Poetry and truth, a further response to Tom Dunn

Tom,

I’ll probably need to take my time with this because it strikes me that simply making a few assertions isn’t going to be helpful. I also want to avoid thinking about truth at the expense of poetry because that seems equally self-defeating. So, I need to start with the personal- I like poetry and I especially like poetry that I find to be useful. This usefulness (which is different from utility) may be simply that a poem can help me think more productively about something or it may challenge the way that I currently think or feel or it may show me something else that language or heightened language can do.

In adolescence I formed the view that the function of poetry was to describe the essence of things and it didn’t matter if these descriptions were terse and/or obdurate, they were useful if they were honest. I can still make a case for the ‘poetry is about what really matters’ faction but I now think that what ‘really’ matters is more about the relationship between things than some essential quality of the things themselves. It is true that I find some poems profound and moving but I think that those poems are more about the struggle for truth rather than its discovery or prediction.

I think poetry (as well as being far too poetic) can take itself far too seriously and I don’t think this is confined to the Cambridge School or other politically minded groupings. I think that this stems from two principle causes. The first of these is the fact that the making of poetry is an intensely personal and intimate act in that we are trying to express what we think and what we feel with an intensity that doesn’t occur in fiction. Because of this we tend to expect a serious and considered response which is usually the case because most readers are also poets. The other issue relates to the weight of history, poetry has built up around itself a body of knowledge which is expressed in sombre and considered tones, woe betide the critic who attempts a humorous tone even when such a response is required. In short, poetry’s image is conducive to a readerly expectation of essential truths.

This might be disappointing but I’m only going to use one example of poetic expression of secular/philosophical truth and two examples of the expression of religious truth.

Charles Olson and the Truth.

I’m going to start with Charles Olson’s use of Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’ in ‘The Maximus Poems’. I’m using this because it’s a philosophical position that I’m vaguely sympathetic to and because Olson expresses it really well with an enormous amount of skill.

Here’s a confession, I haven’t yet managed to get through ‘Process and Reality’ and am therefore dependent on what others have said. Broadly, Whitehead puts more emphasis on the relationship between things, suggest new ways of thinking about time and challenges the view that knowledge should be based on things that are fixed. ‘Maximus’ has many other conerns but it does Whitehead really well.

This poem is entitled ‘OCEANIA’ and dates from June 1966 and is about Olson walking around the New England town of Gloucester in the early hours of the morning. The poem is written in the present tense and is seemingly straightforward until we get to-

And now I look onto the marsh
away from the boulevard
lights-& there is the
whole back of the river's
mouth flooded as I had
5 yrs ago called it Oceania!

As a stiff and colder
wind too, straight down
the river as in winter
chills cools
the night people had sd

earlier they'd hoped
wld have been a
thunderstorm I had sd no
the wind's still
where it was

Excuse please no boast
only the glory of
celebrating

the processes
of Earth
and man.

And no one
to tell it to
but you

for
Robert Hogg, Dan Rice and Jeremy Prynne

I’d forgotten about the Prynne reference but the above is my favourite example of poetry expressing a truth really well. This occurs in the middle of the poem, Olson continues on his walk but now the reader is involved in and taking part in the ‘processes of Earth and man”. This is what poetry is good at but it does require enormous skill to get it right.

Geoffrey Hill and Godly truth.

‘The Triumph of Love’ is one of Hill’s most successful sequences and focuses on the terrible events of the last century but this is presented through the prism of his faith. Poem CXXV contains a longish debate about faith and philosophy and a number of deliberately provocative statements:

....................The intellectual
beauty of Bradwardine's thesis rests
in what it springs from: the Creator's Grace
praecedentem tempore et natura ['Strewth!!!
'already present in time as in nature'?-ED]
and in what it returns to-our arrival
at a necessary salvation. So much
for the good news. The bad news is its correlate-
everlasting torments of the non-elect; guaranteed
damnation for dead children unbaptized.

The poems then has a bit of a rant at those who choose to try and dilute the severity of this ‘news’ and ends with-

I have been working up to this. The Scholastics
mean more to me than the New Science. All
things are eternally present in time and nature.

Bradwardine’s chief claim to fame is that he wrote a tract defending the established Catholic church and its doctrines against a group of medieval reformers who were known as the ‘New Pelagians’. Hill’s faith leads him to side with the more conservative view but also has to accept what this means and there is some unease about this although the last line expresses a religious truth. The workings of grace and the nature of salvation play a big role in Hill’s work and he has spoken recently of his view that all his work is informed by his anxiety as to the fate of his soul. We may not share Hill’s faith but I think that we must recognise his ability to express difficult aspects of it with great skill.

Simon Jarvis and the nature of Grace.

I do intend to write something about ‘Dionysus Crucified’ in the near future in part as a response to two of the responses Simon give to the interview questions. Here I just want to give an example of how very innovative poets deal with religious truth. What follows is a couple of lines that are very long and unbroken in the original, the first line is spoken by Pentheus and the second is Dionysus’ response-

Here against undeserved instruments I with my year of worked seasonal graces apply to the ceaseless sodality made by the party of inextinct saints.
Apply to head office: grace lightens wherever it will, and your workings convert it to sacrifice so that its ghost may become the free gift you deplore.

How grace might function has been and remains the source of enormous strife and controversy, here Jarvis appears to be espousing a traditional view which is further elaborated in his references to the teachings of the early church. ‘Dionysus is an incredibly complex and ambitious work but I think that this brief extract demonstrates Simon’s ongoing concern with truth, both religious and secular.

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2 responses to “Poetry and truth, a further response to Tom Dunn

  1. John, it’s official now: Geofferey Hill is currently most important british(i.e. “english”) poet. Here knows where:

    cheers,
    Simon

    • Simon
      Many thanks for this, it had completely escaped my attention.
      For someone who is writing seven poems a week, why does he insist on reading the same lines from the same poem whenever a camera is on hand? It is a very good poem but the end doesn’t makes sense (and this may come as a surprise) without the beginning. The stand up comic thing isn’t a new revelation but I suppose it’s good for the angry old man image. I’m much more fond of the one legged standing on the bench and the almost endearing way that he tried to row back from it. Interviews with the Economist and Newsnight, wherever next?

      John

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