Tuesday 17 May 2011


Well, that's what I'll call them - facts (sometimes contextless and isolated) that are put into poems. They can be interesting in their own right - strange but true. They can be a piece of information everyone's expected to know (e.g. "London's the biggest city in England"), the reader thus expected to ponder on the implications (easiest city to be lonely in?). They can be a minor piece of knowledge shared by reader and poet, perhaps a piece of public knowledge that had a particular significance to the poet. As an example of their usage, here's the first and the final stanza from "Then in the twentieth century" which won 2nd Prize in the 2002 National Poetry Competition. It's by David Hart.

Then in the twentieth century they invented transparent adhesive tape,
the first record played on Radio 1 was Flowers In The Rain by the Move,
and whereas ink had previously been in pots, now it was in cartridges.
Men quarrelled about scrolls found in pots near the Dead Sea, the library
at Norwich burned down, milk was pasteurised by law, I have four children,
all adult now, small islands became uninhabited, Harpo never spoke on film.

Most of these factoids seem to lack any special significance to the persona, nor do they seem closely inter-related. There's not really any narrative either. There's some theoretical justification for this approach. Facts help to anchor the poem to the verifiable world, and are never really isolated.

  • "although it is possible to reach what I have stated to be the first end of art, the representation of facts, without reaching the second, the representation of thoughts, yet it is altogether impossible to reach the second with having previously reached the first", Ruskin, "Modern Painters"
  • "Structuralism ... starts off from the observation that every concept in a given system is determined by all other concepts of the system and has no significance by itself alone ... there is an interrelation between the data (facts) and the philosophical assumptions, not a unilateral dependence", Garvin, "a Prague School Reader on Esthetics, Literary Structure and Style"

Supposed facts may be loaded with implicit assumptions. There's psychological justification too - after all, what we remember isn't just the personal, or the personal responses to public events, we also remember public events much as many others might.

Some poets never use this approach - it's non-lyrical; just dead facts; a collage that depends on juxtaposition; an essay. I like Hart's poem and the style. I use factoids - I like finding out that Defoe, when he was pilloried for criticising the authorities in 1703, was pelted by the public with flowers, or that Hitler and Wittgenstein went to the same school. In the poetry game, facts play a role they don't play in prose. They're perhaps further from poetic truth than beautiful imagery is, but they're useful all the same.

  • "beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know", Keats, "Ode On A Grecian Urn"
  • "Art arises out of our desire for both beauty and truth and our knowledge that they are not identical", Auden, "The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays",
  • "Every poem starts out as either true or beautiful. Then you try to make the true ones seem beautiful and the beautiful ones true", Larkin

1 comment: