Saturday, July 24, 2010

Poetry as truth and wisdom

A reader wrote:


Keats' is  a Universal Truth. If you wish to pass on wisdom. or not.


(A "poet" not concerned with passing on truth?)  Ahhhhhh  can't happen.... otherwise you're Ogden Nash.)



            LAWRENCE'S RESPONSE:    By saying "Keats is a Universal Truth" I assume you are referring to his body of poetry.   Lest we too rapidly leave the subject of passing wisdom on to the young as a possible concomitant to living to extreme old age, let me observe that I did not say that a poet wasn't interested in "passing on truth" but in "passing on wisdom" to the young.  It is part of homo sapiens survival strategy that a certain number of people in each generation would live an extraordinarily long period of time in order to "pass wisdom" on to the young.  "Wisdom" in our hunter-gatherer days had to do with finding or hunting food, making tools and clothing and knowing what to do and where to go when the weather changed.   I have been conjecturing that people who live to 100 in these modern times may be activating the genetic trigger that enabled the wise men and women of old to live long lives.   We are leaving this subject, wise people living a long time in order to pass on wisdom to the young, when we examine Keats.

            And you indicate that you are leaving this subject when you change "passing on wisdom" to "passing on truth."  While I will deny that Keats was engaged in the passing on of wisdom in the sense I refer to above, his "passing on truth" causes me to hesitate.  How could I deny that this person who said truth is beauty and beauty truth was involved in passing on truth?  Hmmm.  Actually I do deny it -- sort of.  I was once enamored of the Romantic Poets but then I grew out of them.  To say that truth is beauty and beauty truth no longer impresses me as it once did.   And if someone insists that this is a perfect bit of wisdom, I would like to hear an explanation, or an elaboration, or an example of what this poetic phrase is.  Is Beauty Truth?  I could more easily, I suspect, argue that Ugliness is Truth and that Beauty is but one step in the path toward it.   If Keats had a real urn in mind and was conjecturing about the immortality of the beauty he saw on that urn . . . I would ask where that urn is today and suggest that whether it exists in tact or in tatters, it is less beautiful than when Keats first viewed it. 

            As to Keats other poetry . . . perhaps an example might be helpful.  I have a lot of trouble reading the Romantics today, but I might work at it if there was some particular poem or poetry that impressed.  I am especially concerned about the idea that Keats may have been concerned with "passing on truth," for it is hard for me to believe that was in his mind -- or in the mind of any poet.

            What I object to is the idea that the poet "passes on truth" in the manner of a teacher or wise person.  How can such a motive be other than a didactic?  And didacticism is anathema to poetry -- at least modern poetry.  I once read Lucretius De Rurum Natura; so I'm aware that didactic poetry exists, but does it exist in these modern times.  Did it exist in the time of Shelly and Keats?  I don't really think you are saying that.  I think you are saying that Poetry, if it be worthy of the name is "true."  That is, there can be nothing in it that is false.  Consider George Meredith's "Modern Love."  I have not completely "out-grown" this sonnet sequence; so I would be willing to defend it -- sort of -- in a way I would not be willing to defend the poetry of Keats.  Here is the first sonnet:


By this he knew she wept with waking eyes:

That, at his hand's light quiver by her head,

The strange low sobs that shook their common bed

Were called into her with a sharp surprise,

And strangely mute, like little gasping snakes,

Dreadfully venomous to him. She lay

Stone-still, and the long darkness flowed away

With muffled pulses. Then, as midnight makes

Her giant heart of Memory and Tears

Drink the pale drug of silence, and so beat

Sleep's heavy measure, they from head to feet

Were moveless, looking through their dead black years,

By vain regret scrawled over the blank wall.

Like sculptured effigies they might be seen

Upon their marriage-tomb, the sword between;

Each wishing for the sword that severs all.


            What Meredith has written here is "true."  That is, he is writing truthfully about the break-up of his marriage.   And since Meredith had ambitions as a poet, he wanted this sonnet sequence to be read; so in that sense he was passing it on to others, but I would deny that he was intending to instruct anyone with it.  It is more of a "confession," and in more modern times we have with Robert Lowell and his followers "the confessional school of poetry" -- all true, I suppose but not necessarily wise.



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