Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Beauty, Truth, and Where We All Stand (Part One)

John Keats ends his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, written in 1819, with the couplet:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all
        Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

This post is not yet another academic dissertation on those famous lines, but rather, in this part one of a three part article, an account of how the concept of “truth” has influenced me, both as a poet, and, more broadly, my take on the world.  Part two will be on “beauty”, and part three will bring the threads together.

I hope that this may be of interest, in that we all have, I believe, whether we are writers or not, a standpoint, a worldview, on beauty and truth, be it a conscious one, or an implicitly assumed one.

For many years, when I was asked about my poetry, I used to reply, simply, “I tell the truth”.  And what I had in mind was these lines of Keats.  That “truth” is my personal one.  It is not a religious or spiritual truth.  It is not a literal truth.  (Over the years my poetry has been at times fantastical, absurd, and surreal.)

My “truth” as a poet is to, as fearlessly as possible, without any regard for fame, fortune (it goes without saying that the words “poetry” and “fortune” in the same breath are to all intents oxymoronic), getting published – any ulterior motive – write according to the promptings of my imagination.

I’ll put my shingle out in cyberspace, and say that my concept of the “imagination” is a mystical one.  Some of you may roll your eyes, but for me, everything is meant, and part of a mystical whole.  Mystical not religious or spiritual, though for me the concepts are not mutually exclusive.  How do words enter my head?  The mystery is an abiding one.

It is also my “truth” to, as conscientiously and assiduously as possible, endeavour to improve my technique and technical skills as a poet.  Even at age fifty-two, as I write this, I try to keep a learning mentality.

Years ago, as a fledgling poet in my twenties, I hung out with other poets, and tried to absorb wisdom from my wiser, more experienced peers.  I also read, and read, and read all sorts of poetry.  In terms of improving my technique these days, it is mainly through reading, and continuing to conscientiously experiment with form and structure.  This leopard may have well defined spots, but to mix an animal kingdom metaphor, this increasingly old dog is still learning new tricks.

I choose to almost always write free verse.  Robert Frost likened free verse poetry to playing tennis without a net: it might be fun, but it “ain’t tennis”.  While holding Robert Frost, and very many other poets who chose, and still do choose, to write formal verse, in high regard, I gently and good humouredly disagree with him.

Poetry is, for me, distilled reality.  This is my “truth”.  Robert Frost’s distillery produced fine verse in rhyme and metre, my distillery produces a different drop.  It’s all a matter of personal truth.

This may be contentious to some, but I believe that true poets – I abstract from other writers – are born, not made.  In saying this, I immediately, almost breathlessly lest one single reader doubts what I mean, to return to the animal kingdom, a born poet is like a born baby turtle, with innate instincts and DNA, but the conversion rate of baby turtles to mature turtles is low.  There are lots of hazards, obstacles, which get in the way.

And so it is with poets.  To be a poet takes effort, perseverance, and perhaps, if not luck, then a splash of divine providence.

So, in finishing this part one of the post, as writers whatever our genre, we must, I sincerely believe, just must, follow our personal truth, as unfailingly as a baby turtle homes in, little flippers flapping, for the ocean.

More to follow.

1 comment:

  1. "my concept of the “imagination” is a mystical one...everything is meant, and part of a mystical whole. Mystical not religious or spiritual, though for me the concepts are not mutually exclusive"

    would like to hear how you discriminate mystical from religious or spiritual? Seems to me that a mystical experience or stance implies or takes in spirituality, but not necessarily religion, if by religion you mean the organised institution of religion in society. But what is your take?

    "How do words enter my head? The mystery is an abiding one."

    yep. although I'm sure a materialist could spin up some neuroscience to explain it.

    "This may be contentious to some, but I believe that true poets – I abstract from other writers – are born, not made."

    This would have to be the most uncontentious truism in literature, or art, or indeed anything that requires superior skills.