Thursday, August 22, 2013

Poetry and The Controversial: The Value of Truth

Controversy is Often Confused and Complicated
Do you value the truth?  Do you value the truth more than you value pride, decorum, holiness, obedience, respect, tradition, or wealth?  More than silence, skill, reason, happiness, discipline, art, or education?  Do you value the telling of truths?

As yet in my life, I have found nothing else in this world that raises hackles and brings on loud, menacing attacks so much as telling the truth; and what is poetry if not the telling of truths?  Such is the dilemma, then, that even when a poet strives to tell the truth as exactly as possible given the limitations of abstract language systems, the truth and the telling of it both bring about complicated controversies. 

Act I -  Exposition: One Defines and Redefines Controversy


According to Merriam-Webster Online, a controversy is “a discussion marked especially by the expression of opposing views.”  They list “dispute” as a synonym.  The Oxford Dictionary defines it as a “prolonged public disagreement or heated discussion.” A discussion is a conversation marked by an exchange of ideas.  An opposing view is an argument that contradicts another argument.  An argument is the statement of position backed by reason and evidence, specifically true evidence.  The origin of the word truth is an Old English word that means "faithfulness."

In short, a “controversy” is, traditionally, a rational discussion about a truth or the telling of a truth with special consideration paid to opposing views.

Controversy Redefined

A “controversy” is a physical or verbal fight over perceived offenses either purposefully or unintentionally committed.  Offended, in this redefinition, meaning “in dislike of” a truth or someone’s telling of that truth.

If some truth within a piece of poetry, whether it's the theme, the language, the metaphor, the irony, the circumstances,  is called “controversial,” it means that there are those who dislike that truth and are very keen to eliminate, confuse, or silence that piece of writing, that truth.  If it's the telling of the truth that has offended the opposition, they are more likely to want to, and in no way am I being trite or dismissive, eliminate, confuse, or silence the writer.

The level of dislike for that truth can be mapped on a continuum marked “discomfort” on the far left, “anxiety” in the center, and “terror” to the far right.  The level of dislike marked on the continuum seems to have a direct correlation to the level of faithfulness one has to an opposing view, even when faced with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.  See “sticky theory.”

Act II -  Rising Action: One Uses the Conventional Definition of Controversy and Creates Misunderstanding

“I do not find your work controversial” she said, meaning she, personally,  did not find anything with which to argue, meaning all of the poet’s premises and conclusions were sound and valid truths.

“You don’t find it controversial because you are solipsistic and ethnocentric” he said, thinking she overlooked or ignored the premises and conclusions entirely, thought them beneath the level of deserving of consideration.

“Wait!  What?”  she replied, wondering why anyone would be so upset about a level of complete  agreement.

Act III РPeripeteia, Anagnorisis and D̩nouement: Another Explains the Redefinition of Controversy and Creates Clarity

I had an amazing conversation yesterday with an amazingly intelligent poet about the meaning of controversy within poetry.  Because I had always thoughtfully considered, then accepted entirely the premises and conclusions within his writing, I overlooked the fact that others would not be so apt to do so.  So, yes, I was being slightly solipsistic, and I had to be shown that there were opposing views and that there was controversy surrounding his work. I had to sit and think about it.  Whether or not a poem or book of poetry is protest poetry, and whether or not a poet is an activist poet, that work may cause an unexpected emotional reaction in others.

I also learned from the conversation that although it is a starting point to either accept or reject ideas and arguments on a personal level, a larger scope of literary analysis is also necessary.  Even when it’s completely outside my realm of understanding why a certain truth would be unacceptable to another reader, there are going to be readers for whom a truth, or the telling of the truth, is unacceptable.  Digging into the controversy and attempting to discover root causes of the discomfort, anxiety, or terror, could be far-reaching, culturally significant, and should not be ignored.

Writing raises hackles when writers tell the truth.  This truth-telling butts up against the desire of others to gloss over the truth for more preferred narratives or more tempered descriptions of the same truth.  The faithfulness a reader has to an opposing view will determine the level of emotional reaction to a work.  That level of reaction may cause the reader to want to eliminate, confuse, or silence the writing, or even the writer.  It’s a battleground, these pages of poetry and stories, and the war is between what is told and what is untold.   The war happens whether we’ve been drafted or not, whether we understand what we're fighting for or not, and whether we've proclaimed ourselves pacifists or not.  "Controversy" does not live only within the realm of civil discourse.

Want to read more about poetry?  Try

Ars Poetica: When a Poet's Fly is More Than a Fly

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Contact the author for permission for republication.

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