The “No True Poet” Fallacy

The following is an obviously false argument. Can you see the deception?

Angus puts sugar on his porridge.
No true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.
Therefore, Angus is not a true Scotsman.

In courses on logic, there are both formal and informal logical fallacies (see the fallacy files here), and this is an informal fallacy called, “The No True Scotsman” fallacy.   It is also called a ploy because it is a commonly used rhetorical trick — however, it usually only works on believers — it preaches to the choir:

  • no true Christian/Muslim/Buddhist would believe…
  • no true Republican/Socialist/Democrat would …
  • no true American/Russian/Canadian would…

And the list goes on.  Well, today, I want to illustrate how often the “No True Scotsman” ploy is used in the world of poetry.  Interestingly, you rarely hear novelists telling you what or how novelists should write, but you do hear this by poets.  You rarely hear novelists lamenting that people don’t read their type of novels any more, novelists are smart enough to change their styles to find an audience.

I enjoy a variety of poetry so I find it very silly when a poet makes a declarations that “Poetry is [something]” or tries to be a prescriptive proselyte saying “Poetry should be…” or “Poetry should not be..” because these are all variants of “No True Poetry/ Poet should…” — a logical fallacy.

So I searched the web for examples of poets telling us what poetry should be.  Then I grouped them into some of the common types to illustrate the axes-to-grind or ideologies that people use to fuel their poetry prescriptions:

    • Elitisms:  Better than prose writers, non-poets or others
    • Anti-Reason: Some form of anti-reason, anti-rationalism, anti-reductionism, anti-science
    • Idealism: Some form romanticism, mysticism or idealism. Idealize nature, the Absolute, Love, Beauty or some ideal as the true object of poetry.
    • Emotionalism: Reaching into the soul, self discovery, self exposure…
    • Style Prejudice: poetry should rhyme, be terse …
    • Activism:  Some self0righteous activism, declaring their true politics or voice to save society and stir others from their blindness.

Poetry can be anything.  All the above are just fine. But without an audience, it is like a tree falling in the woods.

Elitism

  • However, if a poem can be reduced to a prose sentence, there can’t be much to it.
    [James Schulersource]
  • He who writes prose builds his temple to Fame in rubble; he who writes verses builds it in granite.
    [Edward Bulwer-Lytton]
  • The crown of literature is poetry. It is its end and aim. It is the sublimest activity of the human mind. It is the achievement of beauty and delicacy. The writer of prose can only step aside when the poet passes.
    [W. Somerset Maugham]

Anti-Reason

  • Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.
    [Novalissource]
  • Even when poetry has a meaning, as it usually has, it may be inadvisable to draw it out… Perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.
    [A.E. Housman, source]
  • Science sees signs; Poetry the thing signified.
    [Augustus and Julius Hare]

Idealism

  • Poetry should… should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.
    [John Keatssource]
  • Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
    [T.S. Eliotsource]
  • Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth.
    [Samuel Johnsonsource]

Emotionalism

  • All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.
    [Wordsworthsource]
  • If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?
    [Emily Dickensonsource]
  • Poetry is plucking at the heartstrings, and making music with them.
    [Dennis Gaborsource]
  • A poem might be defined as thinking about feelings – about human feelings and frailties.
    [Anne Stevensonsource]
  • Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.
    [Percy Bysshe Shelleysource]

Style Prejudice

  • One merit of poetry few persons will deny: it says more and in fewer words than prose.
    [Voltairesource]
  • One distinction between poetry and prose is that poetry should be memorable.
    [Karin Gustafsonsource]
  • Poets are soldiers that liberate words from the steadfast possession of definition.
    [Eli Khamarovsource] **not epic poems or plain language poetry
  • Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.
    [Edgar Allan Poesource]
  • Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.
    [Rita Dove source]
  • No poem is easily grasped; so why should any reader expect fast results?
    [John Barton,  source]
  • Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.”
    [Rita Dove]
  • I would as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.”
    [Robert Frost]
  • Poetry, like the moon, does not advertise anything.
    [William Blisset]
  • A poet must never make a statement simply because it is sounds poetically exciting; he must also believe it to be true.
    [W.H. Auden]

Activism

  • … one of the definitions of poetry might be that a poem freshens the world.
  • [Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manuel.  In excerpt here (p6-7), Kooser gives an example of Jared Carter‘s poem: “Fire Burning in a Fifty-Five Gallon Drum” (also at googlebooks .]
  • The aim of the poet and poetry is finally  to be of service, to ply the effort of the individual work into the larger work of the community as a whole.
    [Seamus Heaney, quoted by Ted Kooser in The Poetry Home Repair Manuel.]
  • A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.
    [Salman Rushdiesource]
  • Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
    [Percy Byshe Shelley]

Pleasantly Broad

  • Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.
    [Plutarchsource]
  • Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary.
    [Khalil Gibransource]
  • Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.
    [Carl Sandburgsource]
  • Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.
    [Robert Frostsource]
  • Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.
    [Robert Frost]
  • The poem… is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see — it is, rather, a light by which we may see — and what we see is life.
    (Robert Penn Warren, Saturday Review (22 March 1958), source)
  • Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing.
    [Dylan Thomassource]
  • Poetry is the impish attempt to paint the color of the wind.
    [Maxwell Bodenheim]
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14 Comments

Filed under Philosophy & Religion

14 responses to “The “No True Poet” Fallacy

  1. I’m not sure what point you’re making. The Scotsman thing is surely an example of the idiocy of generalities. Yes, there are all types of different poems, different things to say and different ways of saying those different things. Yes, there is elitism in poetry and it gets up my nose.
    I disagree with you that novelists don’t complain that no one reads their kind of novels anymore. They do it all the time. Try and get a novel published and you’ll be told by literary agents editors and publishers that people don’t want that kind of thing. And it isn’t because you’ve been told that pastoral novels are out and steampunk is in that you’re necessarily equipped to oblige.

  2. I think you get my point Jane. And just because editors or publishers reject a novel, it doesn’t mean they are being prescriptivists — it may simply mean they don’t think it will sell. And we have lots of ironic examples where they were very wrong. Smile.

  3. Um isn’t that the ultimate prescription, the economic one? What’s the point of saying you can write what you want, how you want, tell your story in your voice, if every publisher is going to tell you that was last year’s fad? Everything comes down to hard cash. Sales. Rappers make millions, pastoral poets make nothing. ‘It’s the economy, stoopid’ 🙂

  4. @ Jane: No, it is their personal choice. Their preference. Novelists can write whatever they want and post on-line or self-publish — they approach publishers hoping for wider (and more lucrative) readership, and when told “No”, they aren’t prescribing, they are just saying “Try somewhere else”. Yep, tough world. In totalitarian countries you are told what you can and can not write. But in more free lands, if people don’t want to hear you, they ignore you or when you beg them to publish, they say, “Try elsewhere.” That is not prescriptivism, you are still free to do as you want and rage against the machine. Rage against money. Rage, rage, rage !

  5. Seems to me the result is the same. Poets don’t expect to be able to make a living with their writing so yes, they can post online or they can give their work away to magazines. If you don’t want to be remunerated for your work, yes, you can publish whatever you want and no one will read it. A writer who wants to make a living from writing is at the mercy of what the publishers are practically certain they can sell. They won’t publish your subversive, poetical, magical story because it’s a dodgy bet. If a publisher won’t publish it, only a very tiny handful of writers will make any money doing it on their own. The publisher decides what will sell, whatever you ‘decide’ to do. Free to write, free to flop.

  6. Movie companies decides on actors, the military is picky about their officers, teachers higher teachers they like, audiences attend singers they like. A singer can complain about deserving a bigger audience after failing with promotors or even sound cloud, but money is what people trade to get their preferences. To make a living, we must supply what enough people want or be willing to live meagerly. I think you get it, but you are bitter that more people don’t want to pay you money for your poetry, no?

  7. No, I give my poetry away. I’ve never even thought of getting a book of poems together. But a poem only takes minutes of my time, a novel takes a year of hard work. I don’t have any income at all and I work hard at my writing. I just want to live like everybody else.

  8. Right, so I guess the thing is to switch from writing, and offer a service that people want to pay for and do writing as a hobby, no?

  9. No. I’m a foreigner with health issues in a country with high unemployment. I don’t have any services to offer. And I’m a writer.

  10. Ah, that is makes it difficult. Hope it gets better for you.

  11. Thank you, I know you do. We’ll scrape by 🙂

  12. great post, a bit shocked by what some of my heroes have said … makes me want to crawl back to free verse and not even learn the different forms 😦

  13. Cmdr. James 🌵

    Really enjoy how this is all put together, but the thought occurs that even if poetry is not inherently more elevated than other kinds of prose, it certainly is something different, and that without an attempt to narrow down at all a true definition of poetry, there doesn’t seem much which appears to have been risked in clowning on those who tried to come up with a definition.

  14. @ James (I leave job or former job titles off of names, I find them very silly when outside of professional context): I am glad you enjoyed this. The line between poetry and prose is very very fuzzy. Trying to set it, exposes the arbitrary nature of the effort. I am sorry, I don’t understand the last half of your very long sentence. Smile.

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