The truth of poetry

Nancy Miller Gomez worked first in news broadcasting and then for a reality show, both purporting to be truth-telling genres. But the need for advertising dollars made sure “truth” was employed as a commercial ploy. “Don’t let the facts get in the way of the story!” an executive producer once barked at her when she raised a flag about the misinformation they were readying to broadcast. They were not interested in truth, only selling the idea of truth. So, she quit.

She enrolled in poetry class, wrote poems, and then went into Salina Valley State Prison, a level four maximum-security prison in California to teach murderers to write poetry — not to give back to society, but because “this is where I had come to try to redeem myself, one word, one person, one poem at a time,” she wrote in “Chapbook: Punishment.”

When I was young, I thought poetry was about embellishment, a way make the ordinary ornate. When I was in college, I thought poetry was the highest form of literary intelligence, all about allusion and cleverness. But now I realize poetry is language daring us to be honest, where nothing is expected of you (not even grammar) so you are finally given the space to speak truthfully.

So, in a drab room deep in a penitentiary, there is Lorenzo, a Hispanic gang member, reading his poem about the day he waited in a car with his sister for a mother who never returned. And he stops. He has told that story before, perhaps to explain his anger, but he has never told it in a poem where the event is not a reason for anything but a truth in his life, and for the first time peers into the abyss of sadness it created. He sobs and finishes, “She never came back.”

It’s quiet except for Lorenzo heaving as he tries to stop sobbing. Then Malcolm, who has a swastika tattooed on his forehead, walks across the room and bear hugs him, Lorenzo’s head pressing against Malcolm’s cheek. You could mistake them for a father welcoming a son. Outside, they would have been flashing their knives or guns. Here, reading and writing poems, they are hurt humans holding each other up.

Essays must argue with strong conclusions. In stories, characters must be likable. In poems, you can, if you dare, write about (and only about) what needs to be said. If grammar gets in the way, you can chuck it. You are warned against clichés because they impose views and emotions, and instead encouraged to explore new metaphors. Language bends to dare you to say the truth welling up in you.

This is why I go to poetry: to restore my faith that language can speak truth.

Although the pulpit and church committee meetings don’t have the same amount of pressure as news and reality shows, we are in the business of truth and we often make business of telling the truth. We have pressures that push our language to veer from truths. Afraid of losing a parishioner, we don’t name the sin. Afraid of sounding stupid, we pull out jargon that’s been severed from our social reality centuries ago. Or because we prefer the status quo benefiting us, we banter abstract words to say a lot without ever committing to a single action. We know how to speak our way out of truth.

So, when I attend church gatherings, especially when they are larger and longer, I carry poetry books in my bag. I read them every night, as ritualistically as taking a shower. Lisel Mueller, Li-Young Lee and even Charles Bukowski are prophets who restore my faith in language — that words are capable of truth, and God still speaks.

We are called to speak truth. So, read poems regularly. Read poems to each other. Better yet, write poems.

Samuel Son is the manager for diversity and reconciliation in the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Louisville.