Truth is like Poetry
“Truth is like poetry… and most people hate poetry.”
-Overheard at a Washington DC bar.
Poetry is a “literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature”.
When I first saw that quote in Adam McKay’s The Big Short, I laughed at the funny comparison and then thought more about its implications. The above quote is saying that most people hate truth and poetry. The truth is often unpleasant, so people want to ignore it. There are millions of refugees that don’t have a place to live? California is a deep drought that an El Niño won’t even cure? Ouch. Similarly, when people hate poetry, they ignore it, don’t have anything to do with it, and when it gets up in their face, they repackage it as something else.
Poetry is as strong now as it was hundreds of years ago. Kendrick Lamar is doing the same things that John Donne did. One of these we love, the other we get traumatic experiences from High School Lit. We might hesitate to call Lamar’s work “poetry” because it brings to mind old dead white men and incomprehensible Middle English, but the mechanics of poetry are all there.
Rhyme? Yep. Meter? Uh huh. Stanzas? All there. Heck, I would make the argument that sophistication is not even a prerequisite to poetry. “Twinkle Twinkle”? Poetry. “F*ck the Police”? Poetry.
But to be sure, not all poetry is created equal. There is good poetry and bad poetry. There are lots of arguments as to what makes a good poem, but I want to speak specifically about what I think is the most important characteristic: what separates a good poem from a bad one is the poem’s ability to embody layers of meaning.
For example, the context behind “Twinkle Twinkle” is that it was written by Jane Taylor and it was first published in 1806 in Rhymes for the Nursery. Over the past 200 years it has been sung by millions of children, but never more than as just a nursery rhyme.
What separates a good poem from a bad one is the poem’s ability to embody layers meaning.
On the other hand, let’s look at Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” from his album To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s a dark yet celebratory poem that considers the damage done by discrimination. But I want to focus on what’s peripheral to the song.
“Alright” was released with To Pimp a Butterfly on March 15, 2015. Obvious themes from the song were the police, discrimination, and hope. But when the music video for “Alright” was released on June 30, 2015, the song itself doesn’t start until after 2 minutes and 40 seconds . These first few minutes include a narration by Lamar layered over shots of Oakland, CA, which suggests that Lamar’s album surveys over historic cityscapes where there are predominantly African American demographics. This connects “Alright” to “King Kunta”, his other track that featured Compton in its music video. The music video then shifts from narration to a short verse, which is not included in the original song, where Lamar references his own music (“this dick ain’t free” refers to “For Free? — Interlude”) and even claims his CD is a “classic CD”.
Finally, “Alright” has even been chanted in the Black Lives Matter protests. As Pitchfork, a music review website, said:
“We gon’ be alright,” [is] an ebulliently simple five-syllable refrain, a future-tense assertion of delivery to a better, more peaceful place. In more than one instance, the song’s chorus was chanted at Black Lives Matter protests. It has soundtracked a movement.
I’m not going to attempt to analyze the song line by line, but what I do want to draw attention to is how “Alright” started off as track 7 of 12 in To Pimp a Butterfly, became 1 of 5 music videos, and now could possibly be the New Black National Anthem. This is all to say that a good poem acts like a vessel, absorbing meaning as it is sung and used over time. A poem is as good as the associations made with it and the meaning that it can be embodied with. In summary, a good poem is malleable in meaning without being misunderstood, always has capacity for more meaning without being lacking, and is both timely and timeless.
A good poem is malleable in meaning without being misunderstood, always has capacity for more meaning without being lacking, and always finds an occasion to speak.
Does “Alright” exhibit these traits? I think it does. Its foundation as a poem about hope and deliverance in light of discrimination and racism is not questioned, but it is made more complex when Lamar gets shot by the police officer in the final shot of his music video. When the chorus was chanted during the Black Lives Matter movement, it embodied the spirit of a movement and people, unintended by Lamar. Finally, it will always have an occasion to speak since it’s a poem about hope.
I started off with the quote at the top (“Truth is like poetry… and most people hate poetry.”) because it made me think of the inverse. The chap in the DC bar said that truth and poetry are alike in that people usually don’t like either. But what if people actually liked truth? Would truth and poetry still be alike?
Yes. People wrestle with good poetry’s complexities and try make sense of its uncertainties. Good poetry is definitely timely, but also in some sense timeless, being filled with meaning as time goes on. (I suggest watching Nerdwriter’s video on The Power of Poetry, where he analyzes Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan”.)
So to those of us who wrestle with poetry and allow it to speak to us throughout time, is not that how truth works too?
We wrestle with truth and its unpleasant parts. The same bit of truth speaks to us time and time again. For example, I’ve had to relearn and relearn that people are social creatures, when my tendency is to overlook that truth of life (and therefore unnecessarily hurt some feelings in the process).
Why else is Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations still a #1 Best Seller? Why else are self-help articles so popular (which really just are truth and wisdom repackaged for different generations. Meditations for 2nd century Romans, How to Win Friends and Influence for our parents and grandparents, and Mark Manson for those in my generation.)?
We might hear a bit of truth when we’re younger, but when we actually are forced to experience the weight of that truth, the truth becomes filled with the our experience and story. In other words, truth, like a good poem, is malleable in meaning without being misunderstood, always has the capacity for more meaning without being lacking, and is both timely and timeless.
In fact, let’s look at one of Marcus Aurelius’ quotes. He says,
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
(Or “Just change your perspective”, or the serenity prayer, they’re the same thing.)
As a hormone-crazy middle schooler I might “get it” at face value, but have no real understanding of it. “Oh man I have a huge crush on this girl and if she rejects me I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life wahhhh”. This caused me to be a clingy boyfriend, no matter what signals she was sending to me. I couldn’t grapple with the possibility that she might have not liked my clinginess, so when she finally did break up with me, I was a middle-school mess (true story).
Then I learned to give people independence to make their own choices. Ah ha! I’m learning how to have power over my mind and not be swayed by outside events. You want to reject me? That’s fine, your choice. In fact, the next year in middle school I asked out 7 girls and got rejected by all of them, but after each rejection it strengthened my ability to be outcome independent.
But recently I’ve been learning more from this little Aurelius quote. Ever have flashbacks to when you did something stupid and regret it? It can be as harmless as having your fly down when talking to someone to forgetting to babysit someone’s kid when you told them you would (another true story). It might be easy to relinquish control of those outside of you, but if you don’t relinquish control of your past, then you feel guilty. Self-guilt is just another way of saying you can’t forgive yourself. Through these experiences I learned this bit of truth that Aurelius is talking about doesn’t just take into account releasing control over outside events, but also your ability to control your past. There’s strength in forgiveness, and while Aurelius’ quote doesn’t mention forgiveness at all, we can agree that forgiveness is associated with relinquishing control.
As I get older, I begin to understand truth better because I can see how one of Marcus Aurelius’ proverbs is able to embody the experiences I have. Middle-school-me might have thought that relinquishing power over outside events I cannot control referred only to other people. It wasn’t until recently that he also means relinquishing control of events even temporally beyond myself, allowing me to find strength in self-forgiveness.
So if you like poetry…
If I could talk to that man in the Washington DC bar, I would love to finish his cute little saying. I think it would sound something like this:
“Truth is like poetry… and most people hate poetry.
But if you like poetry, it will speak and speak and speak to you… and it will be meaningful every time.”
Happy New Years and recommend if you enjoyed this piece.