‘Difficult and Uncomfortable’: On Poetry and Truth

Nothing about this piece makes sense. It is an exercise in a kind of art-critical self-dialogue, an awkward attempt at apophatic discourse about what poetry does, or can do, and why it’s important to reason with that thing deeply, even when we may be wrong, but especially if we care about audiences as not just people who enjoy text, but as people who live in the world and have complex attachments to the real.

That discourse opens with Toby Martinez de las Rivas.

In the later ebbs of last year, Martinez de las Rivas, an English poet whose latest collection was up for a Forward Prize in its season, was the subject of critique by many poets, most notably Dave Coates on a now well-read blog post, concerning the content and themes of said collection, titled Black Sun. For obvious reasons, the title alone stood out as cause for comment, and Coates’ critique of Martinez de las Rivas’ public work, including the piece ‘Elegy for the Young Hitler‘, a title that also struck obvious chords from its surface.

What followed was Martinez de las Rivas’ reply, a postscript to the publication of a new work of his in Poetry in November of the same year, the first of which opens with the image after which his contentious collection is titled. Within, he comments on the interpretations and worries borne out of his work: of his excerpt of ‘Titan/All Is Still’, he confirms the catalyst is eulogising past loved ones; of the imagery and title itself, he affirms eclipsing as the birthplace of the metaphor, and reaches into Wycliffe’s Bible for answers to its significance; of ‘… Young Hitler’, he speaks of the desire to eulogise the hypothetical artist and man of compassion that has been lost after being radicalised by nationalism. At the close, he enters a thesis presumably solely about ‘Young Hitler’ but an admirable goal for poetry as an entire enterprise (emphasis mine):

“I think it important to explore the points at which people become less than human; the point at which the living body becomes a piece of concrete to be broken and discarded. For me, these are the very spaces where poetry has to operate: in the difficult and uncomfortable.

If the internet is to be believed, his argument gained little thrift with the poetic public square, but so too did Coates’, who had since his article been both the origin point of continued commentary on Martinez de las Rivas and the target of excoriating critique-of-critique challenging Coates’ capacity even to read poetry, accusing the piece of being opportunistic or itching for a fight.

I know neither Coates nor Martinez de las Rivas. I have not read between the covers of Black Sun, or even the preceding collection, Terror. I don’t write this to imply that I, someone who has only read the works I can find online, am capable of perfectly and without fail interpreting the complex inner lives or full convictions of any writer based solely on what they’ve written, because people are much wilder vines than that. I am obviously worried about the propensity for art to mainstream society’s most hostile ideologies; I am also hesitant to insist that the ownership of one reader to their own reading is the same as a creator’s declaration of creative intent; I am equally loathe to personally believe that every time someone, even and especially a creator, insist that their work means or does not mean something, they are either wholly speaking from a place of honest conviction or wholly capable of subtly discerning even the most externally obvious readings of their work every single time they share something with the world.

Hence the apophasis.

When I learned of the issue on Twitter, I idly made a tweet that I thought got at the heart of my worries around it, polling a small subset of my followers:

As shown, more than 80% of a really small number of respondents insisted that it was more dangerous for talented creators to use their art to mainstream bad messages. They were clear about why, and I was inclined to agree: if someone’s good at telling a story, and we believe that stories have the power to influence how people see the world, then taking advantage of that skill to excite violent reactionaries, distress vulnerable people, or expose neutral consumers to appeals for radically hostile ideas is about some of the most dangerous uses of it.

I also admitted that part of why I asked that question, and in the way that I did, is because I always want to be generous to the creative space around me. I would much rather, for instance, have a critical conversation about someone who wants to say something powerful and astute, but falls short based solely on an oversight that they could not have been in full control of. I wanted to believe that, even though I knew nothing about Martinez de las Rivas, his work was either being misconstrued, or–more likely in the case of work and its capacity to create meaning for the reader, Death of the Author, blahblahblah–that he had simply not considered deeply enough the tragic weight of his imagery. Suffice it to say that well-meaning communities have done away with well-meaning iconography that literally belonged to their culture only because those images had become tarnished by hostile ideas. If your stock and trade is words, there’s an easy argument to be made that when someone challenges you on the use of only one or two, you have billions more to restock the shelves with, or at least make a damn good case for the ones you did display.

That’s why I found it striking that Martinez de las Rivas’ counterpoint to the image insisted that “[t]he genesis of [it] was utterly banal”–not because banality isn’t a suitable catalyst for image, because it’s more likely so than it isn’t, but because it also potentially implies that any other omen would have done just fine. What I say there is not prescriptive. It’s not how poetry works. I know that. But that it came from such a simple place also doesn’t discount that there may have been very little loss of content or context or even creative effort and time if the banality of stumbling upon an eclipsing image had been merely mulled over a little longer, pondered in every direction. After all, Martinez de las Rivas did expend the energy to defend it with a 1380s Middle English transliteration of scripture for it, which is one of the very depths of understanding the history of the sanctity or profanity of an image. I cannot speak for desire, or ability, or even the deeper personal reasoning, but it is a hard sell for most to imply that it isn’t much less energy just to know that those words are the claim of an image belonging to a subculture of people who claim sociopolitical value from destroying people and insisting upon the ultimate ownership of their external world.

I don’t say that as an admonition of anyone. As it stands, I don’t know enough to be definitively on one side or the other. To say something prescriptive either way is to insist upon other knowledge I don’t have. But in the interest of full disclosure, it’s hard to be on the side of something that shares its name with hostile iconography, which is why people who have nothing to lose from dropping it do so easily. And say what you will about the licence of creatives, but if one implies that they can tell a story no matter the effort to get at its heart, then they have nothing to lose from thinking harder about whether the darling symbol that came to them easily is the symbol the readers, the work, the idea, or the poet truly needs.

In Coates’ essay, he makes what I personally consider to be an evergreen statement (emphasis mine):

Poetry is not truth. The world is confusing, human bodies are flawed and compromised instruments, and subject to constant, unpredictable change. The theories we construct around or through poetry are subject to constant revision as we attempt to forge better tools for understanding each other and the world we inhabit, in all its messiness and compromise.”

I should admit here that this essay is not in any conceivable way about Martinez de las Rivas. I mean, it is–I’m not lying when I say he was my way into that deeper conversation about what we do and say with and about poetry–but it is both wider and more personal to me.

What follows seems non-sequitur, but in a creative sense, and a personal and therapeutic sense, it isn’t. I wish I could stop saying it, but the curious situation of having an experience people consider anomalous is that when someone else insists it hasn’t happened, you don’t get to stop owning it. You have to own it forever, and it bleeds out into you.

The last year or more, my creative output has been dominated by discourses about intimate partner violence. I have felt like I have to recount it to others only because it feels so anomalous, and I have felt like I have to recount it to myself only because constant gaslighting still has me suspecting that something that I literally felt or knew was false. I have written countless poems either as a bond against doubt, a twisted affirmation of the experience being genuine, or just to keep trying to fathom that it happened at all. I have angrily restated every fear, every strike, every personal doubt, trying to so generous as to see why people I loved thought I deserved that. I have literally kept the switchblade that was used to threaten to kill us both at one of the first times, because the text messages that promised that my brother would be murdered because he ‘took me from’ my ex at the very last time were deleted for my own sanity from a phone that no longer even turns on to attempt recovering them.

Someone threatened to kill me because she thought I never loved them.

That is something that happened.
I don’t just say it because loved ones have looked at me with absolute disbelief about it.
I say it because it happening is not poetry.

And by that I mean not only that it is an experience devoid of sophistry, of even commonality, so much so that I often worry that I only recount it for my own self-denial.

I mean that there is a poem in a book that is available now that opens with a first line that implies that something I experienced with my own body never fucking happened. I mean that there is a recording of another poem that is available now that ends by repeating that it never happened, by insisting even more resolutely that the poet saw with their own eyes a thing that happened on the other end of a closed door, and that even if they had heard it, they would have instead heard her insisting in a clear voice that the only way she would stop physically assaulting me on my own mother’s front porch is if I hit her back, and that poet has since insisted to anyone who would listen that he has been cast out of both his home and his creative community as a result of taking a stand for what he insists is the truth of his very body, when my very unpoetic body is its first rejoinder.

I mean that just saying those things–that in early February nearly six years from writing this, someone messaged me in the middle of the night to say that they would kill even that poet just because they suspected I never loved them and wanted to steal me back from even him, and that this poet claims to not know this with such conviction that he would write that strikes to the face that I received were things he saw through solid wood heading the other way–has somehow become a matter of wider poetic politics such that I even hesitate to write this blog post at all.

Coates isn’t wrong, not only in his entire point but in the very obvious Magritte-esque sense. Poetry isn’t truth any more than a photograph is a sunset. Not only are our perspectives available to be altered, and susceptible to larger errors in misjudgment, but our perspectives aren’t also the same as the things we have a perspective on. We can strongly believe a thing that is false, and give in to it so deeply in our rhetoric that our conviction is considered the same as truth, because in art, the personal is currency.

This matters to me because it’s really headache-inducing, as creators, consumers and critics, to navigate the chasm between the truth of an actual experience and the convincing emotional platitude of creation. This sounds like an admonition of poetry, but it isn’t. Poetry that lands on something, that is concerned deeply with the meaning and value of an actual thing, that wants to wrestle with feelings so aching or destructive with the goal of admitting some weakness, unraveling some frustration, or scouring the landscape of trauma for some silver glimmer is closer to truth than anything. But it still isn’t being there. Even reading it still isn’t knowing something. Unless you’re talking about your own very body, and sometimes even then, even writing it isn’t knowing something. And there is a kind of treason in insisting otherwise–in insisting that one’s status as a creative gives one perfect depth of insight, either into the value of discussing an experience, or about whether it happened.

It also matters because, then, truth isn’t poetry.

All of this frustrates me in particular because that means it’s easy to just go out into the world and say that your words are the same as understanding or, at best, better than nothing. It gives terrible actors the capacity to say anything with the deliberate goal of their words weaseling into the awareness of others. It leads even the very best-intentioned and most critical of creators or readers to suffer an accident of thinking their creation infallible, or at least close enough to infallible that misinterpretation is always the business of someone else, and not something they could shore up against with greater understanding. And it means the fact that at any moment someone’s work is actually wrestling with something is pretty moot–that if you have hesitated to share, to dive, to keep bringing it up, because it is too difficult and uncomfortable, whatever results is as good for the audience to consume as someone very easily and charmingly insisting otherwise.

It means that if someone goes out into the world and tells a story that they either know is deliberately dismissive of someone’s suffering, or believe to be in the defense of someone or something else but with no real evidence other than their conviction, that story is as good as, and ultimately more compelling to the ear than, the experience of that suffering itself. It means that if you call them out on it, their insistence in a public reply that their mission was to do the work of poetry is as good as, and ultimately more compelling to the ear than, the knowledge that they either unwittingly failed or consciously used ‘the work of poetry’ as a cover to mainstream something spiteful.

And you can’t ever know. Even Miss Cleo can’t tell you.

Again, that’s not a judgment of poetry. Coates is also right when he says that the stories one tells or the frameworks one uses to tell them are malleable, always in flux. Creation is science as much as art; when a process or a reality fails, poets sometimes most of all are more than willing to experiment with another one. This truth is neutral, but that means one must be wary of whether a poet’s system has upended for productive or healthy reasons.

‘Difficult and uncomfortable’ are words of torture. It implies a struggle, and we see poetry–all creation, really–as a kind of wrestling the angel in the hope of gaining a boon, that is, any valuable way to reframe the things we care about or notice.

Those words matter to me not because I think creation should be, or even is, torturous. I don’t think it is, or must be, a struggle, or at least not all the time. I’m not in favour of that narrative.

Martinez de las Rivas does not frame it thus, of course. He speaks of image, of context–that work is duty-bound to challenge the things that we do not find easy or soothing. I don’t necessarily agree here, either–there is room to be eased and soothed in verse, and we probably need a lot more of it in the present day–but I also don’t believe that, if we are to take Martinez de las Rivas earnestly and generously, he is implying that there is no such room.

So, what is difficult and uncomfortable?

Is it difficult and uncomfortable to take an experience you know and reframe it in some way that aims for holiness, to try to find light in those painful moments, to search an imagined past for the light in a man who has committed cruelty not so one can lionise that cruelty, but to eulogise that hypothetical past? Perhaps.

It is difficult and uncomfortable to comment that, even in the willingness to do good, one’s contemporary may have inadvertently instead created something just as easily read as hostile, and that said creator has a responsibility to own how much of that is something they can and should head off? Definitely.

Is it difficult and uncomfortable to just say whatever you want for the sake of gaining or not losing power and access in a creative space, to refuse to hold yourself accountable because you believe you are owed a shot in literary culture? No, but it is difficult and uncomfortable for the people you hurt to continue acting in that kind of space.

Is it difficult and uncomfortable to make claims to truth or valour in your work when the thing you’re speaking to is not your experience, but merely your convictions about someone else’s? No, but if hurting people wasn’t your goal, you make it more untenable as a result for that person to even speak on their own behalf, and if hurting people was your goal, well, it’s an easy goal to win.

Is it difficult and uncomfortable to keep asking new questions of times when you were in the most unbearable pain of your young life, to wonder why and try to be generous to people who once told you that they would kill your loved ones, you, themselves, just to get your attention? To guess aloud in pieces, many of whom only your most trusted friends have seen, what would have to be lost in order for the slaps and thrown cell phones and late-night secret messages under random aliases and open switchblades to be false to everyone but me?

Does that matter, if once the sun rises on the work, anyone will get whatever they want, no matter what you need to release?

I don’t want to believe that. I want to be generous. I want to believe that it’s easy to tell when someone’s work wrestles with angels and when someone’s work just peddles in hollowness and spite. I want to believe that shrewdness helps defend consumers against the latter. I want to believe even poets of the latter can be swayed only by the promise that poetry is duty-bound to being as-truth-as-possible in their state. I want to believe that even the most difficult and uncomfortable poems to write about the deepest and most harshly ruined avenues of the self can alleviate burdens and speak to sincerity and compassion.

Beyond this, in the question of what matters more truly between truth and poetry, the answer is obvious. The answer is equally obvious of what matters between one’s creative desire to write something and their mandate to be just, generous, genuine and respectful to their audiences. I can even say that it is equally obvious that even though the answer is simple, practicing it is not always easy.

After all, this entire rambling piece is about trying to reckon with that paradox, of being so obvious and yet so wracking, of knowing that your body is truer than a word and knowing you have the sole witness and personal duty to try to whittle words close to that for your own body’s sake but also knowing that this means no one can ever know. Of not even feeling like you have the power to say that it hurts, because it hurting is no longer about your body now, it’s about Poetry with a capital P, the external orthodoxy of meter and prosody of which you’re just one piddling congregant.

But if I’m being generous, I don’t pray to poetry. Poetry prays to truth, to the experience, to knowing and understanding that which is real, that which someone wrestles with.

If that is true–if poetry kneels in the difficult and uncomfortable–then it is true that those things matter more. That finding the equally difficult and impossible words to navigate feeling loveless, ugly, broken, not knowing what word or action makes me safe or fragile or unworthy is more important, at least to me, because it is part of a practice, a process of my own body, more important than whether someone needs to write a word instead of caring about what exists beyond their word, in the world, in the bodies of the people around them.

When that sun rises, it has to rise hot and bright on experience, even the most rotten of them. It doesn’t rise on poetry. That means even that it rises on the fact that I was once afraid, before I even had the words to say why I was afraid or why it was so hard to do something about it.

Poetry either lifts the window for that sun, or it drops the curtain. That’s just the way it is–either you reveal or you dig dirt. You can do either wittingly or unwittingly, and good craft means not only knowing what you want to do, but knowing that what you do unwittingly is worthy of reply. One wishes this were not the case.

And that makes the business harder. As for whether it becomes more rewarding… even that is a challenge separate from words.