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Poetry seeks to uncover reality. Through clouds of flowery diction, obscure syntax, and manifold connotations, poems reveal a deeper human significance. William Trevor once defined the poem as “an explosion of truth.” While readers enjoy uplifting tones and “happily-ever-after” endings, some of the most effective poems discuss complicated or unpleasant subjects. Presentation, rather than content, is what makes a poem great: the quality of language and depth of perception. Throughout western history, some of the most powerful poems created have discussed the ugly truth of loss. Their authors do not rely on the pleasantry of the content, but focus on structure and language to carry their poetry to greatness.


Structure and meaning are binding in effective poetry, moving as one. This is most evidenced in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” Essentially a description of a political tyrant, it portrays a character many of us are unable to relate to on a personal level. Shelley uses strong, straightforward diction to appeal intellectually rather than emotionally. A sense of power is portrayed in the statue of Ozymandias with his “sneer of cold command” and conceited words “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” engraved on the pedestal. This overbearing supremacy is contrasted by the destruction of nature. The statue, much like the broader ideas of political power, culture, and civilization, is a victim of time, defenseless against the fierce winds and sands of the empty desert. While the reader is not disturbed over this loss because the tyrant does not strike a chord emotionally, the notion that everything, no matter how vast or powerful, comes to an end is effectively portrayed by the description of the overbearing tyrant and the subsequent description of the “colossal wreck, boundless and bare” that remains.


Dudley Randall’s “Ballad of Birmingham” uses song form to tell a story which readers can relate to on a deeper, more emotional level. Intimacy is created by the opening dialogue, which is memorable for its simple language and repetition of the words “mother” and “baby.” The sense of love and protection woven into the poem appeals emotionally, drawing the reader into the charming world of mother and daughter. This only adds to the crushing affect created with the realization that the mother’s desperate desire to protect her child was ironically the cause of her death. While the issue is heavy, the language is simple, naïve, and direct, almost from a child’s point of view. The symbol of a single shoe pulled from the rubbish of the destroyed church represents the bittersweet memory of the woman’s “petal sweet” daughter. Each of these elements is connected by the short, musical lines and simple rhymes that make the poem memorable. The short structure represents the short life of the girl, and the loss of her young life.


“Dulce et Decorum Est” similarly uses structure to portray the meaning of loss. Wilfred Owen was appalled by the violence of war, which is prevalent in the devastating imagery of his poetry. The irony in the title itself, “Sweet and proper it is to die for one’s country,” suggests that war is not as glorious when you look up close. The prosaic tempo and repetition of words such as “drowning” deepen the feelings of pity and disgust. Long, running descriptions of the moral and physical ugliness of war are broken by a single couplet: “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight/ He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” To convey the overall sense of destruction and loss, Owen relies heavily on tone and structure to put the reader in the shoes of a soldier.


W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts’ similarly utilizes an almost prosaic structure to draw the reader in. The theme of loss is not presented so much by emotional intrigue, memorable rhythm, or devastating imagery, but by simple example. The majority of the poem is spent observing suffering’s human position: “how it takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” The sense of loss is presented as our own. American culture has shifted to a sentiment of individuality and unawareness of the world, which limits curiosity and connection between people. The tragedy of Icarus is presented with a “forsaken cry” which connotes pity, but it is understood that this “important failure” known as death is simply a part of life. The mundane tone matches the meaning that humanity turns away from unappealing things. Loss is portrayed in a straightforward manner from a non-judgmental observer of cynicism, an author who is seemingly as emotionally disconnected from the subject as the characters are with Icarus’ drowning body. While the theme of loss matches that of the other poems, it is illustrated as less emotional, simply a part of life rather than something devastating or life-changing.


Poetry centered on the common theme of loss affects readers in a precise and definite manner; every line has a purpose and the way in which is it constructed is critical. The meaning and sounds of words do not clash and the pattern of the language and structure of the poem move inseparably. Ineffective poetry often results from attempting to fit statements into a formulated pattern, or inverting syntax and inserting adjectives simply for rhythmic convenience. But these poems use form in their favor. While they are opposing in their ethical and tonal approaches to the theme of loss, they all effectively present their views through structure and corresponding diction.





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