Monday, March 21, 2005

poetic license

john ( said:
"The relationship between poetry and truth is key but it seems power resides with poetry when, as Christ puts it 'the people are hungry' whereas power resides with truth when people are being fed meat and potatoes."

i like the notion that poetry is sometimes the only means by which the truth can get in.

language is like digital sampling. the greater the bitrate, the truer the sample is to the sonic essence of the original sound. poetic language contains not only the factual information, but the emotive colour of the factual information as well- in many ways it is a more complete 'sample' of an idea. not only this but metaphors are so much more participative, inviting thoughtful interpretation which takes so much more involvement than simply accepting or rejecting an idea does.

Jesus' use of metaphor seems to go intentionally in one of two directions: obscuring truth to invite greater hunger for it and greater satisfaction upon its discovery; and fleshing truth out in order to make it palpable for willy lowman.

i debated this idea at length with a friend of mine once. he was a seminarian, and was in love with his books (as can happen when you spend so much quality time with them!) the idea that we were attempting to find middle ground on was this: the bible is written in ancient aramaic (old testament) and greek (new testament) with odds and sods of linguistic hybrids thrown in here and there... therefore one needs to have experience with the ancient languages in order to properly handle scripture- in order to divine truth from the words.

obviously, not knowing a stitch of any of the languages in question, i disagreed on the grounds that God's word is truth and truth is timeless and unchanging. the trick for us today is to be able to discern the difference between timeless truth and culturally specific traditions. truth or tradition: how can we tell the difference if we don't know squat about ancient peoples? well that's probably a whole nother blog, but the way i tried to make my point was using poetry...

i asked a bunch of questions which basically underscored the richness of our shared cultural experiences:
both born in the same country in the same basic time period
both speaking the same mother tongue
both raised in traditional nuclear families
both schooled in the same language
both religiously raised and trained in the same denomination
both pursued secular employment before heading into ministry

alright enough already... so the point?
easy. i asked him what i meant when i wrote these lyrics:

circumstances change but the needs are still the same
people still need love and people still love to complain
everybody dances but no one wants to stay behind to pay the band
at the foot of the cross we gape at our loss
holding bloody hammers in our hands
its the moment of choosing between life and simply living alone

well that's hardly fair. i held all the cards. no matter what he said i could have said he was wrong... but i didn't because that would have nullified anything of value that i was trying to say. he gave the perfect answer anyway...

"i don't know- i can tell you what it says to me, though."

bingo. now obviously my stuff is pretty skimpy on truth, and helplessly incompatible with scripture, but the idea that, with poetry, many lessons can be learned from the same passage is a good one. every time i pick up my bible i try to discover something new in it that i've never seen before. the search for a new idea amidst ancient words is staggeringly humbling, because of all the defaults that we have to undo, but it is also incredibly rewarding because we grow in the process.

(note- VERY important: upon arriving at a 'new spin,' the next task is, of course, to run it through the gauntlet: there are things that are very hard to prove, but very easy to disprove. what can you find that disagrees? on what grounds do the disagreements stand? is this consistent with the deep water issues of scripture? all that. otherwise, a creative person can arrive at some pretty weird conclusions if studying the bible in a vacuum! i love the ongoing theological dialogue between frankie dunn and his priest in 'million dollar baby'... take your local preacher or scriptural authority out and bounce ideas around- benefit from HIS/HER years of study to further enrich your relationship with the God of the scriptures.)

however, i'm not getting the 'power of meat and potatoes' bit of john's post. what i take from it is that when people are accustomed to logical and factual discourse, there's not a lot of power in linguistic colourature. i certainly have friends that would agree with a memo more readily than they would agree with a sonnet.

me? i believe that while some books pontificate, other books sing-
yet both can contain truth.

“Wisdom sets bounds even to knowledge… there is a great deal I do NOT want to know… even the bravest of us rarely has the courage for what he really knows…”
(Nietzsche- Twilight of the Idols)

"What is truth?" Pilate asked. (John 18.38)

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Blogger Pensive said...

What is truth? Is it solely the domain of the poet? Is it solely the domain of argument? What I find most dramatic about the scene in question is that Christ is truth incarnate and Pilate does not get it. He misses it.

We miss a lot of things; I miss a lot of things. I can't help but wonder if the gap between poetry and philosophy/theology is where all the missing stuff goes; the truth is out there.

Is this not where power comes into play? Is truth with Russell and Whitehead's Principa Mathamatica? Yes! Is truth with Bono as he sings that where we live should not effect our ability to get appropriate medicines? Yes!

One thing always seems to be tossed out in the search for truth: the old man. There is another thing that seems to be added in every search for truth: irony. Plato struggled with poetry despite his giftedness and banished poetry in his Republic; which ironically is a great piece of poetry.

Fundamentally, I am coming to the point where one man's propaganda is another woman's poetry. I think Emily Bronte said it best, the book escapes me at this time, that for the truth to be heard a 'tell it slant' is required.

I think that is the point of the parables. It isn't just about the argument, which is substantial, but just as important it is about style and tone. The truth needs to be heard for those with ears to hear and eyes to see. But, like poor Willy, a 'tell it slant' is required and sometimes it is not enough.

The key, it seems, I am thinking out loud, is incarnation. Christ is truth incarnate and as a poet or theologian or philosopher the truth must be incarnate in our character as we reflect the image of Christ.

Where is truth? Truth resides in us as we are conformed to the image of Christ. Bono is right: everytime I look in the mirror the incarnate Christ is looking back at us. Pilate stared truth in the face and perhaps the 'slant' was too much.

Thanks for letting me think out loud. May the grace of Jesus be with you.

Blogger Icarus Goodman said...

I'm not sure how much I buy the whole truth in poetry argument. Obviously, I come from a pretty logic and argument based perspective, but I fail to see how truth can be seen through poetry. Perhaps poetic language can add extra "flavor", so to speak, doing a good job of making people feel and sense the emotions trying to be portrayed, empathy perhaps. But for the most part it often just makes the water more murky, open to more interpretations which make the actual picture that much more difficult to comprehend.

When trying to ascertain truth, it seems reason, logic, evidence are all we should use. When trying to express that truth as it pertains to our lives, now that seems to be the realm of poetry.

Maybe you could just explain it a bit more.

Blogger jollybeggar said...

yeah i hear you. i am trying to figure it out myself. i guess i have a problem with the notion that the only truth is empirical, observable and quantitative and logical (which is sometimes how it sounds when people start rumbling around with the whole 'too much flavour, not enough fact' deal.)

i do agree that emotion and aesthetics can truly muddy up or otherwise garble the simplest of ideas. i think that that is the main reason why i remain for the most part silent in the comment boxes of your and matthew's blogs- i'm busy trying to embrace the logic and sort out 'how i feel' about the positions so eloquently articulated... and because i'm not a logician, i'm usually about a week late with an idea that i feel might add something to the discussion!

but to treat emotion and aesthetics as merely ornamentation is to relegate these endowments to merely faculties- to pretend that they are somehow less important aspects of being human, i think. it's kinda like saying science is just details.

i love the tim burton film 'big fish' (and am quite interested in reading the book) in that the key figure in the story is himself a masterful storyteller who 'embellishes' the negotiables in his stories. at the end of the film he dies and you get to see many of the characters in his stories as they actually exist... and although it is comforting to know that they all do, in fact, exist, none of them are legendary anymore and the powerful revelations about how to be truly happy and at peace in this life (which kinda reminds me of the 'rational self-interest idea' you discussed) fade in the same way that the larger than life details of a dream do after you've been awake for an hour.

deducing what the negotiables are: now there's a blog topic! i think that there is probably a huge discrepency between what is actually true, actually important, central to happiness on planet earth and the theories we develop to describe our particular spin on it all.

sadly, my friend, i have another rather long-winded, ideosyncratic blog here which might explain a bit further.

by the way, i read your piece on rick warren's book today- i'll have a comment for you in about a week!

Blogger Icarus Goodman said...

I want to thank you Jollybegger. Seriously, i think you could probably make Darth Vader stop and chukle. You have an adept ability to make even the most serious subject a little lighter and make those who can at times take things too seriously, i.e. myself, stop and realize we're all struggleing to answer the same questions.

Keep up the good work.


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