John Koethe, Poetry and Truth

When I talk about poetry and truth, the truth I’m talking about is the truth of the kind of abstract thoughts that get expressed in the course of many poems— and not just in poems, but literature generally. Lamarque observed quite correctly that abstract thought is unavoidable in poetry, and thus that it makes no sense to claim that poetry is somehow better off without it. Now I know that there is a kind of tradition in modern and contemporary poetry that holds that you ought to avoid the abstract and discursive and stick entirely to the concrete and particular—“No ideas but in things.” I even recall listing to a panel once in which two well-known poets seemed to be vying with each other to see who could come out most strongly against ideas and in favor of stupidity in poetry. But the simple fact is that part of our experience—and I take it to be the role of poetry to respond somehow to experience—is the experience of thinking abstractly. And if we proscribe it, I think we’re working with a very attenuated conception of experience. I’ve discussed this elsewhere and am not going to argue for it today. But that’s my view.

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