Debating point: “Truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

In a recent workshop, as a change from deciding whether semi-colons should be commas, we found ourselves discussing the nature of poetic truth. Truth, I said, doesn’t matter in poetry. Others disagreed.

It turns out we think there’s a difference between “factual truth” and “poetic truth”. Sometimes, perhaps frequently, rather than fact, we get a better poem from a version of the truth, that is a fiction, that is that is, I suppose, a lie. Perhaps Plato was right.

It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it, that what works in any artistic construct, isn’t necessarily what happens in the real world? If they were the same thing, novelists would be out of business. But novelists do not have the same commitment to truth that poets are supposed to. “What is truth?” is a different question for poets than for Pilate. We are trying to find an answer, not ignore the question.

So how can it be that the searchers for truth have a preference for fiction? I think we believe that, if we do it properly, we can create something which is more truthful, more revealing, more insightful, more worthwhile than simply reporting the facts as they happened. Which is a kind of arrogance, but also a kind of responsibility.
And also a source of conflict. Poets are observers. Poets are recorders. Poets are selectors of concrete images from the world around them. From these images and moments we expect a reader to construct or recognise an experience, a truth, beyond the fragments of reality we’ve selected. The image, then, is not really taken from reality, but constructed by the poet: it’s selected because it stands for something, or it’s a starting point for the reader to extrapolate from, or it’s an example that illustrates some greater feeling or universalised experience. As we choose something in our small worlds to write about, we are also choosing it to resonate more widely, not really reporting the our world at all, but reconstructing it to create some sort of larger meaning.

The best poetry, then, perhaps reconciles two opposite pulls. It wants the reader to believe it is exact and closely observed from particular experience, but also that it is emblematic or symbolic, or in some sense “interpretable” as being more than merely an account of one poet’s day-in-the-life.

The issue for the working poet, then, is how to make this happen. How do we find not only “interesting observations” – a skill in itself – but at the same time ensure that those observations do more than merely report? Whilst poetry does document the found world, it should not be documentary. Contemporary poetry also tends to shun the neater correlations of thing and idea past poetics have been built around, such as allegory and symbolism. We don’t believe in ideals, for example, so can we select a particular image of beauty as a symbol of “universal beauty” if there is no such thing? Our world is entirely relativist and uncertain, so do the relations we can set up between world and meaning have to be uncertain, too?

One way to handle this is simply to avoid the problem. Be descriptive. Offer the image alone to stand for itself. Readers may then interpret it in any way they desire, with little responsibility in the poet’s hands other than to make the image interesting in the first place.  But is mere description enough?
Another is to rely on the words alone, not worrying too much about what they actually represent. Avant garde poets (of which I think the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E school was one) often pursue this line. The problem with this approach is that it forgets language never exists in isolation. It is always doing something. And readers typically assume there’s meaning to be found, even if it hasn’t been hidden.

But for most of us the task is much more complex than these solutions. We want to describe, we want to plumb the intricacies of language, but we also want the resonance of truth through fiction.

How do we get that?