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September 30, 2010

Reflections on "Truth"

Judith Maclean Miller

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How are we to find or recognise truth at a time when television ads turn on actually telling untruths to a husband or wife and even to children? In public speeches, the Prime Minister often seems to distort reality and or to actually misrepresent it.

There was a time when public figures in Canada had to at least look as if they were telling the truth. Now, no one seems to bother.  How are we to answer Pontius Pilate's question?

Meaning may not matter very much in a poem, but truth is essential. Truth to the original impulse of the poem--the insight, the experience, the sound, the image, the voice--the place where the poem began, must survive through the writing which clothes and extends it until the whole poem is, itself, true. Maybe reading and writing poetry are ways for us to practise being in the presence of truth. That might have been some part of English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley's understanding when he wrote that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

Through the ages, all sorts of philosophers and writers have struggled with Pontius Pilate's question. Few answers have been as terse as 19th century English poet  John Keats'  conclusion: "Beauty is truth; truth beauty--that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know." His statement has caused some problems over time, though, as some poets, artists and readers have decided that a poem or a work of art must be pretty, must be decorative and decorated. A twentieth century Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, rescued us from some of that with the concept of a "terrible beauty," a beauty which may terrify in its lunging toward the deeply true.

A fine answer comes from Canadian short story writer Alice Munro. She speaks of working toward the truth of a story, which she recognises as "an inner bell that rings." Through all the noise of inflated rhetoric and cant which surround us, we still have that bell deep at the centre of being. Its tones resonate to what is true. We say of a statement or experience that it "rings true," even when we may not entirely--or not yet--understand it fully.

Underneath--maybe beyond--the philosophers, we have phrases buried in our language which remind us of what truth is, or how it manifests itself. "She was true to her calling." "He was true to his love." "That bell rings clear and true." "They were true to themselves." None of these have anything to do with satisfying the clichés of the day. They point toward what American novelist William Faulkner called "the eternal verities," the archetypal truths.

  1. There is even, delightfully, the verb "to true." My grandfather, building a wagon, said to my father, "True           that one up there," meaning that he should line up one of the boards evenly, so that it would fit into the overall design. My childhood self took note--of the word and of the care they were taking over a lowly hay wagon--which, it might be added, was still sturdily there many years of labour after both their deaths.
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