Recently I have been contemplating and speaking about the relationship between truth and fact. Most people, I realize, do not make a distinction between these two things. Much of my talking lately has been with people who are not necessarily a part of the world of poetry — people, I believe, who would at least give lip-service to the concept of a distinction between truth and fact. At a conference of journalists recently I read poems. Then I talked about the opportunity that poetry offered me where journalism simply could not go. I suggested that I could explore truth even while I was uncertain about the facts. At first these folks would have struggled with the idea. But then I explained that much of what we call “facts” are merely examples of a certain truth that we have proposed.

The thing is that there is often more than one way to illustrate and support the fact. So if the truth is that parents who molest their children are likely to be destroying these children for life, then we know that we could arrive at this truth either by telling the factual story of a man whose life was destroyed by the sexual abuse he experienced at the hand of his parent; or we could present this experience in a short story — a fictionalized account of the situation; and finally, we could account for this truth through a poem. In the latter two instances, the facts are not critical — that is, we do not have to replicate the actual experience of the victim for the truth to come through. Truth, then, can be distinguished from facts. And yet, we live in a world in America, in which we are all skeptical about the truth derived from “non-factual” sources. At event after event at which I read poems written about Haiti, HIV and the earthquake, people have come to me to say that they really did not expect to be so impacted by the poems. They simply could not believe it.

I would like to take these comments as compliments and indeed, I think they were meant to be such. However, it is really difficult to ignore the fact that they are surprised by this because of their longstanding and well cultivated suspicion of creative writing and especially of poetry to convey information that would be important to a journalist. Then they are moved by these poems and the images connected to them. They are so moved that they are somewhat confused about how they are reacting. In many ways, their reaction is satisfying to some, but a cause for concern for others. They start to think of what has happened to them while listening to a poem as manipulation. And so they distrust what they have read and in so doing, they continue to distrust poetry. There is very little in terms of theoretical consideration for this challenge. And by this challenge I mean how folks deal with the way a piece of art offers them something that is truthful and something that they never quite fully engaged before it came to them in poetry.

Poetry, I have argued, is a distinctive form and it presents us with a way of looking at the world that is critical to society’s understanding of itself. Some cultures are very interested in what their poets say about current affairs. In America, nobody is especially interested in what a poet has to say about political, economical or social issues. The poet is welcomed when the poet is talking about poetry and the art of the poetry. However, in America, it is rare to see a poet being interviewed about what he or she thinks about the things going on around us. I have a few poet friends who argue that this is the way it should be. They say that a poet is not trained to offer political ideas. Stick to what you know, they say. Of course, they are wrong about this. I find that poets are listening, feeling, trying to articulate what they are looking at. It is something they do by tapping into the imagination and entering the minds of the people they meet and talk to. This act of occupying the mind and heart of someone else is a beautiful imaginative exercise that can result in a very powerful account of what has happened. Poets are also listening to their people, and they are trying to make sense of what they hear. They will turn to poetry to help them find their way to an understanding of the world. These poets are philosophically gifted and they often have a clear, complex and nuanced opinion of what is going on in front of them.

And despite what happens to people when they discover poetry that seems to offer them a way into the world that conventional journalism does not achieve, they are more likely to regard the moment as a singular one — as a special moment that will never be replicated. Beyond that it does not take them long to develop the skepticism and anxiety abut poetry that they had before the moment of truth. And those with influence and power will return to the idea that poetry does not constitute real news and the community is not interested in the poetry by itself, but in the conventional journalism. For poets engaged in this business of writing out of experience (especially political experience), this hesitation can be frustrating. But they will likely continue to write poems.

My father, Neville Dawes, was, for most of his early career, a committed poet. He wrote some fiction, but the bulk of his work in his twenties and thirties was poetry. Then he stopped writing poetry and began to write novels. He may have stopped writing poetry to make space for his novel writing. I have wondered about why he stopped writing poems. I have pieced together some theories.

The first is that he was looking carefully at the fate of Caribbean writers at the time (1950s and early 1960s). Few poets were being published by the British presses, but novelists were starting to have really successful careers marked by reviews in great places, and a lot of attention. He decided to write fiction so he could have a career.

The second is that he came to a realization that he would never be a great poet — a really great poet. He knew he was competent, but he also knew that he could not write poetry at a level that would satisfy his standards. Built into this reason is the speculation that he would have discovered Derek Walcott’s early work, and decided that there was no point in continuing. I doubt if this were the case, but it is interesting.

Thirdly, and, to me, more likely, he gave up poetry for fiction for political reasons. He had written in letters to his dear friend, that he wanted his work to serve his political ideas. He was writing fiction, he felt, that sought to present the nuance of Marxism for the Caribbean. Fiction was more likely to lend itself to the linear patterns of presenting ideological ideas in a clear way. The model was the work of the great Russian novelists during the early revolutionary period. Fiction, he may have felt, was more reliable in that regard than poetry. His poetry was occasionally political, but his fiction — his two novels — are both political works.

I bring this up in this context because I do think that the matter of truth versus fact permeates most of what we think about and do as writers. In the imagined continuum from poetry, through fiction, through to journalism, poetry is seen as the furthest thing from fact. But I think that this is because of the way people encountered poetry when they were young. Poetry was not encountered and read as work that clarified and illuminated, but as work that had to be deciphered and explained. This is one reason. The other is that poets themselves do not believe that poetry should be placed anywhere near something like journalism.

I am not on a mission. But I will say that I find it gratifying when I find people who admit that they are either “not poetry people” or that they have not looked at a poem in years, come to me and tell me that they will have to reevaluate their view of poetry in light of what they have heard. In my head I am thinking that more jaded people had been brought back into the fold of those who see value and power in poetry. For me, the quest for truth does not stop.

Originally Published: April 19th, 2011

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...