A Higher Standard for Poetry? A Guest Post by Peter Porco


Peter Porco

 Since they “pursue
great truths,” do “poets have a special obligation to honesty,” as suggested in
an April 28
Anchorage Daily News column http://www.adn.com/2013/04/27/2880962/art-beat-former-anchorage-kid.html? Does a poet’s failure to get a verifiable
fact represent “a kind of fraud,” as the column maintains? Here, local author
and former Daily News editor Peter Porco addresses the question of whether
“poetry must be held to an even higher standard of accuracy than nonfiction
prose or journalism,” as proposed in the newspaper piece.

 . . .This judgment,
in my view, not only misunderstands what poets do, but it’s absurd on the face
of it. When it comes to getting the facts right, if there exists a higher
standard than the norms followed by news organizations and other non-fiction
publications, why would anyone read a newspaper, a history book, a science
journal until they first turned to a volume of poetry for more trustworthy
reporting? And by the way, if news media are not holding to the very highest
standards of factual accuracy … well, come to think of it, we may have a
problem there.
Facts, like any of the other concrete details found in a
poem, do matter, sometimes a lot. The English poet W.H. Auden titled his poem “September 1, 1939” because he wanted
us to consider exactly what happened on that date in Poland,
an event which the 99-line poem refers to obliquely but depends on vitally. The
title becomes a stand-in for the worldwide agony of the Second World War,
generally said to have begun on that day. If instead Auden had titled it “October 1, 1939” (assuming that error
could have gotten by an editor), he would have lost a convenient reference to
the war and its madness, and the poem would have gone off the tracks.
But Auden’s poem is not history, not even close. No one
reads it to learn what happened 73 years ago. The poet himself states sharply
that when it comes to getting at the essential truth, “accurate scholarship” is
not enough—it may even be a distraction. Let the scholars come up with the
facts, the speaker says: “I and the public know/What all schoolchildren
learn,/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return.”
Auden’s reference to children is apt, because poetry, like
many of the arts, seeks not the truism of fact but escape from its tyranny.
Poetry seeks the realm of free play, even when the subject is serious. The
practice of poetry—the artist’s creative manipulation of words and the elements
of craft—has more in common with the nature of dreaming than with the
journalist’s or scientist’s obligation to report the facts as found.
Consider Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” Scholars of
English history know
 that Shakespeare, a loyal subject of Tudor kings
and queens, did a hatchet job on Richard, the last Plantagenet king and one
whose reputation the Tudors would gladly see disgraced. Shakespeare took some
facts, rumors and legends and created a greater and more clever villain than
Richard was or could have been in life. And so much the better is his play
precisely because of the staged Richard’s outsized and outrageous deeds. You
could say—Plantagenet sympathizers would certainly say—that Shakespeare
committed “a kind of fraud,” but in no way could they say his play suffers
because of it, that the work is marred by (as the column calls it) 
“flawed aesthetics.”
In “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”—the Keats poem
dismissed in the column as juvenilia “in no small part” because of “dishonesty”
in its specifics—if the author had used the correct surname, Balboa, instead of
Cortez (referring to the man said to be the first European to see the eastern
Pacific Ocean), the poet would have been factually correct. But the resulting
line, burdened by the extra syllable, would scan clumsily, and the poem, though
historically accurate, would be weaker, not stronger. Also, it’s not who looked
out on that broad seascape that is important to the poem. What matters is that
a fellow human being stood on a mountain and experienced the miraculous. That’s
the “news that stays news
in Keats’ poem and why anyone would bother with it.

Peter Porco’s poems and short
fiction have appeared in Cirque and in F magazine in
Anchorage. His play “Wind Blown and
Dripping,” about mystery writer Dashiell Hammett as editor of a GI
newspaper in the Aleutians in World War II, and other of his stage works have
been produced in Anchorage and Talkeetna. A former reporter and editor for the
Anchorage Daily News, Peter teaches creative writing
at the
University of Alaska Anchorage. This commentary is based on a piece first published in the ADN “Art Snob Blog.”  
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