Auld Lang Syne

Friday, September 30, 2011

Intellectual integrity in friendships and groups

In personal relationships, there is no more valuable ability than knowing ourselves and others, and acknowledging what we don't know about ourselves and others. A marriage or friendship in which the parties believe that they possess more truth or goodness than they actually do is not a relationship which will flourish. Intellectual integrity in relationships is a matter of accurately understanding our real limitations. Improvements in character must be based on a realistic assessment of our current character.

— The Habit of Thought, Michael Strong (p. 86)

I am interested in intellectual integrity for a long time now. I often wonder about this facet of character in myself and in others. We have so much bickering back and forth over who is right and who is wrong as if this is the only thing that matters: being more right and less wrong than others. Where is the middle ground where we find that we are all just struggling to figure out who we are and what is our level of engagement in the process of understanding self and others?

When I am in a poetry workshop, not teaching it but as participant, I wonder about the level of expertise the leader holds, what the rest of the group brings in terms of expertise, and how I might contribute. I approach the group with a certain excitement that there might be something new I will experience, some kernel of information or an idea that will inform my own writing later. When I am TEACHING or LEADING a workshop, I bring that same kind of excitement, knowing that not only will I (hopefully) give out some of what I know or have experienced, but that most likely I will LEARN something valuable from those who are in attendance. It is this kind of flow of ideas and experience that makes the workshop experience viable for people of diverse experience. It is why we are able to be in a workshop with mixed levels of expertise and not feel that we are either better or worse at it than others.

It boils down to intellectual integrity for me. We speak about the idea of "truth" in writing and it gets muddy right away. What is this notion of truth when looked upon from the platform of writing? I speak about the truth in poems as being one of two kinds: big T truth or little t truth. And we have to think too about validity vs. literalness. I will digress into a few words about integrity in writing for a moment here:

Big T truth:

This, for me is not the same as literalness. It is the search for something universal that can be recognized by most others. It does not matter whether, for example, a person in the poem is real. It matters whether the experience or activity of the person is common to others or can be validated as common human experience. It doesn't matter if the cup on the table is green or if it is really a cup on a real table. What matters is the essence of "cupness" and the human experience of what the cup and its color or its location represent. Is the narrative in which a green cup rests on a table valid, is it showing some human situation that others can identify as real for them? It doesn't matter to me (should it?) if the person in the poem is a real person. When I read a poem should I expect that the experience represented in that poem actually happened or that it is the poet's experience or that it is REPRESENTATIVE of real experience? Indeed does what I read (or write) SIGNIFY or IDENTIFY reality? I think that this is a case of universality vs. self. It ought to follow that when a poet writes, he/she is writing out of human need and observation. Details can be illuminators and highlighters insofar as they make a poem more accessible to its readers. Details make us identify on a personal level. Embodiment is a great asset to poetry, more so than to prose. Readers of poetry will "get in and stay in" a poem based upon personal identification with the material, specifically its concrete details. An oak is more easily identified with than a generic tree. But perhaps it doesn't matter if the tree about which the poem speaks is an actual oak. Maybe it is a sumac. Poetic license allows the poet to plant whatever specific tree the poem needs, needs by way of locale, syllable, rhyme, sound, etc. In other words, if this poem is a sonnet, and there is need for a rhymer for "back," then sumac would be a reasonable tree choice. UNLESS the setting is somewhere the sumac does not grow. It is intellectually sound for the poet to make these choices for us readers. It is stylistic integrity as well as bowing down to Truth.

Little "t" truth:

This kind of truth conforms more to literalness. Nonfiction writing is often thought of as a bastion for this kind of truth. We want to know that the accident written about in the paper is real, that the injuries described really happened to the actual person in the accident. There is no philosophy involved here, no nuance of feeling or expression needed to REPORT. In fact we are likely to send off letters decrying the lies told in new articles. If we read that 12 children were lost in the woods on a field trip and that Mr. So-and-So just left them there while he went off to a bar, we expect that this is accurate info. We are rightly appalled at Mr. So-and-So and want him fired. But if the news report gets his name wrong, we are outraged at the wrong person. Literalness needs to be in place for the sake of making correct assessments of actual situations and taking appropriate actions. A lack of integrity therein can wreak havoc all around. We want to KNOW that nonfiction (including journalism) is not something lacking in factual information.

But what of little t truths in poetry? Can they be useful? Of course. But the danger lies in readers thinking that every event, every bit of action, every description in a poem is as it is written exactly and that the poet herself or himself has had that EXACT experience. I have read poems in public that are Big T truths and there was someone in the audience who came up later and asked about my experience (Oh I am sorry your father was a drinker). These folks are living in the literal truth realm, not recognizing that the poet is commenting on a human condition or situation rather than exposing a personal reality. If the poet is really adept at representing life with all of its beauty and warts, the poems will seem to be actual real events that the poet has experienced personally. Poetry can be both nonfiction and fiction. It is art, an interpretation of people, places, events through an artistic lens.

These are considerations every poet must face when writing, and when reading to the public. Some give a little disclaimer that what the audience will hear is not necessarily the experience of the poet. I don't do that. I let the poems speak whatever Truth or truth they contain.

But I need to get back to my leading quote here now and speak about intellectual integrity among humans, within friendships and other close relationships.

Recently one of our poetry group members quit the group because he did not like the comments I'd made on one of his poems. (I was commenting based upon little t truths vs. Big T truths) He threw quite the little hissy fit over it and quit. He accused me of "always being right" and of being "dogmatic" in my comments on poems (especially on his poem). He PRESUMED a lack of intellectual integrity on my part.

He decided after re-thinking the whole thing that he would not quit the group. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we were working on clarifying the procedure for critique to make SURE there was intellectual integrity built in, that people were all of like mind as to what might make for a valid and helpful basis for all critiques. He did not know we were working on this clarification.

In the meantime, he decided to read my blog posts. He came across the one wherein I mentioned his quitting (FYI, I did not name him, but used an initial). He took personal offense and has quit again. During his quitting, coming back, quitting again before coming back, he did not approach me directly one-on-one to work out our differences or to come to a place where we could coexist peacefully. All of his anger etc. has gone on behind the scenes with the leader of our group funneling the information to the group in absence of the angry person. This goes to the idea of intellectual integrity among people. Would it have worked for him to have spoken to me directly with his feelings and concerns? Does he see himself as out of the loop there, preferring to quit and convey his messages through a third party? Is he afraid of confrontation? Does he see himself as either better than me or less than me in some way? Does he feel we are somehow in competition? I am at a loss to understand this. I do know that I see him as a peer. I value his feedback and give mine to him in the spirit of any normal critique. It baffles me. What really grates on my last nerve is the idea that there is on either side a lack of intellectual integrity or even the appearance of this lacking.

I understand that all comments are not favorable on any given day. I know that all comments, given out of a spirit of cooperation and trust are valid. They can be helpful in the revision process. I take comments made on MY poems as a treasure trove of possibilities for later work on the particular poem. I GIVE comments in that same spirit. I hope that things I see (or don't see) in someone's poem will serve as information and inspiration for my fellow poets. Isn't that why we become part of a critique group? We want feedback. But are we giving that in the framework of intellectual integrity? I think so for the most part. I expect that all comments made on my poems come from a sincere place on the parts of the critiquing poets. They want my poem to be successful. They have this as the genuine motive. I ASSUME this. It is how I approach anyone's poems. So why get defensive and quarrelsome? Does it help this person or the rest of us in the group to quit?

At this point I have decided that where there is no actual relationship (as evidenced by a lack of intellectual integrity), I must move away from the person who fails to confront directly to benefit the parties or the group.
I am satisfied that the rest of the group is practicing intellectual integrity and will survive this crisis of understanding and commitment.


  1. So sorry you all are going through this. These sorts of situations are painful for all involved.

  2. yes, painful. BUT a great opportunity for growth too. I look at this as a way in for me, a chance to examine my own sense of intellectual integrity. Of course I am a glass 3/4 full kind of girl!