A Good Poem Can’t Lie

Jim Applewhite
©2001 Les Todd/Duke University Photography

The Sun Magazine brings us a splendid interview of Jungian poet James Applewhite, entitled Returning To Beauty.

Here’s an excerpt:

A good poem can’t lie. The attitudes of the writer are more clearly displayed in a poem than the writer can even intend. Often a bad poem is bad because the author wishes to mean something that he doesn’t really mean or feel. There has to be a kind of attitudinal wholeness. It can be complex, but there has to be a conjunction of attitude and sound and image. And it really does require honesty. It requires self-knowledge. It requires the poet having assumed attitudes toward his material that are beautiful because they are just. We’re always swayed by examples of the ability to empathize deeply, to be moved by truly moving things, and to forgive or be hurt by things that are hurtful, if they can be expressed deeply and movingly. One of the problems we have currently is that there are too many who can manage some kind of quasi-pleasurable language but whose attitudes don’t much enhance our lives. The reason I wanted to talk about pleasure in language in the first place is that there’s something natural about pleasure, as in the way that white pine grows up and the way the sun looks in the sky above the mountains. It’s positive. If you’re a person who goes out on a beautiful day, when there’s not anything particularly bothering you, you have enough to eat, you have clothes on your back, that’s positive. Life is not primarily negative, unless it’s made to be so. So why should poetry be negative? It should have a kind of basic joy and vividness just in being because that’s the way the world is unless it’s been hurt or crippled or perverted or tied down or strung-up or strung-out. These are true aspects of human experience, and I’m not saying that poetry ought not to come out of these; it does and must. But if it doesn’t have that positiveness about it, then it’s something that people tend to turn away from, as they turn away from poverty or ugliness. I’m not saying that terrible things shouldn’t be the subject of art. They have been and they can be. But I think in the large picture art has been used to please and enhance. It may create pity and fear in the reader and purge him through catharsis of these emotions — so that what in real life is a painful, dreadful tragedy, when presented by great actors, finally is a pleasurable experience simply because it’s a matter of triumphant artistry. It is a winning of the human imagination over restraint and limitation. That’s exhilarating! And I think that art should be exhilarating. I think it should enlarge our sense of potentiality, increase our sense of connectedness with things, give us perspective so that we can come back to our own lives and see them not with so much crankiness, but rendered more whole, more forgiving, more understanding.

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