Up to the age of four, as my mother testified, I told only the truth, but after that I must have come to my senses – Marina Tsvetaeva
In the last year, I read a review of a poetry collection which was centered around the poet’s wife dying of cancer. The reviewer initially assumed that it depicted the poet’s life, but when he attended a reading of the book, he discovered that the “plot” was a literary creation. There was no cancer, no dying wife. Even though he knew the book was a work of art with no compact to be sociology or memoir, he admits that he felt in some way betrayed. Something seemed cheaper about the emotion, the symbolism: the cancer, the death, the wife. Perhaps the portrait was “true” in the literary sense or in the sense of deeper truth, but the emotion manufactured, contrived, not earned, not real.
Tell the truth but tell it slant. – Emily Dickinson
Poets have a strange relationship with the truth. Like novelists, they are in some sense expected to be liars for the sake of truth. Even more so than of fiction, readers demand of poetry a distilled truth – the raw being of this world filtered and made, if not necessarily beautiful, into an aesthetic creation. Truth in artifice.
Rilke, Yeats, Stéphane Mallarmé, & co spoke of poets as priests of the modern, secular world. Wallace Stevens wrote that “The poet becomes ‘the priest of the invisible.'” Poets are to be the ones who bring mystery, meaning, grace to a world without an obvious God or order. Out of the raw materials of their lives – out of the welter of their emotions, loves, disappointments, sufferings – poets are supposed to make order out of chaos.
Poetry…is capable of saving us; it is a perfectly possible means of overcoming chaos. – I. A. Richards
Is poetry capable of “saving” us? What kind of truth does it get at? This brings to me one of Marina Tsvataeva’s most famous poems, in which she proclaims “I know the truth – forget all other truths!” or “I know the truth – give up all other truths!” depending on the translation. It’s a high claim, a claim befitting the priestess of poetry that she often speaks as.
I’ve mentioned Tsvataeva here before, and to know any of her history is to know that poetry did not save her in the literal or material sense. It didn’t spare her from any of the vagaries of history or turmoil in Russia. Her life was overshadowed by starvation, imprisonment and loss of family members, severe poverty and hunger, exile, death and despair. Was poetry the truth and redemption in that? Was it, if not enough, something powerful – a truth of its own?
What is the truth that she knows, the truth that makes her poetry sing? Does it balance out the truth of her life overcome by the awful sufferings of the twentieth century? Does the truth of poetry hold any weight against the fact that “soon all of us will sleep beneath the earth, we / who never let each other sleep above it.”?
I know the truth
tr. Elaine Feinstein
I know the truth – forget all other truths!
No need for anyone on earth to struggle.
Look – it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what will you say, poets, lovers, generals?
The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep beneath the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.