Saturday, February 26, 2011

Truth and Lies in Poetry

Robyn Sarah has taken over the helm as guest-blogger at the Best Canadian Poetry blog this week, and her first post is up, on Truth and Lies in Poetry.

Some years ago, at a poetry event, I heard a fellow poet preface his reading with the remark, “A good poem is like a good lie.” He meant, I assume, that both are verbal constructions that succeed based on the extent to which they can persuade us to believe them. Maybe he was half tongue-in-cheek, intending to be provocative, but nobody around me seemed provoked. I understood what he meant, but my own thought at the time was, “I could not disagree with you more.”

A successful lie manipulates language to achieve the effect of truth, but to me, a good poem is true. The power of the words comes from authentic emotion which is the moving spirit behind the poem. The words move us because the poet has been moved to words. Or, as I put it in the concluding sentences of my essay, “Poetry’s Bottom Line”: “Whatever else it is or does, a poem should deliver to us unmistakably the sense of an urgency behind the words. The sense that there was a need to say this. That the poet means it. That every word is a meant word.”

All too often, reading contemporary poetry, what I feel is, So many dishonest lines! Lines that sound beautiful but that aren’t meant. If you aren’t really paying attention, you can be seduced by them. But if you’re listening closely, they don’t ring true. They have the sound of trying too hard, or of trying to put something over. They sound as though they are listening to themselves, admiringly, rather than speaking from a real place inside the poet. The words may be gorgeous, they may be clever, they may have dazzle or flash, but they aren’t speaking in a real voice.

For the rest of this post, please go here. And if you like what you read there, then you may also want to check out Robyn's excellent essay collection Little Eurekas: A Decade's Thoughts on Poetry, where you will find a lot more of the same.

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