Poetic Truth in a Post-Truth World

On the parkbench sleeps a tiger
With a very tall old lady
In his lap; she is so tall
(And so noisy) that her knees
Have attracted a pair of screechowls
To form on them a nest that sways.

–from Kenneth Patchen’s poem, “On the Parkbench”

This boisterous, fanciful scene from Patchen’s poem awakens the physical senses, describes the unbelievable, and invites us into a world of imaginative play we can delight in.

A while back I visited the Sherlock Holmes museum here on Baker St. in London. Since I received the book, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as a gift from my brother when I was in fifth grade, I’ve been an admirer of Sherlock’s keen ability to observe closely, to see the relevant details in a situation others passed over, and to draw conclusions from them. “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes,” Holmes states in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Doyle’s Holmes had a wonderful ability to pull together a wide array of details, imagine himself into the scene, and to find the truth of the story that rested beneath the details that others pass over. What struck me as particularly interesting when I visited the museum, however, was how the docents would tell you in all seriousness as you entered a room in the house, “This is where Sherlock slept,” and “This is where Sherlock sat, “as if Sherlock were actually a living person. While here in London, I’ve visited Handle’s, Jimi Hendrix’s, Samuel Johnson’s, Thomas Carlyle’s, and Leighton Ford’s houses where you can read about their lives and see their work. These were, indeed, real people who actually did sit in specific chairs or slept in the beds in the house. Hendrix, for example, is said to have spent a lot of his time writing while in bed. Holmes, on the other hand, though he was concerned about truth, is still a fictional character–even if he seems vividly alive in our imagination. “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth,” Holmes stated in The Sign of Four. This is why, even though I realize that the Sherlock Holmes museum is a tourist spot and is appealing to people’s need for a touch stone for this well-loved character, it struck me as odd to hear information given out about Holmes as if he had lived, and it made me wonder about the fiction’s role in our lives.

Unlike at the Sherlock Holmes Museum, at the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studio here in the UK, those who love J.K. Rowling’s books can go to the studio and experience how artists and set makers have turned the fictional scenes of the novel into tangible realities for the movies. You can see the Hogwarts’ castle bathed in dramatic light, step inside Dumbledore’s study, and observe see for yourself the golden snitch made for the game of Quidditch. This is invented reality. We know it, but like all good literature, the imaginative story in the Potter books holds life lessons we can learn from–the value of friendship, staying true to yourself to name but two.

Fiction offers truths that enable us to reflect on who we are and how we are living. Ralph Elison wrote, “Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by,” a statement which seems quite relevant for our current social context. Susan B. Glasser, in her article in Politico Magazine, “Covering Politics in Post-Truth America,” mentions how, “a few days after the election the Oxford Dictionaries announced that post-truth has been announced as the 2016 word of the year, defining it as a condition in which ‘objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.'” Facts are essential to our lives, and they are particularly important to poetry. Poets rely on facts to tell their truths. One of the great purposes of literature is to enable us to see truths about ourselves that we can’t see by simply reading the news. Poetry uses the literal realities of the world to aim at larger truths about the human condition. If you read Gerald Stern, for example, in his poem, “The Dancing,” you are brought through the facts of the poem into post World War Two as he describes his father in his family’s tiny apartment on Beechwood Boulevard,

his left hand under his armpit, doing the dance
of old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum,
half fart, the world at last a meadow,
the three of us whirling and singing, the three of us
screaming and falling, as if we were dying,
as if we could never stop–in 1945–
in Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh, home
of the evil Mellons, 5,000 miles away
from the other dancing–in Poland and Germany–
oh God of mercy, oh wild God.

We can feel the tension between the dance punctuated by the “half fart” sounds coming from beneath the father’s arm pit in the poem and the war, “5,000 miles away” where Jews were “dancing” to keep away from Poland and Germany’s death camps. The family is dancing and laughing, falling as if dying as a way to deal with the horrors of the world. As readers, we see the pain between the lines, how the family is caught in their poverty and loss, and the greater loss of those who they feel connected to across the world, who are, in fact, dying. Similarly to the efforts of Sherlock Holmes, poets work to help us become aware of the larger connections of our inner world to outward realties so that we bring to the surface the details that enable us to begin to see the truth of our own experience. Though still affirming emotion, poetry in this way is a kind of corrective to a post-truth world where appeal to emotion matters more than facts.

Michael Longley, in a recent interview with Krista Tippett on her program, On Being, “The Vitality of Ordinary Things,” Tippett asks Longley, “What does poetry do? What does it work if it’s not solace?” Longley responds, “if you think of an out-of-tune violin, and tuning it up so that it’s in tune, I think that’s what art is, and that’s what art does. And good art, good poems is making people more human, making them more intelligent, making them more sensitive and emotionally pure than they might otherwise be.” This is a truth built from the fabric of the heart, and is also what I recall Lucille Clifton saying when I took a summer the Flight of the Mind writing workshop from her in Oregon during the 1990’s, “Poetry humanizes.”

Langley goes on to say in the interview with Tippett that “one of the marvelous things about poetry is that it’s useless. It’s useless. ‘What use is poetry?’ people occasionally ask in the butcher shop, say. They come up to me, and they say, ‘What use is poetry?’ And the answer is no use, but it doesn’t mean to say that it’s without value. It’s without use, but it has value. It has — it is valuable. And it’s the first thing — the first people that dictators try to get rid of are the poets, and the artists, and the novelists, and the playwrights. They burn their books. They’re terrified of what poetry can do….It means that — poetry encourages you to think for yourself…The image that I love the most… is English critic, Cyril Connolly, and he compared the arts to a little gland in the body, like the pituitary gland, which is at the base of the spine. And it seems very small and unimportant, but when it’s removed, the body dies.” Unlike those who embody a post-truth mentality, poetic imagination is central to helping readers see the truth of human experience beneath the rhetoric. Facts do matter. Intention matters. Poetry asks us to examine the details of our lives and the fabric they weave. Poetry calls us to think about what matters, and to move into relationship with the world around us.

In his poem, “Wounds” Langley writes,

Over a landscape of dead buttocks
My father followed him for fifty years.
At last, a belated casualty,
He said – lead traces flaring till they hurt –
‘I am dying for King and Country, slowly.’
I touched his hand, his thin head I touched.

Now, with military honours of a kind,
With his badges, his medals like rainbows,
His spinning compass, I bury beside him
Three teenage soldiers, bellies full of
Bullets and Irish beer, their flies undone.
A packet of Woodbines I throw in,
A lucifer, the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Paralysed as heavy guns put out
The night-light in a nursery for ever;
Also a bus-conductor’s uniform –
He collapsed beside his carpet-slippers
Without a murmur, shot through the head
By a shivering boy who wandered in
Before they could turn the television down
Or tidy away the supper dishes.
To the children, to a bewildered wife,
I think ‘Sorry Missus’ was what he said.

In Langley’s poem, we see the human side of dying for one’s country–the visual image of a wounded young man, and how “Paralysed as heavy guns put out/The night-light in a nursery for ever;” something that is often glossed over by politicians whose aim is to gain or maintain power while sending young men to war.

Poets must look closely at facts and tell them with the truest words they know.  Poets must aim to tell the truth so we don’t forget it, so we can find hope in bleak and difficult times that seek to erase those things that matter most.

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