We want a poem to be beautiful, that is to say, a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play, which gives us delight precisely because of its contrast to our historical existence with all its insoluble problems and inescapable suffering; at the same time we want a poem to be true, that is to say, to provide us with some kind of revelation about our life which will show us what life is really like and free us from self-enchantment and deception, and a poet cannot bring us any truth without introducing into his poetry the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly.

– W.H. Auden

Compared with:

You don’t read poetry for the kind of truth that passes for truth in the workaday world. You don’t read a poem to find out how you get to Twenty-fourth Street. You don’t read a poem to find the meaning of life. The opposite. I mean, you’d be foolish to. Now, some American poets present the reader with a slice of life, saying, I went to the store today, and I saw a man, and he looked at me, and I looked at him, and we both knew we were . . . thieves. And aren’t we all thieves? You know, this is extracting from everyday experience a statement about life, or a moral. But there is another type of poetry, in which the poet provides the reader with a surrogate world through which he reads this world. Wallace Stevens was the twentieth-century master of this. There’s no other poetry that sounds like a Wallace Stevens poem. But then, there’s nothing that sounds like a Frost poem, either. Or a Hardy poem. These people have created worlds of their own. Their language is so forceful and identifiable that you read them not to verify the meaning or truthfulness of your own experience of the world, but simply because you want to saturate yourself with their particular voices.

– Mark Strand

I’m not sure I agree completely with Mark Strand, but it’s an interesting thing to think about… Do I read poetry looking for the truth of this world or the world the poet creates?  Can’t it be both?  I think that much is implied in Auden’s words.


2 thoughts on “We want a poem to be beautiful. And true.

  1. “Mind wandering, eyes gaze at the ground.
    Remember to look up.


    Look left.
    Look right.
    Now some bubble gum chew.
    Green light.

    Mind wandering, eyes gaze at the ground.
    Remember to look up.


    Look left.
    Look right.
    Now where did I go wrong?”

    I think both are trying to address the purpose of poetry, but as far as I can tell its necessity is determined by the reader/writer of it. Questions, answers, truth, stress relief, beauty, fun… they’re all valid reasons.

    Your question, “can’t it be both” actually made me think of William Blake. I love his poetry, so I’m biased, I guess, into thinking that anything he wrote is beautiful. But I still interpreted his poetry for myself, to see what truth they held for me.

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