I was privileged to attend a few lectures during the Napa Valley Writers Conference, a workshop based conference held in beautiful sunny Napa for a whole week in July. My favorite lecture was given by poet Jane Hirshfield : Poetry is a kind of Lying, Or, Tell all the Truth, but Tell it Slant
The basic devises of poetry are lies – shadows don’t breath, April is not necessarily the cruelest month, we don’t really hear America singing – but the lies, the odd and interesting metaphors that don’t make any sense initially, at least to our logical minds, make intuitive sense within the structure of the poem. We can hold two contrasting – crazy – ideas simultaneously in our heads and by doing so, the poetic lies becomes charming, and lead us to understand the world differently, maybe better, maybe close to a truth. Maybe slant.
We’ve been trained in school to discover the truth, find the “real” meaning of a poem, as Billy Collins writes in Introduction to Poetry:
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Hirshfield points out that you certainly can cull out the truth of a poem in a close reading – but the work reveals that truth for only a second before shading back into obscurity, as soon as we look away from the bright light of the poem and rest our eyes on a more familiar and every day point, the meaning is lost again.
That is what is buried deep in good poetry, that truth. And our job is to not beat it up with a hose, but to allow that in this art form, like, frankly, many art forms, the truth is there, below a shimmering surface. We squint, we even slip on tinted glasses to see through the surface better, see fish, see shells, see something we would have walked by, busy heading in the opposite direction.