Some thoughts on ‘Truth’ in poetry

Below are some notes I made for a reading I’m giving at Cheltenham poetry festival this coming Sunday. I wanted to keep my thoughts as simple as possible and not enter a philosophical maze. I think there is much more I could say (particularly in relation to metaphor and other devices that poets employ) but I’ve kept this short for now.

I’ve been asked to say a little about the concept of being ‘truthful’ in poetry – what this means, and if it is possible.

If I read a poem I like, or love, I generally find myself recognising aspects of life as I’ve experienced it embodied in that poem; I feel ‘Yes, this is how it is, this is what we do, how we are with each other, this is how we feel and think and navigate joy and frustration and hate. This is true.’

In order for this to work, for a poem to engage with emotion and experience in a way that I recognise, the language of the poem has to be working consistently towards telling that particular emotional truth; unnecessary distractions in the form of words that trigger associations beyond the concerns of the poem, metaphors that don’t contribute to the ‘truth’ of the poem, rhythm, punctuation and the shapes of the poem on the page that don’t work for the ‘truth’ of the poem. To my mind, anything that dilutes or weakens the central truth of the poem in some way must be recognised as superfluous and removed. There are many ways this dilution can occur, for example, the presence of too many ideas or images that don’t relate to the central ‘feel’ of the piece. It seems to me that in a skilfully made poem all the elements make a contribution to the ‘truth’ of the piece.

None of this means that a poem needs to be realistic; it can, of course be surreal, fanciful, outlandishly exaggerated or magical and still be ‘true. Neither does the poem have to be autobiographical to express the inner truth of life and living.

The poem is very likely a composite, constructed from experiences, ideas and images. The germ or seed from which the poem emerged may come from several different sources. These may be remembered and recounted, either in an ‘accurate’ or embellished or embroidered form, ‘stolen’, ‘found’ ‘overheard’, or any combination of these.

We live in a time when radical divergence from ‘truth’ (as in ‘fact’) is all the rage. Facilitated and enabled by social media and other online platforms, propaganda and the rewriting of history is rife. Lies are being told. And so, it is for us — writers, readers, thinkers – to search for and attempt to express the truth of what it means to be human, in all its variety.

For me, a poem needs to contain emotional truth. I must believe in it as a genuine expression of feeling and/or experience. I am not interested in being manipulated or in manipulating listeners or readers emotionally for the sake of it, but rather I want to communicate something that has affected me, and I hope that this will be recognised. I don’t want to falsify my emotional experience (that would feel like a con trick) but to convey it. I am interested in personal truth that is hopefully also universal: truth that deals with emotion, context, passion, values, morals; truth not as in “what happened” in terms of events (and what did happen anyway?) but truth as in what language can uncover of the inner experience of being alive. Perhaps I’m interested in poems as ‘empathy capsules’; little units of meaning that can generate an empathetic response in the reader.

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