Poetry and the Truth Test
The following appears in Cole Swensen's excellent collection of Essays, Noise That Stays Noise and deals with a central issue of representation: how true is poetry? Is it possible that poetry, with its mirrors, fables, and syntaxes, makes a higher score on the truth test that philosophy, history, documentary, and even memory?
"We can begin to explore poetry’s relationship to truth by contrasting it with that of fiction, whose untrue nature is central and both achieved and announced b the fact that it imitates the true through presenting facts, entities, actions, situations, etc. that mimic those in the outside world. The distance from the actual world offered by mimicry and imitation is what allows fiction the perspective to comment upon that world. However, the alternative world that poetry sets up, to the degree that it does, aren’t miniature copies of the world at large; instead, they operate by other logics, according to other laws, and at other speeds. And for much poetry, there is no “outside world”; rather, it constructs a new element in the world we all share, and as an actual element of that world, it cannot not be true. In short, it cannot make truth relations because it is itself a true act.
"For instance, just a few lines picked almost at random—these are from Paul Hoover’s poem “Childhood and Its Double”:
Everything’s more real, once it finds its mirror,
The gray lake and its gray sky,
Skin and the sound of drums,
And the back end of a costume horse
Confused against the skyline.
"The opening line—Everything’s more real once it finds its mirror—indicates, through its syntax, that it participates in the truth-economy of the world-at-large, that it is making a positive assertion, but in fact it doesn’t; the logic it obeys operates only within its own boundaries (the poem) within which the statement is true, but once taken outside those boundaries, where it must function on other terms, it would quickly be called nonsense (which in its own way is also “true”), for, though stating things about objects in the real world, the line does not attempt to replicate or represent that world in an accountable way. The images in the lines that follow cannot be held to the truth test either because they declare only themselves, their own existence, and make no claims beyond that.
"So fiction and poetry are both, in their own ways, absolved from the true test, whereas documentary—no matter what its genre—cannot be: its whole purpose is to present as accurately as possible events in the outside world. . ."
Cole Swensen: “News That Stays News,” in Noise That Stays Noise: Essays (Poets on Poetry, University of Iowa Press, 2011): 54