This free Information Age Education
is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken
Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age
Education (IAE) publications.
All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are
In addition, five free books based on the newsletters are
available: Education for Students’
Futures; Understanding and
Mastering Complexity; Consciousness
and Morality: Recent
an Appropriate 21st Century Education;
and Common Core State
Standards for Education in
This is the 11th IAE Newsletter
in a series on Credibility and
Credibility and Validity of Information Part 11: Assessing the Credibility of Poetry and Poets
Roughly two hundred years ago the renowned poet John
Keats finished his famous poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn with this
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," – that
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Now, I have nothing against John Keats, indeed, he was a wonderful
poet, but the first thing we have to ask ourselves is: how does he know? Who made John Keats,
barely even 24 years old when he wrote Ode on a Grecian Urn (Keats,
1819), the defining expert on what’s Beauty and what’s Truth? His
youthful arrogance seemingly resolving the entire issue. That’s all ye need to know, so Case
closed. Mystery solved. Move along now, nothing left to see.
But isn’t this Truth and Beauty business the sort of question that wise
and deep-thinking people have been pursuing, examining, and debating
for centuries, long before Keats, and still continue to do so two
hundred years later?
Capturing truth and beauty has been elusive not only for Keats’s fellow
poets, both then and now, but also for philosophers, songwriters,
novelists, dancers, actors, artists, photographers, playwrights,
screenwriters, and everyone else who sets out to tackle the challenge
of subjectively expressing reality and humanity and human emotion
through art and literary narrative. But does Robert Frost really know that fences make
good neighbors more than our own neighbors, and does Paul Laurence
Dunbar really know
why the caged bird sings? Are we absolutely certain that Allen Ginsburg
…the best minds of my generation
destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an
Can Picasso be trusted to paint the truth (not to mention the beauty)
of Guernica, and for that
matter, what should we make of Da Vinci’s stab at The Last Supper or
Michelangelo’s David standing
curiously naked in the Valley of Elah? I mean, were any of them
even there? When and why
does artistic representation of historical people and events transcend
their beauty while at the same time maintain credibility? Why do we
celebrate and revere such poets and artists as Keats and
Michelangelo and not so many others? What sets them apart?
Or perhaps Holden Caulfield was on to something in The Catcher in the Rye when he
derided all the phonies and phoniness that surrounded him. Perhaps
we’re not only surrounded by what others think of Truth and Beauty, but
fooled by it as well. Remember that Keats was only 24 when he
wrote Ode on a Grecian Urn, Michelangelo
was 26 when commissioned to sculpt David, and Ginsberg was 29 when he
wrote Howl. Is youth,
then, more credible than age; is youth, like Holden Caulfield, better
equipped to see through the cultural fog of pretension and societal
norms and call bullshit?
Today’s TV shows and video games have joined the pursuit of credibility
with their audiences and critics. For example, the producers,
writers, and actors of Downton
Abbey have managed to earn historical credibility with
10 million faithful viewers worldwide by capturing the lives,
lifestyles, dress, mannerisms, and even the language of the residents
of a 1920s English manor during historical and tumultuous times.
Similarly, the developers of the Madden
NFL Football video-game series have been wildly successful
in recreating the plays, strategies, players, and action of a NFL game.
As technology advances, and it has been at breathtaking speed,
entertainment has become amazingly more realistic, and subsequently
But art and literature aren't being helped by these technological
advances because their credibility isn’t necessarily linked to realism.
Rather, their credibility is more subjective, interpretative, and open
to debate. Their work is so experimental and unique that fame and
esteem frequently arrive only posthumously, such as with Vincent Van
Gogh and Emily Dickinson. Conversely, many who enjoyed fame and success
during their lifetime have since been labeled by art and literary
critics as minor or inconsequential artists and writers who did little
or nothing to advance their art, or paled in comparison to their lesser
known contemporaries. Think of Antonio Salieri who had the horrible
misfortune of being a composer in the same time and place as Mozart.
When it comes to art and literature and music and dance it’s often the
stuff that’s jarringly different that eventually eclipses the stuff
that’s comfortably familiar, and that’s what endures as artistically
Poetry, Poets, and Credibility
I don’t know how many people still read and appreciate poetry these
days, much less buy it, but judging by the ever-shrinking Poetry
section in Barnes & Noble it’s fair to say that the audience and
market for poetry are rapidly drying up. Indeed, Salt, one independent
and well-regarded British publisher, made the decision last year to no
longer publish single-author poetry collections. Poetry thus might be
one good example of something in which most people will have difficulty
assessing credibility if we define credibility
as being artistically and technically sound, intellectually
challenging, emotionally honest, and frankly, believable. In other
words, how does someone who knows little about poetry assess whether a
poem is good and is this
contributing to the decline of poetry as a marketable art form?
Googling 'credible poetry and poets' will elicit almost a million hits
on those who write about the issue, yet who among them is critically credible?
Ginsberg’s critics, in fact, far outnumbered his fans when Howl was published in 1956, yet the
poem would become an anthem for the Beat Generation who significantly
changed the cultural landscape in the late 50s and into the 60s, and
inspired a legion of young writers, musicians, and artists.
Harking back to Keats, Frost, and Ginsberg, why should we believe them, and what is it about their
work that influences and endures? I’m sorry to say that I don’t know
what the answer is. That will forever be elusive. In any event, this is
not the forum to examine the technical aspects of the hundreds of
different forms of poetry, from the structurally terse and humble haiku
to the book-length and chest-beating epic poem.
Art is subjective and interpretative, and earning credibility from both
readers and critics can be a long evolving process. Some readers find
comfort in traditional poetic forms and others find new and
experimental poetic forms more compelling and honest and inspiring.
Free-form and non-lyrical poetry, such as prose poetry, took a long
time to be accepted by the literary community. Ginsberg’s exceptional Howl was considered by many at the
time to be vulgar and even pornographic, and not at all artistic and
more notable for its shock value than for its poetic value.
Indeed, perhaps that is where this is all heading. Recognizing good
be more like recognizing hardcore porn, which Supreme Court
Justice Potter Stewart once said he’d recognize on sight without
benefit of any established legal or artistic definition. Poetry is more
instinctual and emotional than it is academic, and that’s part
of what makes it so difficult to define and to determine its
Perhaps poetry should also have to comply to the same low standards of
what makes a joke good or bad—that is, a poem that needs to be
explained is not a good poem. A joke told with easy and familiar
references will naturally trigger a hearty laugh. A good poem—and for
that matter, a good song or painting—should trigger a natural,
effortless, emotional, and intellectual response.
Poetry—and that includes melodic poetry accompanied by
musicians—embodies the concept of subjective credibility. Maybe Keats
was right after all, Truth and Beauty should be seen as not only
interchangeable, but also indistinguishable from each other.
Intrinsically entwined, like lovers on a Grecian urn. References
Lawrence Sylwester is an
Operations Manager at Apex Learning, a leading provider of
standards-based digital curricula for US high schools. He and his wife
Chau are the parents of three children: middle-schooler Midori, and
elementary schoolers Zed and Stoli.
We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and
discussions pertaining to this newsletter. To use Disqus, please
click the Login link below and sign in.
If you have
questions about how to use Disqus, please refer to this help