Beauty is Truth . . .

. . . Truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Those are the final two lines of John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The poem is considered one of the greatest odes ever written in the English language.  

Here’s the nutshell:  The poet, or the persona of the poem, encounters a piece of ancient Greek pottery which depicts two scenes: one of lovers about to kiss and one of a group of people apparently preparing to offer a sacrifice at the temple.  The entire poem is the poet expressing how this work of art will outlast living people. The lovers will always be young and in love, and the people in the other scene will never reveal the purpose of their journey or their sacrifice.  

Those last two well-known lines are the poet’s conjecture about what the urn would say to all who encounter it.  But those last two lines are also some of the lines most debated by scholars.  What do they mean exactly?  Beauty is truth? Truth beauty?

Recently, I had the honor of hearing Lisa Fischer perform. If you don’t know Lisa Fischer, you should look her up.  She has toured as a background singer for Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, The Rolling Stones and others.  She is featured in the 2013 film Twenty Feet from Stardom, and she is a Grammy-Award winning artist in her own right. 

But all that aside, let me engage in the futile attempt to describe an ineffable performance. Her vocals are simply impeccable. Almost other-worldly. She doesn’t perform songs; she moves into them and takes up residence, inhabiting the words of others as if they sprang from her own experience. She is a musician whose instrument is her body — not just her lungs and diaphragm and tongue and teeth, but her feet and hands and knees and neck. Her talent was not just the greatest I had ever witnessed, but it was greater than I might have imagined was humanly possible.

But there was something more than talent on stage.  I sat through the entire performance with my hands in a prayer position against my lips. The unfiltered display of naked authenticity was almost more than I could take. Somehow I knew that I was watching her very essence — uncovered, unhidden, unashamed, unafraid — and in beholding her highest and truest self free and unfettered, I knew in that instant that this way of being was available to us all.  

For 90 minutes, Lisa Fischer stood at the intersection of talent and authenticity, and it was holy ground. 

She didn’t talk about god or spirituality or faith or a journey.  I mean, other than the tanktop under her tunic that had the chakras running down the back.  She didn’t have to talk about spirituality. The moment itself was sacred, and she was fully in the moment.  And by her silent invitation, so were we. 

That is the power of art — to create an image, a sound, a moment that transcends the material world and shows us the truth of who we are.  Like a mirror that reflects our soul.  

For you see, beauty is truth, truth beauty . . . 


If you don’t yet know who Susan Boyle is, crawl out from under your rock, go to Youtube, watch all seven minutes of her “Britain’s Got Talent” audition, then come back to this page and continue reading.   A dowdy, 47-year-old, never-been-kissed Scottish woman has turned the entertainment world on its ear and elicited a genuine grin from Simon Cowell.  I believe hell might have frozen over for a few minutes there as well.

Three years ago it was Paul Potts, the British cell phone salesman in need of dental work who opened his mouth on that same stage and made folks across England look twice at their tellies and inquire, “Luciano?”  And now we have Susan Boyle, a woman who could probably sell out a U.S. tour in a matter of moments right now, yet completely unknown just two weeks ago.

What shall we make of this?

Well, I have a theory (you knew it was coming, didn’t you).  Actually my theory is two-fold.  First, I think this phenomenon might have something to do with the aging baby-boomer generation.  Those of us in our late 40s, 50s, and 60s represent a mighty marketing demographic, and we’re just about wise enough now to appreciate true talent over superficial beauty.   Thirty years ago if a would-be celebrity couldn’t appeal to 17 year olds, they weren’t considered viable in commercial music.  Now?  Well, screw the whippersnappers.  Who needs ’em?  We might be stiff crawling out of bed in the mornings, but we can deliver up platinum album sales if we take a mind to.

The second part of my theory is a bit more esoteric.  I wonder if there might be an evolutionary step we’ve taken that has caused us to be more in tune with what is real.  I’m a creative person and value the creative process.  I’ve read “The Artist’s Way.”  But, there are some things you can’t create.  Susan Boyle’s moment in the spotlight was the artistic equivalent of lightening striking, and even the best director or producer would tell you that you just can’t create that.  Sometimes magic happens, whether on a movie set, under a Broadway proscenium arch, or on a talent show stage.  And that magic is when absolute authenticity shines from a pure place.

Susan Boyle might not look like a star, but she’s real.  And that true self she presents to the world is what we crave.  We don’t want to sing like Susan Boyle.  We want to have the courage to be as authentic.

Either that, or it all boils down to Boomers becoming as Youtube savvy as the whippersnappers.