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 demonised Africa, has resulted in the critical movement referred to as postcolonialism. It derived its impetus from Chinua Achebe’s observant disagreements with the novel. The genealogy of postcolonial criticism often wrongly ends with Edward Said’s Orientalism – a seminal and important discourse of Otherness indeed. Nevertheless any history of the genre that leaves out Achebe’s Hopes and Impediments becomes a lie. But I digress!


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 Europe, all intelligent men and university dons or public intellectuals, abused the word and also helped propagate racism. It has left the world a less hospitable habitation and humanity a naked and less dignified specie.  When the talk is about ‘poetics’ the old argument in literary discourse about the function of poetry –  art-for-art’s sake as opposed to the question of social relevance raises its head again. Proponents of art-for-art’s sake insist on beauty or the aesthetic principle as the most important measure of good literature or art while the stickler for social relevance insists on the idea of a message, an overarching moral – not necessarily didactic – field in poetics. So truth and beauty converge within poetics, warring with each other. John Keats’ lines from Ode to the Grecian Urn are all too often quoted as a celebration of the aesthetic as an overriding goal in poetics: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” But is it not a poetic fallacy to subsume truth under beauty? Dorian Gray’s narcissistic obsession with his own beauty in the Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray discountenances illness and the deformities that the body is all too prone to with age. Were he to accept the truth of age would he, perhaps, not discover the higher truths of the immortality of the soul, which the body encapsulates and in this way escape the vagaries of a “poor wordless body in its fumbling ways”?


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 industrialised Europe was actually meant to bolster the principle of truth in art or poetics. The decadence that the industrial revolution brought with it was to be balanced out by uplifting art or literature. It is in the nineteenth century that the words ‘intellectual’, genius, artist and so on first came into currency. The patronage system supporting artists or writers became consolidated at that point in history. Poets in nineteenth century Europe also reacted against tradition and public dictates on how they produce their works. Nevertheless public institutions or private benefactors supported their livelihood and as such the society did expect truth not just beauty from its artist even though it did not like that truth all the time.


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)


As Hopkins says here what the poet speaks should be what he is, he should act in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is; he should keep grace, in order to keep all his goings graces. The poet’s slogan should be: ‘what I do is me; myself I speak and spell; for that I came!’




Amatoritsero Ede


Carleton University,

Ottawa, Canada



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