Poetry (Online) #36 – November 2005 Online Magazine Monthly…since
December 2002. ISSN 1479-425X
Sentinel Poetry (Online) #36 – November 2005
Online Magazine Monthly…since December 2002. ISSN 1479-425X
Truth and Poetry
Biblical mythology is replete with examples of the efficacy of the word. The world was spoken into existence; it is reported that the word became flesh and dwelt amongst us – a rather esoteric idea but one which we can understand in our secular world to mean that the word is a potent and magical item; that it carries in its kernel the idea of truth; that it is a creative force; it brings things or ideas into existence and it shapes objective reality. This magical quality is evident in traditional cultures where words are spoken – as in incantations – to effect miraculous changes to reality. Again in the Bible the word is spoken to effect spiritual healing. And in esoteric religions like Hinduism or Buddhism we find that the word is central to the shaping of consciousness as in mantra meditation. The long and the short of it is that the word is a powerful tool in shaping objective and subjective reality, and truth is its motor. That candour in poetry cannot be compromised for anything else – be it craft or stylistics. What gives poetry its charm is its overall truth-telling effect beyond all the other conceits it is very much capable of. It is the truth-value within the poem that shines through and envelopes the poem in an aura of ‘facticity’ a la Jean-Paul Sartre.
The efficacy of most poetry derives from their weight
and precision in addressing the truth. When a poet begins to lie in his work or
personal life that gift of poetry, that inner ballast which propels things
outwards from him deserts the poet. To expand on this a bit, when in poetics
the lie is presented as truth or honesty is subverted by career or inordinate
ambition the writer losses his strength of conviction; in fact he becomes a
source of darkness and confusion instead of being a light to the faculties. An
example is Joseph Conrad in Heart of
Darkness. The argument and dissent generated by that lying book, which
In applying the all-encompassing expression,
‘poetics’ here one includes the essay, novels, plays, philosophy
– even art, since the visual artist replaces the word with graphics or
symbolic objects – and all writing
generally within the purview of ‘the word’; necessarily so: it is
not only in poetry that lies can kill the spirit and cause mayhem. The
nineteenth century eugenics movement was a huge lie. The ‘word’ was
perverted to construct a world of lies and it led to confusion and racism.
Again nineteenth century race theorists in
Avant-garde modernist art eschews the petit-bourgeoisie political and moral laxity of conservative modernists. Dadaism, in fact marked the beginning of the postmodernist in art, since the movement coincided with the Great War, which for the Dadaist signaled the failure of tradition and of all modernist art. So art-for-art’s sake in this instance became a slogan to break away from a tradition that insisted on an allegiance to schools, academic principles or the tastes of the public. In short it was a symbolic demand and a reaching for freedom of self-expression, and an effort to escape the ‘tyranny’ of meaning and purpose. Ironically art-for-art’s sake in modern art was counter-productive because the bourgeoisie affectations it railed against claimed it in the way in which that art came to be discussed – only in formalist terms. Critics adjusted and ignored the political or moral impetus in progressive modernist art. Avant-gardism played into the hands of the system because it did not show felicity to truth. It was too reactionary because it almost entirely insisted on aesthetic beauty or sometimes on meaninglessness – especially in abstract painting; its behaviour reflects the tired saying, ‘cutting the nose to spite the face’, the nose in this case being the truth principle– observations of political and moral truths within the body politic, for example, not just that kind of navel-gazing that should be left to mystics. It is after all a secular world. The same reactionism can be found in modern music, where the ear-drums are tortured with screeches, scratches, demonic howls, in short airy nothings!
The idea of the Romantic Artist in nineteenth century
At best what the poet can aspire to is a marrying of truth and beauty. There should be a unifying tension where both strain against the other and where, through such straining, the force of the word shines through. Wilfred Owen wrote his war poems from the raw heart of conviction. And they still resonate today from the trenches and cannon fire of history. The moral force – to use that word, moral, not in its religious sense – of most poetry derives from a solicitous engagement with the truth. One good example of such poetry is Dennis Brutus’, whose desire to capture the terror of apartheid was nevertheless balanced by the most elegant and lyrical poetry. He was addressing the truth of the horror of inhuman behaviour. A love poem with him was not just a love poem. It was a cry of shame at humanity. Good examples can be found in Letters to Martha, written from the urgency of Prison.
This importance of the truth principle is exemplified by Odia Ofeimun’s The Poet Lied. There is a sharp reprimand in the titling; a poet should not lie! And lying takes several forms – personal, private, public or a pretension to literary talents; the poetaster, is the worst kind of liar – or it could be a simple ignoring of the ills in the poet’s immediate and far surrounding. He or she is the conscience of his or her environment and should function so.
Lacan insists that language is structured like a language. The word then has a direct impact on the unconscious in the way we speak it. If the poet does not adhere to the truth language begins to speak him, that is, he or she does not have efficacy anymore. There is the classic example of Rimbaud, the French symbolist poet, who became a slave trader due to economic pressures and could not write poetry thereafter. He dried up! Although this might seem a rather radical reading of him but Gerald Manley Hopkins intuitively understood the need for truth in poetry. His work is a quintessence of the marrying of aesthetic beauty -in his experiments with sound- and the truth principle. This gives to his poetry a vibrancy that is always fresh. It is instructive that he was a poet-priest. Hear him:
As Kingfishers Catch Fire
As king fishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves - goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is…
- Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)