Epistemology Poems

All poems are either linked to or cited from a particular book that is listed in the Resources section.  If you are having trouble tracking down a copy of a particular poem, comment below for help and I’ll get back to you ASAP. These poem lists are not full modules, but suggestions of poems that could be good to work with, with some jumping off points for philosophical inquiry. If you would like me to write up more suggested questions and activities for an Example Module for a specific poem below, feel free to request! If you would like to write up a module for a poem, please contact me at madeleinebella@gmail.com for guidelines for submission, and I would be delighted to feature your work on the site. List in progress. Please feel free to suggest poems using the Comment box below! Thank you!

Dickinson, Emily. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” (1263)

This lovely quick poem can be read aloud by a few different members of the group before discussion, taking time to enjoy Dickinson’s imagery and metaphors and letting the rhymes swirl around in your mouths before tackling the sticky epistemological questions around the concept of “truth.”

  • Dickinson advises poets to tell the whole truth but indirectly. Is this possible?
  • Can one person know everything that is true?
  • Is “truth” an objective thing?
  • Can something be true and not true at the same time? How, or if not, why not?
  • Dickinson tells us that the truth can “blind” people if we get it all at once too abruptly. Is it possible to know too much?
  • Are there any things you think it would be better not to know? Why or why not?
  • Why is “Truth” capitalized in the seventh line but not in the first? Is this an attempt to personify truth somehow?

Field, Edward (translator) “Magic Words,” ancient Inuit poem

My full discussion and module is linked to here.

The poem tells us things about this very-long-ago time as if they are facts. Are we meant to assume that they are true? If so, how does the speaker know? None of us were there – but do you have to have witnessed something to know it is true? There are plenty of things we tend to accept as true without having witnessed them ourselves, but they often rely on secondary experience: For example, most of us have never been to the moon, but we believe what astronauts tell us about it because they have been there. We believe what is written in history books, but we do not believe that the events written about in novels really happened. When we see words on a page, how do we know whether or not to trust them?

Field, Edward. “Heaven and Hell.” Magic Words. 

The last page of this book of poetry reads:

“Of course it may be
that all I have been telling you is wrong,
for you cannot be
certain about what you cannot see.
But these are the stories that our people tell.”

After reading the book, it could be great to have a discussion about what we know, what we believe, and what we assume. Some questions to consider:

  • Is there anything you know without having seen it for yourself? How do you know?
  • What does it mean to be “certain” of something?
  • Is there a difference between knowing something and believing something?
  • If many people believe something, does that make it more true?
  • Can anything be more or less true than something else?

Holman, Felice. “I Can Fly.”  At the Top of My Voice, p. 11

The speaker of this poem insists, matter-of-factly, “I can fly, of course,” explaining that since people would talk too much about it, they do so only when no one else is around. Is there any way to prove this claim true or not?

Tueni, Nadia. “In the Lebanese Mountains.” Lebanon. translated by Samuel Hazo, This Same Sky, p. 140

Like “Magic Words,” this poem tells of a time when the barriers between species were not so clear. The last stanza tells us “Remember—the child’s recollection/of a secret kingdom just our age.” Is it possible to remember something from before you were born? Do you ever feel like young children understand things in a deeper or different way than adults are able to? Why or why not? Is it possible to be born knowing something? Why or why not? Can you think of some examples?

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