“DAMN TRUTH AND LOOK ON BEAUTY TILL IT BEGINS TO HURT”

Anand Thakore, poet and musician

Whenever poetry is discussed, the smartest person in the room (or on social media) inevitably defines poetry as a linguistic construction—meant merely to please.

The greatest enemy of poetry?  Prose meaning which can be paraphrased.

Auden said it: In poetry, the desire to “fiddle around with words” is more important than “having something to say.”

This was the message of I.A. Richards and the New Critics—who were more influential than anyone realizes, especially among the learned and the influential.

Drain your poems of “truth.” Any traces of learning? Put them in footnotes at the end. T.S. Eliot, a New Critic, finally, did this with his most famous poem.

Indian poet Anand Thakore on Facebook recently: “the only way to learn how to read poetry is to damn truth and look on beauty till it begins to hurt”

Some would say this puts too much burden on poetry to be beautiful; it narrows poetry, inhibits it, cutting off poetry from verbal expression, which is the core of what poetry is. Poe was accused of being too “narrow” by American critics, especially by those who preferred Whitman.

But as Thakore goes on to say: “…pure truth-talk has other forms of discourse better suited…much neo-classical 18th century verse  fails… because poetry gets reduced to desperately ‘neat’ encapsulation of truth and deprived of it’s essential function.”

Thakore’s point is that it takes an even greater confidence in poetry’s verbal expression to believe it can succeed without the “neat encapsulation” of “pure truth-talk”—better suited to prose—as poetry defines itself as a unique (and valuable) genre in itself.

Thakore nicely encapsulates the New Critical philosophy: Poetry isn’t truth, but (and here Thakore quotes I.A. Richards) “pseudo-statements of musical, linguistic and emotive power.”

But here’s the rub. To really make his point, Thakore was forced to walk back the Keatsian equation of Beauty and Truth—according to Thakore, what Keats said wasn’t really “true.”

Sujatha Mathai wasn’t buying Thakore’s distinction, jumping in to defend poetic or ecstatic truth: “I feel truth is in the sense of a state of BEING. If I am moved to ecstasy by a wonderful sunset, I can feel Beauty is Truth. And that is all I need to know.”

One can read this to mean that a sunset is like a philosophical truth—or a poem; neither imply practicality or self-interest.

Philosophical wisdom, ecstatic moments, sunsets, and poetry have no practical merit in and of themselves.

The “ecstatic” position Mathal expressed is a humbler one than the New Critics. Those who argue for ‘ecstasy as a state of being’ may not be conscious of it, but what they are really expressing is the following:

It isn’t that Keats is saying “beauty is as important as truth!” but rather, “Truth? Meh. It merely pleases us as beauty does.”

When we state Keats’ formula in this more modest way, it is not sublime-sounding; it’s almost flat out disrespectful. Comparing sunsets to philosophical truths can have no other conclusion but this modest one: truth is (only!) beauty.

Thakore (the smartest one in the room) started the ball rolling with the New Critic I. A. Richards. Here is Thakore in his own words on Keats’ famous formula:

“Keats’ famous concluding lines ‘truth’s beauty/beauty truth’…comprise an ecstatic pseudo-statement that is of value not because it is ‘true’ but because it is beautifully constructed and acheives a balance between two paradigms—the aesthetic and the epistemological—in a way hitherto unthought of in verse.”

This doesn’t sound disrespectful, even as it says the same thing: the truth expressed by Keats isn’t worth a feather, or, a pretty feather is all it is. Using the word “epistemological” feels the same as when Mathai uses “BEING.” It refers to a broad view, that’s all; the equivalent of “we have room to talk about this later.” But the diminishment of the Poetry as Truth formula in every sense remains.

Mandakini Pachauri (this is all from the same FB discussion) quoted Dickinson’s “I Died For Beauty,” one who died for truth and one who died for beauty in the tomb finally covered in moss, but Thakore wasn’t impressed:

“It’s just a mundane reworking of the Keatsian paradigm.”

Dickinson, in Thakore’s view, violated the poetic rule: making truth (an established “paradigm”) the center of a poem. Truth and Beauty walked into a bar…

Here is Scarriet’s response to the conundrum of truth and beauty in poetry:

Truth directs our actions in the most ironic fashion possible. Truth questions our senses by directing our senses. Facts are mundane. Truth, which uses facts, is profound. Poetry follows truth’s path from the mundane to the profound. Remember this was Wordsworth’s formula expressed in the Preface to Literary Ballads: poetry takes the plain and makes it remarkable. Recall also this was Wordsworth’s poetical mission—his colleague, the more supernatural Coleridge, was ascribed the reverse: going from the remarkable to the plain. The path is what is important, not the direction; and the poetic path is the same as the truth’s. But this doesn’t mean what poetry says, or the things on the path, are true. 

Neither the Romantics nor Scarriet disagree with Thakore so far.

But back to truth. To put it more simply: Truth is when you realize your prison is a palace or your palace is a prison. A poem is a prison striving to be a palace.

Ode On a Grecian Urn: “Bold lover, never never canst thou kiss (Prison)…”ever will thou love and she be fair!” (Palace)

Truth is always a flash of insight, more connected to ecstasy than we realize. Beauty is slower and slowly fades.

Truth is so quick, it belongs to eternity.

How a poem is constructed—to which Thakore gives priority—is this truthful, or beautiful? The construction may be beautiful, but the “how” definitely belongs to truth.

Let us make the following supposition:

If you believe Truth and Beauty are different, you will be all the more moved by the speaking out of the phrase at the end of Keats’ poem. The anguish is what moves us, not the truth.

And if, instead, we believed Truth and Beauty were the same before we read Keats’ poem, we would also be moved by the ending of Keats’ poem.

Why?

How can a truthful disagreement have zero effect on how much we are moved by Keats’ utterance at the end of his poem?

In the second instance our ego would be moved—‘the stupid world thinks they are different, but Keats the poet agrees with me!’

This proves what Anand Thakore is saying. The construction of the poem is the “truth;” there is no truth, per se. Had the ‘truth/beauty’ phrase been at the beginning of the poem, phrase and poem would have failed.

And yet, if the critical approach we take to Keats’ poem is true, does it not indicate that truth matters in poetry?

Poetry is an antidote to crude, ephemeral, or mistaken feeling, not an indulgence in it.

How do we escape feeling, but through truth?

Thakore also implicitly favored truth over beauty with his “hitherto” remark. Originality is a factor in poetry’s value, and the fact of originality belongs to truth, not beauty. Poe famously argued that originality was crucial in judging poetry.

Truth, not beauty, is what the highest poetry attains. Beauty is a secret joke in the formula, for beauty is secondary to truth; beauty is what fools us. Truth, however, is not such a fool as to not see the value of the foolish. Truth reveals the palace as a prison, or the prison as a palace—and what this means is that the beautiful is not definite; beauty is the variable in the equation. The poem’s construction is definite. The law of how a poem is ideally ordered or constructed is a tangible truth in itself. Beauty is a disease to truth’s health. We love a disease, however, to cure ourselves of it. Poetry fools us into understanding beauty as its truth. And this is beautiful.

 

15 Comments

  1. Desdi said,

    August 9, 2019 at 6:57 pm

    Of course the highest and most celestial function of poetry is to laud the 45th President D.J. Trump, no?

  2. tomwest2014 said,

    August 10, 2019 at 4:55 am

    It all makes sense on the reading but in the end I’m not sure what I read. I need a crutch (one might say) for my understanding. I need to look at a love that moves me, that I would call “poetic”, and ask myself, “What happened here?” Why did this poem arouse in me some deep non-verbal feelings, feelings similar to those I have when deeply moved by music? Perhaps words cannot describe what happened, but seeing the poem, reading it, is necessary, just as it is necessary to hear the music. I might not be able to say what happened to me, but when I’m in the presence of the work of art (same is true of painting) that moves me, I have a non-verbal awareness of my feelings. Looking at the painting, hearing the music, reading the poem (preferably aloud) attaches the item involved to the feelings that it arouses. What does that mean? Does it make the “ideas” of truth and beauty and more precise? I think not. I don’t know what it means. It’s just something that happens.

  3. maryangeladouglas said,

    August 10, 2019 at 10:51 pm

    My Friend In Poetry. I don’t think it is possible in any situation John Keats would have ever said “meh’ about anything, if the word had existed then. When Keats said truth is beauty and beauty is truth he MEANT it. Meant. Not Meh. He meant, not meh, truth and beauty are one. Should be one. I dont think he would have minded if added goodness as well so that we have the trefoil of the Beatific Vision. That approaches Dante. I dont think Keats would have said meh to Dante either. Truth is quotes is absurd. It has been for a very long time. But the poet in the photo looks to me to be a real poet with a poet’s great earnestness. Throwing truth away in real life is certainly a disaster waiting to happen. I dont see it being any different from throwing truth away in poetry. We are all suffering from lies. Beauty without truth if you means outward beauty is a wilderness and a mockery.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    August 11, 2019 at 11:45 am

    The ambiguity one feels when one really contemplates what it means to insist Truth and Beauty are the same, is quite natural.

    When you blend, you lose. If you say Truth and Beauty are the same, you might be inclined to say, But what happened to Truth (as Truth)? What happened to Beauty (as Beauty)? It’s a tease, and Keats knew it was a tease. The urn says it, not Keats.

  5. thomasbrady said,

    August 11, 2019 at 11:57 am

    Mary, I’m sure Keats in conversation used vulgar expressions. Poets are human. I do appreciate your virtuous, poetic, uncompromising, passion on the subject, however. I was using “meh” to demonstrate another angle of approach, in support of Anand Thakore’s position, not as a definitive or accurate report on Keats. “This is all you know or need to know.” This adds another layer. Do mere humans (as opposed to God) “know” the ultimate truth?

  6. thomasbrady said,

    August 11, 2019 at 12:03 pm

    I’m one who believes beauty is truth. And that the poet, and every true artist, must insist on that. But in my wanderings, I’m not always sure every truth is beautiful—I have to put it into a poem first. And that’s how I think about everything.

  7. maryangeladouglas said,

    August 11, 2019 at 5:06 pm

    Truly you are entitled to think whatever you wish and to write the poetry you feel to write. I didnt mean to sound dictatorial. But meh is lukewarm and Keats could never have been that. We all have our different perspective. I am impelled by something to say what I feel but not in the form of logical argument. Just to express that. I dont believe in proving the Infinite, and anyway we can’t. I do find enchanting and real any of your attempts to bring Keats into the current conversation but I only see still in a distant language gazing at the stars and wondering how long he had to live and if his poetry would live. A man in that frame of mind has little need for swearing. (in my view). What good would it do him.

  8. maryangeladouglas said,

    August 11, 2019 at 5:09 pm

    Truth is beautiful because it is faithful. Fidelity is the ultimate beauty. (I believe). Think about Mother Teresa of Calcutta if you want to. From a certain vantage point she was no beauty. And yet when people were with her they couldnt get over how beautiful she was. Because she truly loved. There is nothing uglier than beauty which betrays.

  9. maryangeladouglas said,

    August 11, 2019 at 5:24 pm

    Keats saying ‘meh” would be like Edgar Allen Poe saying ‘Have a nice day!!”

    • thomasbrady said,

      August 13, 2019 at 6:36 am

      Mary, I say the “ecstatic” position is *as if* Keats says “meh. truth is only as good as beauty;” I do NOT say Keats says “meh.” Keats calls the urn “cold pastoral.” Keats is not advocating warm ecstasy, to melt together beauty and truth in “being.” What IS truth if it is beauty, only? Not very truthful. This is the “ecstatic” position, which is not Keats’ position. The paradox of Keats is real. Beauty and Truth retain their definitions even as mortals “know” them to be one through the experience of the urn/his poem.

    • thomasbrady said,

      August 13, 2019 at 6:48 am

      Beauty and Truth lay in a tomb,
      Talking. Moss covers them soon.

      Beauty and Truth fell in an urn.
      Keats:Together they burn.

      Beauty and Truth walk into a bar.
      Drunk Beauty: Truth, how beautiful you are!

      We can rewrite Keats but cannot reach what he did in his poem.

       

  10. maryangeladouglas said,

    August 11, 2019 at 5:42 pm

    There is something in us that knows when we have been lied to. How else could we know that and not know truth?

  11. maryangeladouglas said,

    August 11, 2019 at 5:54 pm

    Well I feel the answer to the riddle of truth and beauty is that truth beauty and goodness form a nexus in God and in Christ, in the Trinity, in the Trinity within us and that is the Bright Star without his knowing, Keats contemplated in the waning of his brief life. For the rest of it we are flawed diamond human beings who break apart too easily, who crumble into dust but something in us will continue and it will be radiant if we are humble before the unsolvable before that which only IS the ground of truth of beauty of goodness.

  12. August 12, 2019 at 8:16 am

    Beauty and Truth walked into a bar:
    “Really”, said Truth, “How different we are!”.
    “And why should I care”, asked Beauty, “What you think? –
    Be a sport old chap and buy me a drink!”

  13. August 13, 2019 at 12:38 am

    I’ll drink to that!


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