Auld Lang Syne

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Poetry and Truth

I recently attended a workshop entitled, Singing in the Dark. It was about poetry as witness. We were each asked to contribute one of our own "political" or "witness" poems. We looked at many examples of poetry of witness.

By the end of the day I was convinced that there is

1. There is no one way of witness
2. There is no clear way to write about issues of society... the polis
3. There is a difference in seeing and giving the facts about something that happened and giving witness
to a greater truth, a universal truth.


4. There is a big difference between truth (facts, the what happened when) and Truth.

I have wrestled with (Big T) Truth all my remembered life.  I have considered absolute truth-telling versus the notion of an underlying morality that settles the psyche.  For the past few decades, I have questioned myself as a poet in terms of what I am willing to say and how I am safe or not safe in saying it.  I have had to become the arbiter of my own risk-taking. That is, I think, a good thing.

One thing seems clear to me: Truth (with the big T) is much more important than truth (with the little t).

Oh sure, telling the truth is a good thing, most of the time. One wants to be seen as honest and dependable. Lying (in the extreme) is certainly to be seen as pathological. However, all truth all the time can be pathological too, or at least passive aggressive.

There are glaringly obvious times when truth-telling could be a not so great plan. For example, don't tell your wife the dress makes her look fat even if she asks. Here is where tact replaces truth. But if asked do you love me? perhaps the unvarnished truth-telling needs to be plugged in. Tact may be involved here too, but don't duck out of the answer. Telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth might, in some cases, even get you killed. So truth-telling, for me, is a bit situational. It requires care and finesse. I am not suggesting a life of dishonesty or even a totally utilitarian style of truth-telling. I am saying, think first, speak second.

Eye witness accounts at crimes are universally seen by experts as unreliable. Why? Because the eye is NOT really a camera, and the brain is NOT really a recording device. Witnesses bring their own stuff, their baggage, their biases to their supposed recall. This is known. Still, juries love to have eyewitness accounts, largely I believe to make their decisions less self-responsible. It takes them off the hook for judging the defendant, the accused. Eyewitness accounts are not DNA evidence.

The bottom line for truth-telling is do your best to be honest as you can within your human limitations. Be a reliable, dependable person.

(Big T) Truth is markedly different from truth-telling. It's something far-reaching and critical. Universality, our shared human experience, depends upon it. We hold these Truths to be self-evident was the way the Founding Fathers put it. It ought to be that there is some kind of Truth we share, a Truth that protects us from the four horsemen of disenfranchisement, desperation, disillusionment, and despair. We ought to be able to hold on to something solid. Truth.

Let's examine this concept of Truth as it relates to poems and poets. To begin, we must acknowledge that there is always (ALWAYS) something happening that seems wrong, fearful, upsetting: government's behaviors, environmental issues, poverty, racism, abuse, divorce, and betrayals of all sorts.  There is crossover between a single personal episode or incident and an acknowledged or disavowed pubic interest.

There is plenty of angst out there, all at once public and personal.
There is rampant injustice and strife out there and in families behind closed doors.

What to do if you are inclined to comment (write) about personal or public injustice or social issues? How can you be truthful while creating art? Is this possible? And what of the details? Must they be written about in such a way as the piece of writing is reportage rather than something artful? What is poetic license? What is my responsibility to Truth as a poet, as a human?

I write within my deeply-held belief that Truth is important.  It is about authenticity for me. It ought to come through clearly that I am a sort of authoritative voice when I write.  Have I done the research or am I writing from personal experience? What about the object and subject(s) of my writing? What is my responsibility to their truth?

I do consider the impact of my writing on others, which has held me back from risk-taking in my writing in the past. My early poems reflect that over-reticence and restraint. However, I am less interested now in censoring myself than at any other time in my career as a poet/writer. Where previously I have held back, I am more willing to take risks now. Of course I would not publish certain of my poems if it turned out that my doing so would put someone else's life at risk. I would not publish certain poems (though I am willing to write them) which would destroy relationships or livelihood.  I am more likely to write anything, choosing whether or not to publish as my line of restraint.

Aside from public realm of comment, I seem to be the holder of many personal secrets. People tell me things. Must be I just have that face as my grandmother said. Do I want the secrets I have? Not so much. But am I in a weird way honored to have them. If you tell me a secret, it stays with me.

I carry one big secret that my mother told me over 50 years ago about someone close to me. To this day, I don't know why she shared the secret with me at age 17. I have never told that secret, other than to my husband who is never going to reveal it either. Letting it out would most certainly cause hurt. The secret likely dies with me. I had another, more personal secret that I kept for decades having to do with being molested by a dear friend's grandfather. I wrote that secret, but never put it out there until that friend died. Were she still alive today, the poem would exist only in my computer and the secret would be secret still. Here is the poem that I finally published about that secret:

At Our 20th Class Reunion
for Debby

If you mention him, your grandfather,
speak of his beautiful garden, of the tall corn 
where we played 
as children, I’ll have to tell
you about the rows
of theiving stalks with their pale silk flags —
warnings of the approaching storm, 
the shaft of lightning
that split my childhood in two.

If you talk about his stubbled jaw,
say it smiled, say it was kindly,
I’ll think of crooked yellow teeth
like misshapen kernels of corn, grimacing
through open husks, a sudden
split in the green of August.

If you go so far as to say 
he loved you, and you miss him,
I’ll glance away, remember the day 
you strode from the rows
to brush your teeth over and over, to scrub
garden dirt from your face, your knees,
your pretty lace socks.

If you utter a single word
about his sad end, twisted with palsy,
rotting bit by bit from cancer, 
I’m afraid I will laugh, twirl madly
with my skirts up around my waist,
letting the stench of his garden

fly off me into the wind.

At the time of the molestation, I did not my tell my own parents about what happened to me. I was afraid of the man, of his influence in the neighborhood, of the fact that his wife was my 2nd grade teacher and a lovely woman. I was afraid that if my father found out, he would kill the man and end up in jail. Fear = the enemy of Truth.

This remained a secret until 2003, when I finally confided in my mother. I might as well have not said anything to her. Her reaction was flat, somewhat unbelieving. She said well if that happened to you, I am sorry. She did not ask for details or ask me if I was okay. She simply turned the conversation to something else. Although she under-reacted, I did need to tell her for my own sense of well-being. I needed her, of all people, to hear it. To hear me. She just did not get it. Nothing I could do about that. There. Out. Secret told. Did I feel better? Worse? Honestly, her flatness just made me angry. But, Mr S and his disgusting garden were finally relegated to the compost pile. So, yes. Better.

What does telling this hard secret have to do with Truth (Big T variety)? It is a fact that I am not the first girl to be molested nor will I be the last. It (the poem) is only remotely about me, or even my friend, or even her grandfather. Here is where the Big T comes in: it is about the way men decide that women and girls are theirs for the taking. I know that somewhere a woman will read or hear my poem and relate. It is for her, and all of the rest that I tell the secret. Because I am a poet, my vehicle for telling is poetry.

You may wonder if the way the poem is written is accusatory of my friend. It is not. It speaks to her own silence. It is empathetic of that silence, while asserting that I could not deal with the silence. It isolated us both. Read the poem closely and you will see (I hope) that I have always suspected Debby was a victim too. I'd lay big money on that one. My regret is that we were never able to talk about it and be there for one another. She was sent to boarding school for junior high school and high school. I suspect that her parents knew what had happened and chose this way to protect her. I hope so.

I have written about hard things for a long time. It is a need I have to be more myself and less hidden. I was always myself inside, but as a bit of an introvert I kept myself closed. Why rock the boat? Why risk judgement or even retribution? I decided a few years ago that I would not be quiet (good little girls are seen, not heard). I wanted to be heard. I am still good, just no longer quiet. Risk-taker, not rule-breaker.

No comments:

Post a Comment