In the poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats writes: “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’” I don’t know how I feel about this. Examples to the contrary Mr. Keats:
1.) Beautiful women are often the Devil.
2.) Beautiful Los Angeles sunsets often contain enormous amounts of smog that make them glow pretty pink. This is certainly true, but then, in turn, suddenly less beautiful.
3.) The truth of the matter is that the greater part of Africa suffers from horrible economic depression and governmental corruption, and this condition is anything but beautiful despite its truth.
4.) Sometimes when I write poems, I choose a word that produces a “beautiful” rhyme despite the fact that this word choice dilutes the truth of the statement.
5.) It is possible to make a really beautiful pastry out of entirely synthetic and inedible materials. This would be an untrue pastry despite its beauty.
Admittedly, I am perhaps missing the point. Maybe Keats is talking about a different kind of beauty – or a very specific kind of beauty. Poets can get away with a great deal because nobody is asking them to be precise. However, this quote does strike at the heart of the matter. Are we reading poetry purely for aesthetic reasons or is there some truth which we glean from poetic verse? And if we are gleaners of truth in our poetic absorptions, are we getting hoodwinked by poets who undermine truth for the sake of aesthetics?
Sometimes I wonder why I don’t just write philosophy instead of poetry, and I realize that it has something to do with the state of poetic trance that produces poetry. My own shift into the aesthetic realm of poetic creativity allows me to access a perceptive organ of my mind that otherwise lies dormant. This organ can surely be used for deception in the name of aesthetics, but it has the capacity to remain true to truth within its own aesthetic territory
<I’m excluding a segue here because I can’t come up with one>
Even in writing this piece, I wonder how much truth there is in it. How often am I playing to my audience at the expense of honesty? It is a truism that students often don’t believe in their own thesis statements, but the paper has to get written. But there is something incredibly crippling about writing an entirely true paper. I personally would spend all semester on a paragraph and still trash it.
Outside of the realm of poetry, however, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon in regards to truth. An axiom of improv comedy is to “stick to the truth.” Everyone knows what it’s like to be around someone who is trying to be funny. It’s exhausting, annoying, and horribly unfunny. The most hilarious moments, both on and off the stage, come from authentic reactions. Improv comedy teaches you to go with your first instinct. If somebody on stage gestures at you and your first instinct is to act like they just shot a flamingo at you, go with it. It feels crazy and unsafe, but the authenticity of the reaction almost always leads to hilarity. The best comedy is true comedy. I’ve admittedly spent more time in recent years as a comedian rather than as a poet, so maybe I just haven’t had the time to realize the truth of poetry yet.
– By Peter Lane