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Poetry and Truth
The Slant

Poetry and Truth
  • The Charge of the Light Brigade (by )
  • Selected Works of Stephen Vincent Benet ... (by )
  • Ode on a Grecian Urn and Other Poems (by )
  • Love's Labour's Lost (by )
  • Poems By Emily Dickinson (by )
  • Collected Public Domain Poems of Wallace... (by )
  • Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock (by )
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According to Wallace Stevens, poetry is truth. He wrote, “For a poem to be true, it must come from an ever.” But what might “ever” be? That constant, the eternal, what is simultaneously everything and nothing … there are words we toss around for it, but the “ever” is inherently indescribable. Such it is for truth, which is perhaps why poetry is best suited as its companion. 

Although poetry sometimes provides concrete, historical facts (see “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson or “John Brown’s Body” by Stephen Vincent Benet), it is most often used as a backdrop for the aim of an emotional or philosophical truth. These are abstract truths, which we can talk around but never directly express. Rather than asking what is poetry and what is truth, a better suited question is: What is poetry’s relationship to truth? Does poetry have some sort of duty or obligation to harbor or reveal truth?

Jonathan Keats wrote in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all 
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

And what is beauty? Is not beauty in the eye of the beholder, thus subjective, relative, and perhaps the last word in the discussion? Shakespeare said in Love’s Labour’s Lost (p. 12): 

Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye,
Not utter'd by base sale of chapmen's tongues
Poetry has neither duty or obligation. But for a good poem to last longer than its author’s breath, it must possess worth outside its own efforts; it must reach for something universal and timeless. Any poem that can transcend its own time surely bares the mark of truth.

It’s all well and good to talk about each in abstracts, but how does one apply them to an age of alternative facts and fake news, when opinions and feelings often hold higher regard than reality? In an era guided by feelings, perhaps we need a map for emotional intelligence--an inner barometer for beauty--more than ever. Poetic intelligence. So here is one whole bite of truth from Emily Dickinson:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth's superb surprise; 
As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind. 

By Thad Higa



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