Truth and Honesty in Poetry (mini-essay)

As much as he enjoyed Homer, Plato did not want poets anywhere near his ideal State – not only were they a bad influence on the minds of the citizenry, making everything they said seem attractive through such devious means as melody and rhythm, they were also mere imitators, fakers, as opposed to the real makers and doers who made things tick. They were not capable of truth, only a shadowy semblance of it, and this for the purpose of arousing the passions rather than encouraging reason. So, out they must go, and out they must stay, said Plato half reluctantly, unless someone could give a jolly good reason for allowing them back in.
Not a popular view today, it seems, with 2018 poetry sales at an all-time high of £12.3m (almost doubling over the last six years). These days, we are not only allowing poets in, we are, after 2,500 years, embracing them and commodifying them as a fully-fledged part of popular culture. New, living poets too; not just the old, dead ones. But our idea of what poetry is is very different to Plato’s. A recent Poetry Society Twitter poll showed that 48% of us (those of us who care enough to respond to Poetry Society Twitter polls anyway) agree with the statement: ‘If it’s presented as a poem, it’s a poem’. Epic-and-lyric-loving Plato would have frowned, I suspect; and possibly tsked, along with 2,500 years-worth of poets.
Reading chapters III and X from The Republic did make me think, though, about his objection to poetry in relation to its role in society, and about whether there is anything to his charge that poetry’s imitative nature means it is incapable of generating ‘truth’. His worries about poetry influencing the young are less interesting simply because we would be likely to agree that poetry does indeed have the effect on the young he claims it to have, but we would see that as a good thing – inspiring and broadening minds etc. But the ‘truth’ charge still resonates and is worth pausing over. I guess our conception of truth has also changed, but even without the lens of Platonic Forms to look through, it does seem quite a high-flown claim that a poetic work might access something ‘truthful’ which, say, philosophers (with whom Plato felt poets had a distinct and ancient ‘quarrel’) could not. And it also seems fair to say that sometimes the ‘truth’ we glean from a poem is somewhat nebulous, a bit un-pin-downable, more of a feeling than anything else. This is that thing we call ‘Poetic Truth’. Oh, come on! says Plato, wtf?
The charge is a serious one, because the implication is if a poet is not saying something actually true then s/he is not saying anything at all (but saying it prettily). And the gap between saying something that is true for some and not for others and saying something that just kind of sounds like it could be true if you did but ‘get it’, is a narrow one. And besides, when something evoked in a poem strikes us as ‘true’, is it in fact not just highlighting a shared experience? We might argue that there is nothing universally ‘true’ about it at all, it’s more like a stand up comic pointing out something amusing that we both recognise – the meme-line “It’s funny because it’s true” from The Simpsons doesn’t really cover it, more like “It’s funny because we both recognise it from the part of society we both belong to even though a third person may not”. But if enough people do recognise it then you get your laugh and so have your joke (or get to your ‘truth’ and so have your anthology-ready poem). Can we conclude then that a poet is just a stand-up comedian who is packaged as intelligent but who is only intermittently funny (if at all). Should we throw them all out, as Plato suggests?
This problem of truth is highlighted by poets who look back with a frown and a tsk at their own work and go about amending it. One example is WH Auden, who famously changed the final line of the penultimate stanza of ‘September 1, 1939’ (below) from “We must love one another or die” to “We must love one another and die” because the original line, he came to feel, was “a damned lie”, and the poem a whole “was infected with an incurable dishonesty” (John Fuller quoting Bloomfield’s Bibliography).
Auden’s use of the word ‘lie’ suggests (obvs…) that he felt the original line was ‘not true’ in that there is no ‘or’ about it, we will die whether we love one another or not. The literal meaning of ‘or’ in this line can only be read as ‘if we love each other, we will not die’ – a blatant falsehood. So, taken as a prosaic statement of fact, Auden’s right, and if it was a statement of fact he intended (and quite a bland one, because to say ‘we must love one another and die’ is to do nothing more than make an unremarkable suggestion and then state an equally unremarkable fact of life) then the change was fully justified. A reader who is open to the slightly vaguer but still fairly clear ‘Poetic Truth’ understanding of the original line will add their own internal ‘translation’, which will be something like “We should be nice to each other, otherwise we’ll all end up killing each other – and that would be bad”. Plato would no doubt prefer this as a clear and philosophically sound alternative (though written uninterestingly) and agree with Auden that his original line was untruthful nonsense (though attractively succinct in its anapaestic trimeter). As poetry, then, it is a lie but translated into prose it is capable of expressing a truth that could potentially be helpful to the ‘State’. Auden clearly hoped (for a while anyway) that he could maintain the poetry of the line and its prosaic truth by swapping ‘or’ for ‘and’; but he came to realise that this put the line at odds with the ‘sense we get’ (a phrase, woolly as it is, that we often here in poetry reviews) from the rest of the poem and decided the whole thing should “be scrapped” – though it has been reinstated in his collected work since.
The problem was, of course, not with the poem but with Auden, whose politics had shifted since he wrote the original work and later in life wanted it to reflect truths it had not been written to reflect. The Poetic Truth of the ‘or’ line requires the reader to do some of the work for themself, to make a leap in order to ‘translate’ the line in a way that is not ‘untruthful’ in the context of the rest of the poem. This, perhaps, is the difference between poetic and philosophical truths: the latter are clearly laid out and delineated by their writer, the reader intended as a passive recipient; the former, in contrast, invite more active participation from the reader, attractively packaged and embedded in metaphor, they ask the reader if they are willing to follow and even invite some participation in determining their final destination. Maybe Auden forgot this in his severer later years.

But what is more – or at least equally – interesting to me is that Auden repeatedly referred to the poem as “dishonest”, which is not, of course, the same as ‘untrue’. It’s an interesting charge and one to which only Auden himself would be in a position to ascribe substance. You can’t really back-fill honesty, or a lack of it. You either state something in an ‘honest way’ or you don’t; it may be incidentally true or false, and the (dis)honesty of the statement may remain with it, but this particular quality can only ever be injected at the original point of production. So, whether Auden injected his poem with honesty or dishonesty only he knew. I suspect that the fact he came to use the phrase later in life indicates either he knew he had not truly believed what he was writing originally, or that later in life he wanted people to think that he hadn’t – his older self rather patronisingly using his younger self as an example to others of how the young do not really mean what they say – if only they had the wisdom to know it.

An earlier line in ‘September 1, 1939’ exemplifies both poetic truth and honesty quite nicely. The 1930s are referred to as “a low dishonest decade” and it strikes me that a reader on the hunt for hard facts could also accuse this line of being a “damned lie” – decades can be neither low/high nor honest/dishonest. These are both attributes that decades are factually incapable of exhibiting. In order to access any truth that may be encoded within the line, we must make a leap, on the back of our metaphorical understanding of those adjectives, into a world of associations that are likely to be different for all of us, but which we can link to other words and images in the poem to build a Poetic Truth that, while nebulous, carries meanings outside the factual truthfulness of the line. “Low” for example takes us back to the “dives” of the first line and collocates in our minds with phrases like “low-down dirty, lying cheat” and though decades are incapable of dishonesty, we make the leap to understand that Auden means the people who lived through the decade, and at the same time hinting at so much individual dishonesty combining to form something greater and more sinister than dishonesty alone – and we may make a further leap to associate that with the rise of European Fascism. So the line is no more a lie than it is dishonest.

But the way Auden imbues ‘decades’ with the quality of dishonesty suggests he is using ‘dishonest’ to evoke ‘a thing capable of imparting dishonesty’ (as though they speak to us, and in doing so they display dishonesty) as opposed to ‘a thing which was created in a spirit of dishonesty’. If this is the case, it is possible he was doing the same in his subsequent description of the poem as a whole. Was he therefore falling into the pathetic fallacy? Or – a poet speaking metaphorically about their poem – was Auden speaking meta-metaphorically? Perhaps this is one way of reading his reading of the poem.

I often think of Auden when I read critics and poets accusing others of ‘bad faith’, which seems to happen quite a lot. How do they know, I wonder, what level of (dis)honesty – if this is what they mean by ‘bad faith’, and I can think of no other synonym – has been injected into a poem by any given poet? Meta-metaphorics notwithstanding, the ‘truth’ of a poem is one thing (or perhaps many things) but only one person knows about its honesty: the poet.


September 1, 1939

by W. H. Auden, 1907 – 1973

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

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