Information Age Education
   Issue Number 164
June, 2015   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter 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 available online. In addition, five free books based on the newsletters are available: Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This is the 11th IAE Newsletter in a series on Credibility and Validity of Information.

Credibility and Validity of Information
Part 11: Assessing the Credibility of Poetry and Poets

Lawrence Sylwester
Apex Learning

Roughly two hundred years ago the renowned poet John Keats finished his famous poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn with this statement:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," – that is all

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 saw:

…the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

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 more credible.

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 significant.

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 poetry should 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 credibility

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.


Keats, J. (1819) John Keats (1795-1821) Ode on a Grecian Urn. Text:


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.


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