game. And who does't like a good game?

    Are you sure that the varied voices you use are not your own? And if not, whose are they? I see what you're saying, I think. And Aristotle. If you write a poem about the daughter of a trapper from northern Ontario who loses her father to drowning at age seven, it doesn't really matter whether you are such a trapper's daughter or not. What matters is that you have experienced love and loss and grief, and therefore can write convincingly about them. The stories we tell, whether our own or others, are ways for us to share our experiences of existence with each other. I suspect you've discovered a truth that I too have stumbled upon: it's fun to make shit up.

    It's been an enjoyable experience coming here.

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  4. What a wonderful extension of this conversation! I am "the varied voices" only in the sense that Whitman is everything he sees when he sings America, which for him is quite profound. I hope that I become "the ground" in the sense he and his poetry do in Part 52 of his cycle, but I am not there yet. Do I enjoy making up shxx? Maybe, though I am not completely there yet either. If you read Part One you'll see how being a Quaker complicates things a bit.

    I am intrigued by your words about "the illusion of intimacy." I think all being "a good game" is a bit too cynical, but I too immediately assume the voice is the author, and then take a quick step back. At first I did that to give kids a chance to say hard stuff without admitting it was their own hard life. And then I decided to give everyone that space, and then I needed it--on my poem about Alzheimers, for example--because I was guessing and falling in love with my own romanticism. I have also had students write thoughts they felt were in someone else's head. Somewhere there is truth in that--at best in compassion and imagination, at worst in our particular brand of misconception.

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  5. Nice post :)

    www.inthepourinrain.blogspot.com

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  6. Thank you for visiting, "I do, I do"!
    I will return the visit as soon as possible.

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  7. Thanks for your comment on my poem, Susan. If I may add to your conversation: I'm of two minds. I do tend to read poems as personal and factual, especially when I "know" the writer. Wish I didn't, but so many of these intimate expressions of hurt and belief are just what they seem that it is almost disingenuous to speak of "the Narrator"

    As a writer, of course I am irked when others make the same assumption. I want the piece to stand on its own and not need the crutch of my biography. And I don't want to be limited to the facts of a rather bland life.

    It occurs to me that I don't feel compelled to correct other sorts of misreadings; there may be something worth exploring in that.

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  8. It occurs to me that I deny it is me to conceal what is me! New thought: I am still hiding. I think I am trying to find the seams that tie all of my stories together. I continually ask myself "and you know that because? It's familiar because?" Quakers occasionally ask each other "How is the truth with you today?" I too am quiet in front of other sorts of misreadings partly because I am learning what works and what doesn't. That came up recently with my 2nd poem with weapons (on a page in the poetry blog).

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