II. Three Notions of Truth in Poetry
“The profoundest of all sensualities is the sense of truth.”
Truth, uncompromisingly told, will always have its ragged edges.
--Melville, Billy Budd
Truth, that wobbly absolute and cousin of the transcendent, has been defined, redefined, and fine tuned by philosophers from Plato and St. Augustine through Nietzsche and Heidegger, the latter who returned to its notion from classical Greek antiquity: aletheia. The derivation of the word, a (out of) plus Lethe (the river of forgetfulness) begins to comment on the nature of art itself, which is a function of truth. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Heidegger tells us “the nature of truth, that is, of unconcealedness, is dominated throughout by denial.” Truth and remembering force being out of forgetfulness, and Heidegger argued that the nature of poetry is “the founding of truth,” one that occurs through concealing and revealing. Perhaps it was Nietzsche’s metaphorical death of God, however, that has most impacted transcendental notions of truth, and how later, according to Derrida and Foucault, we must reinterpret all major western texts if the phrase “In the beginning was the word, and the word was God” is no longer valid. Modern and contemporary writers, as well as composers and painters, might find consonance and safety in a phrase from Melville: Truth, uncompromisingly told, will always have its ragged edges.
Although Melville’s salient remark from Billy Budd reveals his complex quarrel with God, it also stands as metaphor for what in art is often most indefinable and thus most alluring. It’s not what seems finished to the eye that haunts us, but what remains unfinished to the heart, for that is the inexhaustibility of content we sometimes refer to as paradox. Here’s a brief but enduring poem by Linda Gregg.
GOETHE’S DEATH MASK
The face is quite smooth
everywhere except the eyes,
which are bulges
like ant hills someone tried to draw
eyes on. It is normal of course,
that the mouth is shut
like a perfect sentence.
But there is nothing of Italy
or the rooms. As though it were
all a lie. As if he had not fed there
at all. I suppose there was never a choice.
If the happiness lasts,
it is the smoothness. The part
we do not notice. The language he made
was from the bruises. What lasted
are the eyes. Something ugly
and eaten into. What a mess his eyes are. (Gregg 22)
What remained unfinished, Goethe’s ecstatic trips to Italy, his room on the corso, his desire to become a painter, his ascent of Mt. Vesuvius, visits to Pompeii, Sicily, his search for the Urplanze, the prototype of all plants, and his sexual affairs remain unfinished in the poem. They are also what haunt us beyond the noticeably tragic. What remains also are the eyes “like ant hills someone tried to draw / eyes on.” The synesthetic image, vibrant with unfinished movement, haunts us with its lack of smoothness, for we are told, “If the happiness lasts, / it is the smoothness.” Satiation will become erosion, for erosion is the true map, and that is what Gregg exaggerates, otherwise her poem would be mere depiction. The eyes that sensually devoured the world are now themselves devoured.
Here is Goethe’s “Wanderer’s Nightsong II” in my translation. The poet supposedly carved it on the wall of a wooden cabin near Mt. Kickelhahn.
Over every hill Über allen Gipfeln
it is quiet, Ist Ruh,
in all the trees In allen Wipfeln
you can hear Spurest du
hardly a breath; Kaum einen Hauch;
birds in the woods are silent. Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Wait, soon Warte nur, balde
you, too, will rest. Ruhest du auch. (Goethe 50)
Perhaps one of the most startling poems on death, it takes us almost totally unawares, for that silence we bask in is a form of death itself. Well, that’s the metaphorical side, but the literal sense is just as startling: when birds in the wood fall silent it is most often because predators approach. The phrase “in all the trees / you can hear / hardly a breath” anticipates the reader’s participation, his breath and demise, while “birds in the woods are silent” presents a dark, spirit-laden image, almost one of eyes looking out of the darkness. ”The silence is that ragged hole/whole moving toward us, or of which we are a part. The poem’s hushed imperative, “Wait,” turns, morphs into surprise: one whose literal pause anticipates the reader’s own death.
The poet’s eyes that witnessed springs in Italy witnessed the deaths of all his children with Christiane Vulpius, with the exception of August, who died at the age of forty, also in Italy. “What a mess the eyes are.”
William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark” begins in medias res and hauntingly orchestrates the conditional and subjunctive aspects of truth in respect to the recount of finding a dead deer, a pregnant doe, on a dangerous canyon road.
TRAVELING THROUGH THE DARK
Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.
By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.
My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.
The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.
I thought hard for us all—my only swerving--,
Then pushed her over the edge into the river. (Stafford 61)
The speaker’s conditional phrasing suggests uneasiness, possible regret, and sets the poem’s brooding tone: “It is usually best to roll them into the canyon: / that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.”
Stafford’s eerie use of detail, through the nouns “glow” “tail-light” “heap” and the verb “stumbled” creates an anxiety that anticipates and will later heighten, then question the speaker’s decision. The phrase “a recent killing,” an odd choice if the deer was struck by a car or truck, further clouds the event. Was the deer poached, then abandoned?
The discovery that the doe is pregnant occurs exactly midway through the poem and not only morally complicates the event but adds a formal irony to this drama that begins in the middle, for the doe waits to be born just as the speaker waits to act. What would occur if this were a human and not an animal life? Stafford’s timing is impeccable: “Beside that mountain road I hesitated.”
Stafford’s personification occurs not a moment too soon in this tragic confrontation of machine, animal, and human world. As if to compensate for the morally untenable situation, the car aims “ahead its lowered parking lights.” The subsequent depiction of the speaker “in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red” is one of brilliance, for the inner psychological trauma of deer and fawn has been externalized. The speaker wears it like a red coat as the “warm exhaust” turns red: doe and fawn bleed into the atmosphere, its moral weather. Human, animal, mechanical worlds irrevocably collide and the speaker admits: “around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.” The paradox of the implied speaker’s family along with the demise of doe and fawn becomes resonant far beyond the poem.
The truth, here, “uncompromisingly told,” seems best articulated by the speaker’s attempted steadfastness, just as truth, we like to believe, is steadfast.
I thought hard for us all—my only swerving--,
Then pushed her over the edge into the river.
Swerving moves into swerving: What we question morally is finally all deduced to the natural world—the river whose constant change seems a truth only in that it mirrors ours.
L’éxactitude n’est pas la verité. (Exactness is not truth.)
If the greatest sources of art –truth, hope, love, joy, despair—are immeasurable, how can the art created from them be exact? I’m reminded of the seemingly various and often sexual, deific origins of art—Etruscan fertility sculptures, cave paintings at Lascaux—and also of a remark by Jasper Johns: Sometimes I see it then paint it, sometimes I paint it then see it. Both are impure situations, and I prefer neither.
Or perhaps those greater truths reside in the imagination, for they have not completely arrived yet, and like the light of stars, their distance is more alluring. The imagination, or truth partially withheld is what we don’t forget because we must work to retrieve it. Perhaps the German writer Peter Handke summarizes it best: Reason forgets, the imagination never.
In John Ashbery’s “These Lacustrine Cities,” the specific is generated from the abstract and general in such a way that a dream or nightmare might, as if to say that we are no longer a product of nature, but of our cities, an artifice we have constructed. We both control and are subjugated by these towers, these wildernesses of the artificial, municipalities that grew and evolved near lakes. And at times do they not wish to recede back into nature? At every turn the reader must participate, conceive through the imagination of the poem both joy and fate. Here are the first two stanzas.
These lacustrine cities grew out of loathing
Into something forgetful, although angry with history.
They are the product of an idea: that man is horrible, for instance,
Though this is only one example.
They emerged until a tower
Controlled the sky, and with artifice dipped back
Into the past for swans and tapering branches,
Burning, until all that hate was transformed into useless love. (Ashbery 9)
Nostalgic for the past, towers built partially through greed and capitalism arch back toward their origins, but metamorphose at best “into useless love.” We are accompliced by these “lacustrine cities” that lean toward their sources only to glimpse their own demise.
In her poetic “Essay on What I Think About Most,” Anne Carson rightly suggests that “Metaphors teach the mind // to enjoy error / and to learn / from the juxtaposition of what is and what is not the case. “ She implies that a good metaphor opposes almost exactly what the Chinese proverb says, “Brush cannot write two characters with the same stroke.” In Carson’s jarring prose poem “On Shelter,” the speaker admonishes a lover by suggesting that a door that cannot be closed must be replaced. She then beautifully conflates time (long) with brightness (glowing).
You can write on a wall with a fish heart, it’s
because of the phosphorous. They eat it. There
are shacks like that down along the river. I am
writing this to be as wrong as possible to you.
Replace the door when you leave, it says. Now
you tell me how wrong that is, how long it
glows. Tell me. (Carson 45)
Carson’s brush in fact paints two characters at the same time. The speaker writes “to be as wrong as possible” to both the lover and implied reader. “Replace the door when you leave, it says.” But how can such a door be replaced? How can love gesture again after such abandon?. The phrase “how wrong that is, how long it glows” creates a hologram for what can never be substituted, or what can never replace emotion, though we continue to eat of its fruit in the past, to glow with its expiration.
In his “Critique of Judgment,” Immanuel Kant tells us that in nature, the beautiful” is connected with the form of the object, having definite boundaries.” He then informs us that the sublime “is to be found in a formless object,” one in which “its boundlessness is represented, and yet its totality is also present to thought.” Though it does not exhibit all the negative qualities of the sublime, Marvin Bell’s “To Dorothy” does begin “to violate purpose in respect to judgment,” and clearly suggests how the amplitude and complex-ities of truth are primarily due to their inexactness. The poem begins, “You are not beautiful, exactly. / You are beautiful, inexactly. / You let a weed grow by the mulberry / and a mulberry by the house.” Here is the final stanza of the poem:
A child said it, and it seemed true:
“Things that are lost are all equal.”
But it isn’t true, if I lost you,
the air wouldn’t move, nor the tree grow.
Someone would pull the weed, my flower.
The quiet wouldn’t be yours. If I lost you,
I’d have to ask the grass to let me sleep. (Bell 52)
A child uttering
an adult maxim seems to give it a naēve authority, but falsely, for in the
speaker’s view the natural world cannot accommodate such loss: “the air
wouldn’t move, nor the tree grow.” A miniature wasteland results, and the
speaker would upon such loss (like Orpheus, whose lament moved trees and rocks)
“have to ask the grass to let me sleep.” Boundaries are “beautifully”
transgressed and, as we often find, the inexactitude of loss will measure the
mind more exactly.
“It’s not so much that I had lied, but that none of the truth remained to be told.”
“The Snows of Kilamanjaro”
--As if history, its slow accumulation, were in fact exhausting a primal innocence that once existed. As if, more persuasively, beginning with Descartes’ (“I think, therefore I am”), the axis from a deity-based truth, to one subjective, ensured a narcissistic flight that would devour all greater beliefs. And I can think of no better poem to bear its cumulative burden than “The Drunken Boat,” written by the precocious sixteen-year-old Arthur Rimbaud.
The narrator’s intoxicated ride is nothing less than a justified, adolescent’s rebellion against the Industrial Age’s spirit-destroying commerce.
As I was going down wild Rivers
I lost guide of my deck hands.
Yelping Indians had targeted and nailed
Their naked bodies to colored stakes.
I cared little for any crew, whether those
Of Flemish wheat or English cottons.
(Translated by the author)
When the dreamed coup is finished and savage innocence partially restored, the narrator is free to begin his hopeless Edenic quest, one that will end as most adolescent dreams do, cloaked in a depressive reality.
I ran like winter itself, dumb and aloof
As any spacey kid into the furious
Lashings of tides. Loosened peninsulas
Never survived a more wild assault.
But before that, visions will occur, and this narrator --a cousin to Huck Finn-- will glimpse (after near wreckage of his bark) a surreal paradise lifted from the sea’s womb:
I would have liked to show children those sun-
Struck fish of the blue wave, fish of gold, singing
Fish. Flowers of sea-foam cradled me
And incomprehensible winds winged me at times.
Finally the narrator, having matured through the vision that he will abandon for reality, realizes the weaknesses that he dream-shared with many adults.
But really, I’ve wept too much. Dawns
Rip the heart. Moons devour. In suns I expire.
Love’s butchery has left me drunken and
Blue. That I might shatter and become the sea!
Unique in western literature, the poem’s final two stanzas embrace in all humility not the success, but the risk and collapse of the artistic imagination, that of an adolescent whose search for sensation and liberation from the conventional world has led him on a miniature Odyssey, in which the child becomes adult and hero so that the temporal and eternal can be glimpsed and lost.
If I dream a water, it’s Europe’s, the black
Cold puddle where a child sadly squats
And releases into the twilight
A boat fragile as an insect’s wings.
Lazily draped in the sea’s waves, I can
No longer follow in the cotton boats’ wake,
Approach the swagger of flags and flame,
Swim under the awful eyes of prison ships.
The imaginary quest (at times more real than life) collapses in the reality of a “Cold puddle,” a tonal shift from ecstasy to tragedy only rivaled by Keat’s “Cold pastoral.” For the artist, the narrator’s mask as boat is stripped by reality: “Je suis an autre” as Rimbaud said in his famous letter to Izambard. The artist cannot sustain the heroic imagination and the child cannot return to the convention and safety of childhood.
The toy boat fertilizes a puddle, while ocean and voyage have been conceived far from the parentage of Europe. I’m reminded of the intentional bathos and dark humor of a passage from Kafka’s diary: “One doesn’t learn how to be a sailor by playing in mud puddles, but too much play in mud puddles can render one unfit to be a sailor.” –Here, the paradox by which the artist lives.
Reprinted from The American Poetry Review
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY AND WORKS CITED
Ashbery, John. Rivers and Mountains. NY: Ecco Press, 1977.
Bell, Marvin. Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See. NY: Atheneum, 1977.
Carson, Anne. Plainwater. NY: Vintage Books, 1995.
Goethe. Selected Verse. D. Luke, ed. NY: Penguin, 1964.
Gregg, Linda. Too Bright to See. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 1981.
Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York:
Random House, 1972.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. J.C. Meredith, trans. NY: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Rimbaud, Arthur. Oeuvres ComplŹtes. Renéville and Mouquet, eds. Paris: Gallimard, 1946.
Stafford, William. Stories That Could Be True: New and Collected Poems. NY: Harper, 1977.