May 22, 2016

Conversations: Tell all the truth but tell it slant

I heard Garrison Keillor read "Tell all the truth but tell it slant" by Emily Dickinson today on his Writers Almanac program. I have heard it or read it many times, but I realized that I'm still not really sure I understand it completely.

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 —

Maybe that's the thing about good poems - that as much as you like hearing them and get some meaning from them, they offer you the chance to revisit them and get eve more from them.

Poets Online has been a website asking you to write towards a prompt since 1998. I enjoy receiving and reading poems submitted and occasionally I develop an email connection with a poet. I know a few poets who have written on the site in the real life of offline and just a few times someone has approached me at a reading to introduce them self as one of the poets published on the site. But that is the rare exception.

In 2005, I started this blog and added Poets Online to Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest - not so much as promotion, but so that readers could connect with me. It happens sometimes, not often.

I'm offering this poem as the first "Conversations" post here. I'm hoping that you will comment on what you get from Emily's poem and that we might all start a conversation about a poem, poet or topic.

I hope you will join the conversation.

2 comments:

  1. Tell the truth but don't merely transcribe day-to-day life. The truth is powerful - perhaps too powerful at times. Circle it - "dazzle gradually" - before the fear, awe and lightning hits.

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    1. I'm intrigued by the logical structure of the poem. I see it two main parts of four lines each. The first two lines begin with an injunction: "Tell all the truth" immediately qualified: "but tell it slant." Then something in the way of justification: the truth told directly is "too bright," for us, its "superb surprise" too much for us in our infirmity or weakness. Best therefore to approach it circuitously. Taken together, they make a tight argument about what to do with the truth.

      The last four lines restating the case are built upon a simile: "It's like this,: Dickinson suggests: In the same way we give children simplified explanations for lightning because the truth might be too complex (or perhaps too terrifying), we should approach Truth obliquely, less it blind us, or those to whom we are trying to share it.

      It's a cautionary poem. It's hard for me to read it without thinking of Jack Nicholson's in A Few Good Men: "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth." Nicholson, of course, had his own not-so-good reasons for wanting to keep the truth hidden. Dickinson chooses to end her poem by suggesting that approaching the truth obliquely is less an act of duplicity than an act of charity, or as she suggests, simple kindness: we should be careful with the truth in order not to blind one another.

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