You can’t handle the truth! Poetry

So Sunday night’s #poetparty tag on twitter leaned towards the discussion of truth in poetry and what role it plays. There were a lot of varying in opinions and a lot of great discussion, so I thought it would be a great chance for me to discuss my own opinions of truth in writing. I think this will actually turn into a series of truth in different forms of writing, because it’s a very complex topic. So let’s start with truth in poetry.

Let’s begin this discussion with one of my favorite poems about truth.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Cirrcuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

Emily Dickinson

I love this poem to start off talking about truth. I think the opening line, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”  is what I would put as my motto about truth in writing. When I say ‘truth’ I don’t mean the way something actually happened. For example my poem, Onus, is about a mother talking to her daughter. I don’t have a daughter and have never been a mother. But it’s the truth of guilt.

Then what do I mean by truth? For me truth is all emotional, I need there to be an emotional truth especially in poetry and fiction (non-fiction essays and memoirs are a little more challenging to define). There is a truth in a poem that discusses a fear of death, fear of anything, love, panic, hate, anything that is an emotional truth.

In a poetry class, we had a hated debate about truth in writing, and I remember one student telling a story that she wrote about a Sunday church service. She said, “I know I was wearing a red dress. There are pictures that tell me that, but it felt like a black dress. That’s how I remember it. That’s how it is to me. Pictures or not, I was wearing a black dress in my memories.” So, she wrote a poem about that black dress. Is it a lie? If you put it most basically. Yes, it is a lie. There is photographic evidence that proves it. But, what did that do what she was writing? What is the difference between a red and a black dress and how they feel? For her, the emotional truth that it was a black dress outweighed the reality that she wore a red dress. That is what matters most in poetry to me.

Another challenge in poetry is that there is a separation between speaker and writer. What’s a truth for the speaker of the poem might be different from the writer’s truth. If I write from the perspective of a man who has just lost his wife, am I lying? Technically, yes, because I am not a man who has lost his wife. But I am sharing the emotional truth of what I think that would feel like. A poem shares an emotion or a universal truth. However, if I write a poem as a man who has lost his wife and submit it to a collection that is supposed to be from men about loss that is where it crosses the line for me.

But truth is a very slipperly slope when it comes to writing, and I am really excited to hear what you think about truth in writing. So click that little comment button and share away!



  1. Jess Said:

    Interesting thoughts…

    I tend to think that, in writing, poems and fiction generally tell lies (showing made-up/exaggerated images or plots) to elicit truths from the reader.

    In real life, and most likely in writing, the only truth we know is a personal one — perception. My truth is probably not your truth, or my sister’s truth or my mom’s truth, even if we stood together witnessing an event.

    Phew, so…I also think truth is timing. The timing at which you tell the truth, and in what way you tell it, gives a lot of information about the character.

    Great post, Judy! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Judy Black Said:

      Perception is a giant issue in writing. It’s like the dillema police face when getting witness statements. If you and I both see a crime we are both going to experience it differently, but who has the ‘correct’ view of what happened?

      I like that writing tells lies to elicit a truth. I think that can be very, very true with most writing.

      Timing is everything with all aspects of writing, but especially the truth of the story. Usually the ending is where the truth seems to fall for me.

  2. Steve Isaak Said:

    Effective, sparsely worded lines = efficacious, wonderful poem, almost sublime.

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