Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”: A Reading

Dickinson House (Courtesy: Dickinson Museum)

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

This poem, widely read, typically exhibits Dickinson’s syntactical subtleties, meriting close, repeated readings.

At its primary level, it counsels the circuitous in communicating with others in difficult circumstances: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” “Slant” connotes the angular, or indirect, anticipating the sun and lightning analogies in the lines that follow.

Just as we cannot view the sun directly, so it is with harsh realities that need filtering, given the “infirmity,” or sensitivity, of humans unable to absorb truth undiluted: “Success in Circuit lies/Too bright for our infirm Delight.” Although the sun isn’t specifically mentioned, “bright” confirms its presence..

Likewise, to disclose the truth directly is analogous to the lightning’s surprise flash, frightening children, whose anxiety is only eased with softened explanation: “The Truth’s superb surprise/As Lightning to the Children eased/With explanation kind.”

The poem’s final lines reiterate the poem’s opening counsel, while warning of the consequence of not doing so: “The Truth must dazzle gradually/
Or every man be blind.” That is, we may otherwise do greater harm.

Ethicists may argue with the seeming absolutism in the all of “Tell all the truth.” Surely we can think of circumstances that demand otherwise. A lot depends on the motives we bring to troublesome situations, whether centered in ourselves or on others. Dickinson unequivocally chooses the latter, with kindness the arbitrator.

Dickinson was hardly naive. As poet Camille Dungy observes, “We can’t truly know comfort unless we know its opposite. Writers who think carefully about how to render the world in a truthful and realistic way have to handle, bare-handed and, thus, ever so carefully, the double-edged sword of comfort versus discomfort” (poetryfoundation.org).

We would be wise to adopt a cultural approach as well. We’re not sure of when Dickinson wrote this poem, but most scholarship suggests between 1858 and 1865. In short, it may have been written in the context of America’s Civil War. The conflict was cataclysmic, with an ultimate casualty toll of 600,000. The majority of leading scholars think she internalized the struggle to reflect her psychological wrestlings.

This isn’t to say she wasn’t mindful of the war’s gruesome realities. We have, for example, her “It Feels Ashamed to be Alive” poem, which opens: “It feels a shame to be Alive—When Men so brave—are dead.” We also have her letters and journal. It’s conceivable Dickinson had in mind families and friends receiving grim news of their loved one’s demise. Amherst was a small, close-knit community.

But the poem can also be read in quite another way as Dickinson’s aesthetic of concealment, or how poetry should be written. Good poetry should show, not tell; hint, but not reveal, a credo consistently realized in her poetry. Sound poetry engages readers in discovery, fashioning a poem’s constituents into pattern, yielding coherence, or like pieces of a puzzle, fitting into place.

Through such methodology, poetry acquires universality, the reader becoming the text. This doesn’t mean readers can impose any meaning. On the contrary, astute readers map a poem’s clues and observe its boundaries. Like a good mystery, the clues are planted, awaiting their discovery.

With this in mind, it’s conceivable we can pursue the poem at a metaphysical level as well. What is this “truth” to be shared cautiously? Has it to do with the mystery of Deity’s doings; His ways beyond our “infirm Delight,” or capability to comprehend, necessitating Divine truth be a fragmentary unfolding?

In both Judaism and Christianity, the Shekinah, or divine immanence, is traditionally associated with light. Light dominates this brief poem: “too bright”; “lightning”; “dazzle.” Did Dickinson have in mind Exodus 33:20?: “And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live” (KJV).

A devotee of the metaphysical poets, Dickinson may have read Henry Vaughan’s “There is in God (some say) a deep, but dazzling darkness” (“The Night”). Did she have this in mind in her summation, “The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind”?

We know that Dickinson wrestled with traditional Christianity and a Deity allowing suffering and death. She did not attend church. In an earlier poem, “There’s a certain Slant of light,” she writes of a light “That oppresses, like the Heft/Of Cathedral Tunes/Heavenly Hurt, it gives us.”

Less than a dozen poems of 1779 total were published in Dickinson’s lifetime. This poem was published in 1890, four years after her death. It remains one of her most popular poems.

–rj

Reflections on the 2017 Philip Larkin Exhibition at Hull

The Guardian (July 4, 2017) features a review of a favorite poet of mine, Philip Larkin, in connection with a current exhibit of Larkin artifacts at Hull’s Brynmore Jones Library, where he was a librarian for many years.

It notes his tortured sexual life, indulgence in pornography, racist asides, and complex relationships the writer terms “despicable” with several women, whom he allegedly treated unfairly, particularly Monica Jones, his lifelong lover and collaborator.

The show includes a small Hitler bust given him by his father, a Nazi sympathizer, who had once taken his son to a Nuremberg rally.

Beyond announcing the exhibit, about which there’s very little, not even its running dates, columnist Hannah Ellis Petersen tells us Larkin was obsessed with his appearance, weighing himself twice daily on two different scales, fastidious about his clothes, etc.

A good portion of the article paraphrases or quotes the exhibit’s curator Anna Farthing, who ironically seems apologetic for the exhibition, perhaps thrown on the defensive by a rehearsed biased protocol: “The challenge is alway to not judge, and present the story in a way with lots of perspectives and hooks so people can make their own minds up. I’ve had lots of different reactions to him as I’ve started to get to know him, from complete respect to being appalled.”

I find the article, spirited perhaps by feminist indulgence, a blatant dismissal of Larkin’s perfected artistry as a poet. Larkin may well be Britain’s best poet since Auden. Unfortunately, literary criticism has taken on a contemporary intrusion of sexual politics.  I side with Terry Eagleton in his contention  that we appear “less interested in ideas than in the sexual habits of those who had them.”

Her take isn’t anything new. As Stephen Walsh recalls (The Guardian, May 30, 2017), during “the 2015 premiere of a BBC documentary about the poet, a female audience member disrupted the generally cosy atmosphere by asking why Hull people should be so proud of Larkin. He was a misogynist and racist, she said, and he didn’t do anything for the image of the city.”

Aside from this, what concerns me more are those who would shun an artist on the basis of alleged moral incongruities or ideology. Ellis-Petersen dubs the exhibit “a morally complex minefield.”

Do we stop reading Voltaire or Gide because they were anti-Semitic; or more famously, D. H. Lawrence, who exhibits a considerable misogynist vein in his work? And what about Hemingway caught up in his male chauvinism? Or the writer I know best, James Joyce with his notorious kinkiness that once got Ulysses banned? Is there a new Index in town?  A moral or political registry to which artists must do obeisance?

My interest in Larkin, or any artist for that matter, isn’t foregrounded in his life. Artists, after all, are human beings, each with their flotsam of inertia or indulgence and dark secrets shaped by the interweave of parental, cultural, economic and social phenomena often imprinting them psychologically, as any reading of Freud’s seminal Civilization and Its Discontents (1929) should remind us.

Truth is, though a brilliant student at Oxford, Larkin was nonetheless self-deprecating. As a youth, he stuttered and all his life suffered from bad vision. He sought validation from women, but even that couldn’t suffice for low self-esteem.

He shied from interviews and readings. The current exhibit, virtually underwear and all, would undoubtedly have violated his sensibility and his privacy, as much, maybe more, than his inclusion in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey

Flashback to my student days in a modern poetry course at Exeter College, Oxford, summer of 1979:

I know nothing of Larkin. My tutor, one of the best ever, steeped in bibliography and intertextual nuance, introduces us to the idiomatic, conversational cadence of poems like “Church Going,” “Toads,” and “Whitsun Weddings”.

He knows Larkin personally and has invited him to our class for a reading, but Larkin cancels at the last moment, pleading illness. It’s a let down.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter, for Larkin would become a poetic staple in my life.

Larkin bravely translated the anxieties of modern life into verse. A leading candidate for Poet Laureate in 1984, the withdrawn Larkin wasn’t interested. He died the following year.

Larkin had become librarian at the University of Hull in 1955, beginning a thirty year association. He’s still remembered for his modernization and expansion of its facilities, though this gets omitted in the article.

Biographer Alan Brownjohn notes that Larkin quietly achieved “the most technically brilliant and resonantly beautiful, profoundly disturbing yet appealing and approachable, body of verse of any English poet in the last twenty-five years.”

George Dekker, in Agenda, comments that no living poet “can equal Larkin on his own ground of the familiar English lyric, drastically and poignantly limited in its sense of any life beyond, before or after, life today in England.”

Even curator Farthing finally gets it right in exclaiming “to have achieved work that is so human and engaging and continually relevant, it seems that he did it despite his demons, not because of them.”

And, of course, this is what matters.

–rj

 

A Poet Reminisces: Essays After Eighty

ows_141652973541643I have always liked poetry and poets, in particular, because of their sensitivity to human experience.

One poet I like a lot is Donald Hall, a giant among contemporary American poets, although he’s given up the craft, or as he puts it, since “poetry abandoned him.”

Hall is now 85.

Let me assure you, while the tropes may not come as easily as before, his acuity remains vibrant in his newest book, Essays After Eighty, a slim volume of 120 pages, yet filled with reminiscence, keen observation, and sober wisdom.

I first got introduced to Hall by way of his textbook, Writing Well, which I used for a number of years in teaching college composition. The book lived up to its title, emphasizing sentence clarity and how to achieve it, with eloquence added in.

Hall has always been a diligent stylist, whether writing poetry or prose. He confesses that he’s written some individual essay drafts for Essays After Eighty upwards of eighty times to get things said right.

I used to tell my students that the name of the game in all good writing lay in revision, pointing out that scholars have come upon nearly fifty drafts of Yeat’s famed “Second Coming” poem.

I like how Hall says it: “The greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting. My early drafts are always wretched.”

I’ve always held that a good style is etched by its economy, the right words sufficing for empty fillers drowning readers in verbosity; a pleasing rhythm like waves, in and out, upon a sea shore.

Good prose, like poetry, runs lean.

And Hall is the great master.

Let me give you a sampling of Hall’s trademark writing acumen, simple, yet keen with observation, each detail chosen well, verbs especially, accumulating into a verbal, painting, reflecting the ethos of a skilled artisan:

In spring, when the feeder is down, stowed away in the toolshed until October, I watch the fat robins come back, bluejays that harass them, warblers, red-winged blackbirds, thrushes, orioles. Mourning doves crouch in the grass, nibbling seeds. A robin returns each year to refurbish her nest after the wintry ravage. She adds new straw, twigs and lint. Soon enough she lays eggs, sets on them with short excursions for food, then tends to three or four small beaks that open for her scavenging. Before long, the infants stand, spread and clench their wings, peer at their surroundings, and fly away. I cherish them….

Reminiscence weighs heavily upon these essays, not surprising for a writer in his mid-eighties. the ghosts, as it were, looming out of the past–grandparents, Mom and Dad, aunts and uncles, friends;  wife Jane Kenyon, the love of his life and fellow poet, succumbing unexpectedly to cancer at age 47.

Even the northern New Hampshire topography has yielded to change, farms giving way to rebirth of forest as the new generation migrates to the prosperous cities of southern New Hampshire.

As I read this moving collection of personal reflections on sundry topics, I made sure to highlight a number of striking passages, and some of them I’ll share with you.

On writing:

As I work on clauses and commas, I understand that rhythm and cadence have little to do with import, but they should carry the reader on a pleasurable journey.

If the essay doesn’t include contraries, however small they be, the essay fails.

Nine-tenths of the poets who win prizes and praises, who are applauded the most, who are treated everywhere like emperors–or like statues of emperors–will go unread in thirty years.

I count it an honor that in 1975 I gave up lifetime tenure, medical expenses, and a pension in exchange for forty joyous years of freelance writing.

I expect my immortality to expire five minutes after my funeral. Literature is a zero-sum game. One poet revives; another gets deader.

On aging:

When I limped into my eighties, my readings altered, as everything did.

In the past I was advised to live in the moment. Now what else can I do.?

On leisure:

Everyone who concentrates all day, in the evening needs to let the half-wit out for a walk.

On mortality:

It is sensible of me to realize that I will die one of these days. I will not pass away.

At some time in my seventies, death stopped being interesting. I no longer checked out ages in obituaries.

These days most old people die in profit-making dormitories. Their loving sons and daughters are busy and don’t want to forgo the routine of their lives.

Essays After Eighty has been a wonderful read for me with its acerbic wit, cogent wisdom, delivered in a simple, yet elegant, style, proving again that the best art conceals itself.

And yet there’s a melancholy that haunts these excursions into reminiscence, a sense that the best is over and, now, there’s just the waiting. As Hall confesses, “My problem isn’t death, but old age.”

Hall, of course, is addressing physical decline with its imposed limitations and dreaded dependency; but surely his words resonate still more–the sense of ephemerality that mocks our labors and brings to an end all that we love most dearly.

For Hall, “There are no happy endings, because if things are happy, they have not ended.”

Still, this work, perhaps his last, formulates a testimony to a life lived well.

And, very rarely, do you find such honest telling.

–rj

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