Truth Gradually

I tend to like to be direct.

It has always seemed to me that it makes the most sense to say what you mean in no uncertain terms so there’s no chance of anyone misunderstanding you. Why beat around the bush, I’ve wondered? “Language is for communication,” I’ve preached from my soapbox, “and what’s the point of talking at all if you don’t intend to be understood?”

To a certain extent, I still believe that. I’m still not a fan of the game of make-everyone-else-read-between-the-lines-because-we-can’t-say-what-we-really-mean.

But, as usual, my perspective is challenged by a poem, this time by Emily Dickinson:

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 –

Like lightning to children

When it comes to telling the truth, Dickinson claims, the only way to be successful is to tell it indirectly.

Needless to say, this seems counterproductive to me at first, but Dickinson uses imagery to make her point.

The phrase “infirm Delight” captures our imaginations—the word infirm makes us think of someone who is aged or ailing, weak in body and perhaps also in mind. When coupled with the word “delight,” I form a mental image of our capacity for enjoyment being too weak and unstable to handle the brilliance of truth.

Dickinson goes on to compare truth to lightning. The sudden flash of brightness when a lightning bolt strikes can frighten children with its intensity. How do we ease their fears? Not by jumping into an explanation of the science behind lightning: we break it to them gently, a little at a time, slowly teaching them that lightning is nothing to be afraid of.

In Dickinson’s mind, the brightness of Truth is comparable to a bolt of lightning—and the child’s fear of it is a corollary to the adult’s inability to comprehend Truth all at once without being overwhelmed—or “blind” as Dickinson words it in the final line.

Oh, the irony…

Okay, I think as I read the poem. Dickinson believes that the truth should be communicated indirectly—gently—so that we are not overwhelmed by it. She wants us to “tell all the Truth, but tell it slant“—

—and here I run into a problem.

When we’re talking about poetry, slant rhyme happens when a rhyme is not quite perfect—the vowels are similar, but don’t completely match. (Think Taylor Swift’s song “Love Song”: “Romeo, save me, I’ve been feeling so alone / I’ll be waiting, all there’s left to do is run“. “Alone” and “run” make a slant rhyme.)

So when Dickinson says to tell the truth “slant,” I’m thinking of slant rhymes. And yet in this entire poem there is not a single slant rhyme. Not one.

(Go ahead, reread it and see for yourself. I’ll wait.)

The rhythm is also perfectly regular—not a single syllable out of place. It’s all unstressed-stressed, unstressed-stressed the whole way through. No poetic elements surprise you in this poem—and that, in itself, surprises me.

If Truth is characterized by “superb surprise”, then why does Dickinson include no surprises at all in her rhyme and meter? Is she using a regular meter and rhyme to make sure the reader isn’t distracted from the point of the poem?

Or is it possible that her poem is, in fact, not Truth at all?

She tells us to tell the truth slant, in a roundabout way—so why is she speaking so directly?

Dazzle gradually

Here’s the thing about poetry: it doesn’t often come out and just say what it means. And there’s a good reason for that.

By circling around the topic—by approaching it from different angles, describing it different ways, and using different symbols to engage the reader’s imagination—the poem helps us think about the concept it presents more deeply than we would if the poet just gave us their message directly.

On top of that, sometimes the point of a poem isn’t for us to understand exactly what the poet believed. I’m still not sure what Emily Dickinson meant to communicate with her poem “Tell It Slant.”

But one thing is for sure: I have thought a lot more about truth, and about communication, and about the purpose of poetry itself, than I would have if I knew for sure what Dickinson was trying to in her poem.

Is it more work to think through a poem, to be willing to be unsure about what the author’s main point is? Absolutely.

But then, most worthwhile communication is more work than a mere exchange of information. It requires imagination and empathy and the patience to question our understanding, to challenge our assumptions.

That’s one of the things I love about poetry: it teaches me to communicate more effectively. And it invites me to challenge the way I see the world and, for the space of a few lines, to try viewing it a little differently.

Today, I’d love to hear about a piece of writing—poem or otherwise—that challenged you to think differently. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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