Monday 10 February 2020

Poetry, Beauty and Truth

The beauty/truth debate is one I try not to get involved with because both the terms are slippery. I tend to be on the side of those - Bunting perhaps - who think that Truth, as normally understood isn't really what poetry's about. A truth may be most neatly expressed in poetry, but if it can only be expressed in poetry I think it's illusory.

Some articles

  • Truth and honesty in poetry (Chris Edgoose) - 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
  • Some thoughts on ‘Truth’ in poetry (Roy Marshall) - If I read a poem I like, or love, I generally find myself recognising aspects of life as I’ve experienced it embodied in that poem; I feel ‘Yes, this is how it is, this is what we do, how we are with each other, this is how we feel and think and navigate joy and frustration and hate. This is true.’
    In order for this to work, for a poem to engage with emotion and experience in a way that I recognise, the language of the poem has to be working consistently towards telling that particular emotional truth ... None of this means that a poem needs to be realistic. ... For me, a poem needs to contain emotional truth. ... Perhaps I’m interested in poems as ‘empathy capsules’; little units of meaning that can generate an empathetic response in the reader.

Some quotes

  • "An artist's allegiance is to the truth, not the facts, and facts are often the things you have to change to make the poem more truthful", Don Paterson, "Smith: A Reader's Guide to the Poetry of Michael Donaghy"
  • "What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth", Keats, letter to Benjamin Bailey
  • "["Beauty is truth, truth beauty"] strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem, and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue. And I suppose that Keats meant something by it, however remote his truth and his beauty may have been from these words in ordinary use. ... The statement of Keats seems to me meaningless: or perhaps the fact that it is grammatically meaningless conceals another meaning from me", T.S. Eliot, "Dante", 1929
  • "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", 1963, p.336.
  • "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, "Larkin at 60", p.113.
  • "poetry is seeking to make not meaning but beauty", Basil Bunting, Stand V8.2, p.28
  • "From beauty no road leads to reality ... The power of beauty affects the naked being, as though he had never lived", Hannah Arendt, "Rahel Varnhagen", p.88-89
  • "Beauty reveals everything because it expresses nothing", Wilde
  • "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 ... no artist can be graceful, imaginative, or original, unless he be truthful", Ruskin, "Modern Painters", Vol III, p.133-9
  • "Art is not truth. It is a lie that makes us realize truth", Braque
  • "In the traditional idea of form we naturally find beauty as the pacifying meeting between the visible and the true", F. Carmagnola, "Parentesi perdute", Guerrini & Associati, 1998, p.44 (my translation)
  • "We always take it for granted that all that is beautiful is art, and that all art is beautiful ... This identification of art with beauty is the root of all the difficulties of judgement", Herbert Read, "The Meaning of Art", 1955


  1. I wrote a two part post on the subject of ugly poetry back in 2012 as, I suppose, a response to the John Keats. It was a long time I have to say before it dawned on me that people expected poetry to be beautiful perhaps because, being musical and having been raised on Scottish ballads, I viewed poetry as more melodious than anything else. Beauty I think of in visual terms and, let’s be honest, very few poems are really things of beauty on the page as opposed to musical scores many of which I’d frame and hang on my wall quite happily.

    As for truth, well, it’s seen better days.

    1. Few books are praised for their "sheer beauty" nowadays. And as others have said, "true" tends to mean "yeah, I've noticed that too." If writers want to be famous nowadays, they don't aim for beautiful truths, they write "American Dirt".