“Poetry & Truth”

by David Yezzi

Poetry-and-truthPoets, like journalists, historians, are after the truth. But what kind of truth, exactly, do we find in poetry?
In his “Dedication” to Don Juan, Byron strikes a characteristically spicy note. After ruminating for a couple of stanzas on Milton and comparing him, with irony, to the then Laureate, Robert Southey, whom Byron hated, he concludes an ottava rima with: “Would he [Milton] adore a sultan? he obey/ The intellectual eunuch Castlereagh?” Not quite content with that, Byron provides an alternate couplet, which employs an inferior rhyme but an even more pointed assault: “Would he subside into a hackney Laureate—/ A scribbling, self-sold, soul-hired, scorn’d Iscariot?” Byron adds:

I doubt if “Laureate” and “Iscariot” be good rhymes, but must say, as Ben Jonson did to Sylvester, who challenged him to rhyme with—

I, John Sylvester,
Lay with your sister.”

Jonson answered,—“I, Ben Jonson, lay with your wife.” Sylvester answered,—“That is not rhyme.”—“No,” said Ben Jonson; “but it is true.”

It takes a special kind of poet to maul a rhyme for the sake of the truth, and, of course, Byron here eats his cake and has it too. In general, one does not look to poems for factual truths, lest Keats’s Cortez be permanently swapped for Balboa in the history books. But if poetry proves largely unsatisfactory to Plato and Detective Sergeant Joe “Just the facts, ma’am” Friday in terms of veracity, then what kind of truth is poetry after?

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