I don’t think a poem can be true. I also recognize that when a writer works through something risky and important to her in a poem–when the stakes feel personal and significant, and language is used craftily to convey that cost–the end result is a more powerful poem.
That paradox is at the heart of a seminar I’m teaching now on mid-century U.S. poetry (starting with Olsen and Ginsberg and going up to spoken word in the 80s). I’m pressed for time in this busy September, but I thought I’d put down a few ideas here with the hope of coming back to them, as the students in my class will, reading a variety of poets and critics from those decades.
In conjunction with Ginsberg’s immensely powerful, high-stakes early poems, we just read the 1966 essay “Sincerity and Poetry,” in which Donald Davie tries, with obvious chagrin, to come to terms with a big turn in poetic priorities, apparently away from skill and towards something like authenticity, truth, or prophecy. “Among the hoary fallacies which the new confessional poetry has brought to life among us,” he argues with an audible wince, “is the notion that we know sincerity by its dishevelment: that to be elegant is to be insincere.” He concedes that Beat and Confessional poetry challenge the very grounds of New Criticism, then the dominant approach in literature classrooms and literary scholarship; ambiguity, irony, and self-enclosed symmetry can no longer be the terms of value. He suggests, however–because we can’t simply ask a poet “hey, did you mean it?” and take his word for it–that we must find sincerity somehow within the poem and measure it by the artist’s control: “We must learn, I daresay, to give more weight to other features, notably to the tone in which the speaker addresses us, and to the fall and pause and run of spoken American or spoken English as the poet plays it off against his stanza-breaks and line-division. In short a poet can control his poem in many more ways, or his control of it manifests in more ways, than until lately we were aware of. Nevertheless we were right all along to think a poem is valuable according as the poet has control over it; now we must learn to call that control ‘sincerity.'”
My students found Ginsberg’s art sincere by Davie’s terms (Ginsberg’s portrays an out-of-control world in his lines, but does so with exquisite skill) but also despite Davie’s terms, because control isn’t exactly the feature that manifests a real person behind “Howl” or “Sunflower Sutra” or “Mugging.” In a strong poem read with attention, there’s a sense of presence exceeding the words–a secondary experience that comes from someone once representing some triggering experience in a highly artificial medium.
So is all news, all poetry, fake to some degree? Sure. It’s not the experience it represents, but a selected, shaped version of it. Is what’s important, then, the reporter-poet’s intent to get things right, as far as a brief snippet of language allows, vs. an intent to deceive? Hmm. Poet-Thing’s going to make more tea and keep thinking about it.
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