Commentary misunderstood what poets do

Posted by Peter Porco on May 3, 2013 

The new books of poetry that come unsought to Mike Dunham’s desk must scratch him deeply under the skin. That’s the only reason I can think of for his testy and quite silly statement about poetry in last Sunday’s “ArtBeat” column [April 28].


Citing one of the most infamous factual errors in all of poetry—John Keats’ confusion of one Spanish Conquistador with another, in a sonnet composed in 1816—Dunham writes that “poetry must be held to an even higher standard of accuracy than nonfiction prose or journalism.” Failing to get a verifiable fact right, as Keats did, not only injures the poem as a work of art, Dunham claims, but it also amounts to “a kind of fraud,” a moral failing. This is so, he writes, because “Poets have a special obligation to honesty,” since they “pursue great truths.”


This judgment, in my view, not only misunderstands what poets do, but it’s absurd on the face of it. Dunham is saying that when it comes to getting the facts right, there exists a higher standard than the norms followed by news organizations and other non-fiction publications. If that were the case, 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, like those Dunham believes all poets strive to find, “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 far greater and 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 (in Dunham’s words)  “flawed aesthetics.”


Again, in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”—the Keats poem that Dunham dismisses 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.


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