Jesting Pilate asks what is truth

George Szirtes - 6 May 2008

He asked but would not stay for an answer. In fact there is no appropriate waiting time because we don't know. Nevertheless, we feel and are, sometimes, for a while, convinced. It is not that we think there are no truths, only that they are often complex and provisional. We may think of the truths of the imagination, but I suspect that, as far as poetry is concerned, it is a form of truth to language. What does that mean? And is that so?

Water is water. Words are words. But sometimes words can be as much water, or fire, or colour or anything, as is possible for words to be. In poetry we are convinced of truth to the extent that words become things, not objects as such, but our experience of things. Ordinary speech is not enough. We need music, rhythm, association, metaphor, all working at once to present our state to us. We know that instinctively. The least literate people know it: they sing, they mutter, they chant, they pronounce. It is not about consequences but about the nature and depth of our lives (which may well include consequences). "O westron wind, when wilt though blow" IS the wind in language. It hits us directly, bracing and lost, so "the small rain down can rain". Is that not a kind of truth?


The question of truth, or perhaps the issue of truth in poetry and about poetry does seem, on reflection, to be a complex one. I find it utterly fascinating. It could be said that in writing the poem, or even in the reading of a poem, the poet seeks to construct a truth by way of words, their patterning, their relationship to each other and all the other devices used in language to create the fidelity of truth. It could also be said that perhaps one poet's truth is another's lie. Is truth thus really created, conjured, with all its overtones of shamanistic, mythical and magical heritage? I think we often think of truths in imagination and of experience. Poets talk about the poem as artefact, but perhaps it can be seen as being, as a music defining the utterance as being, yes, this is my truth.

One of today's quotes on the Poetry Archive seems teasingly apposite. Jean Cocteau,'The poet is a liar who always tells the truth.' It appears to be either contradictory, or paradoxical. Perhaps, as in my last comment, the poet is announcing, this is my voice, the poem is my being, trust me for this is my truth!

A poem has value only if it convinces us of a truth. We may feel it's a new truth, a revelation, a mystical apprehension. At the same time it may put into words a truth we already know. It is a transgressive use of the word "truth", something which can not be poved by fact or testified in a court of law. We do also use the word true to mean faithful, and perhaps this is a more relevant way ofthinking about truth in poetry?

This sort of utter drivel really makes me mad. Why can't you have a meaningful discussion about a poem. This sort of naval gazing just stops people coming to this site. And when are you going to get some decent modern poets instead of all these academics.


Welcome Bill, things were too quiet until you arrived! Why don't you get us going on a meaningful discussion? I'm game if you are. And I'd love to know what modern poets you enjoy reading - there's nothing like word of mouth recommendation. Yours - Sands

Hello, :) I am new to this..will you be on-line next week. We are studying poetry and I'd like to pose your question to my students who will be creating their own poems...
I LOVE words and you having me it because I feel the unveil a truth within me or because they help me understand another's?


Well, there is life on the planet. Welcome all, especially Bill. Is truth in poetry an academic question. It seems rather important to me. And Sands' thinking is close to mine. The business about poets being liars is also true - in its way. Charles Tomlinson, poet and academic wrote: "The poet lies for the improvement of truth. Believe him." It's in a poem, Bill.

Hi Terri, Yes, I'll post next week. Is there anything in particular you would like discussed?

Sorry time flies and we had SATS and such. We are learning about the Romans and Celtics, who also used alliteration poems to create stories. I am going to see if the students will post you some comments or questions they may have about poetry writing if that is ok?

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