Truth

Because God’s creation is a bodily one full of particulars, poets must tell a truth that neither denies the particulars of our existence nor the essential truths that are God’s. If truth is being discovered in poetry, then we must ask what kind of truth and from where? Modernist poets struggle with the question of what poetry does and from what (or where or whom) does it derive its power. They are particularly divided over whether true poetry is a poetry of ideas or concrete objects. They also have divergent positions on how much of a role the poet plays in the creation of meaning (which is a very different notion than discovery of meaning). This debate among the poets stems from the modern dilemmas of where to locate truth and value, how to balance subjective experience with the world's actual existence, and the search for some unifying vision of life.

In Wallace Stevens’ "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour," the poet suggests that the poetic imagination actually creates truth:

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one.
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough. (15-21)

For these kind of notions, Stevens has often been labeled a gnostic poet. Ancient Gnosticism held that the material world was ultimately evil, and that one needed a secret gnosis or knowledge to escape the world. By analogy, a modern form of gnosticism exists that practices solipsism and sees human beings' creative abilities as a way to "transcend" brute reality. For Stevens, there is no knowledge of reality directly. Instead, the mind creates reality through perception. Description equals perception, which equals conception. Poetry, thus, bestows meaning on the meaningless universe. It does this because the mind locates a pattern in what otherwise seems random. Poetry can achieve a "supreme fiction" that allows us to order and create purpose. In this sense, the imagination enhances experience. Thus, in Stevens’ poem "The Idea of Order at Key West," the singer beside the sea makes the meaning not the sea itself; it is the song that finds and imposes meaning:

She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang, and, singing, made. (37-43)

There is much that is unsettling about Steven’s contention. The danger is one of the tyranny of the angelic, abstracted imagination, one that isolates itself from its past, tradition, and material concreteness. Stevens’ world is one in which the poetic idea offers a kind of transcendental salvation from the corrupt, fleshly world. Alan Tate charged Edgar Alan Poe with something very similar, a "Cartesian split—taste, feeling, respect for the depth of nature, [that] resolve[s] into subjectivism which denies the sensible world." Such a denial cuts off reason from feeling and isolates the mind from the body, as well as the ideal from history (411).

In a similar fashion, other poetics rather than placing faith in ideas, place faith in the ability to enliven or accent the material world, to make it sensately present. But this, too, tends to see human creativity at the center of meaning. William Carlos Williams is an example of this impulse towards an enlivened materialism, a profound focus on the particulars of the world that also practices an incredulity towards assigning any higher meaning to those objects and experiences. Williams made famous the phrase, "No ideas but in things." He stressed that poetry should impart a vivid, active realism, was deeply opposed to symbolism, distrusted overuse of figurative language, and (at least for a portion of his life) avoided metaphysics. He did hold that life, particularly nature, had some kind of power innate to it, though he never quite understood this as divine. He tended to distrust universals. In reaction to positions like Stevens, he wrote, "I do not believe that writing is music." He felt that poems were shaped objects designed to "lift up the word of the senses to the level of the imagination and so give it a new currency." But this does not mean that he believed that the words used by a poet actually spoke for reality. Instead, he stressed that words and things are two separate elements. In some sense, the poem is a natural thing itself. In his epic poem Patterson he wrote of and to God:

Why should I move from this place
where I was born? knowing
how futile would be the search
for you in the multiplicity
of your debacle. The world spreads
for me like a flower opening -- and
will close for me as might a rose --

wither and fall to the ground
and rot and be drawn up
into a flower again. But you
never wither -- but blossom
all about me. In that I forget
myself perpetually -- in your
composition and decomposition
I find my . .
despair! (Book 2)

For Williams, the truth of the world and, therefore, poetry and God is in the particulars of the world; however, that truth is always in and out of one’s grasp, never stable, never finalized.

Only a poetics that seeks to balance human subjectivity with the world's objectivity will answer this problem. To try and locate truth in poetic subjectivity alone, as Stevens does, makes human beings the center of truth and, therefore, idolatrous. In the same way, to place truth only in the particulars, as Williams seeks to do, is to deny the role of universal truth. How does one understand the relationship of grace and nature, the places of the contingent and particular world within the eternal truths which are God’s? Christians have struggled with this question for centuries. It is a hard, high, and holy balance to maintain, always threatening to collapse into one of two extremes: the complete bifurcation of the two realms, so that nature acts in complete independence from grace; or conflation of the two, so that nature becomes grace, with the inevitable result that nature is sacarilzed and again rejects grace as an actual reality.

The crux of the problem is how can a limited, finite experience of the transcendentals claim to be just that, both limited yet as touching the limitless? What is needed is a kind of incarnational humility, one that recognizes a role of the artist’s subjectivity in searching for truth and also understands the impact of the particulars of the world, yet never loses sight of the truth that we are limited creatures and that God’s truth is larger than ourselves. Marianne Moore in her poem "The Pangolin" observes,

[. . .] To explain grace requires
a curious hand. If that which is at all were not forever,
why would those who graced the spires
with animals and gathered there to rest, on cold luxurious
low stone seats -- a monk and monk and monk -- between the thus
ingenious roof-supports, have slaved to confuse
grace with a kindly manner, time in which to pay a debt,
the cure for sins, a graceful use
of what are yet
approved stone mullions branching out across
the perpendiculars? (56-66)


Moore, a Presbyterian Christian, holds that all good poetry is a result of a mixture of objective and subjective elements. The objects that a poet writes about are a product of her perception, but also real objects that act on the poet. She stresses that in a fallen world, poetry is imperfect in its ability to discover and capture the moment, and yet that inability is its strength: "Humility is an indispensable teacher, ennabling concentration to heighten gusto. [. . .] The thing is to see the vision and not deny it; to care and admit that we do." Poets do not create truths; poets' genius comes from their sincerity and craft, not some "capture" of truth in form. She stresses that true poets are "literalists of the imagination" ("Poetry" longer version, 21-22), ones who see the genuine, raw subjects of the world engraced with transcendent power. Poetry is both personal and objective. Such careful observation is a product of the contemplative mind. A poetics like Moore's reminds us that all poetry can be read incarnationally -- the poem of ideas can be read as poets' fallible attempts to speak of their personal conceptions; the poem of objects can be understood as bright attempts at naming the value in creation. They can teach us in their valuable limitedness. The inwardness of the poet is a kind of sacrifice for the work. The poet draws on her subjectivity as a resource, not as the work itself.

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"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding