Once again I am indulging in ModPo, a free Coursera presentation by the University of Pennsylvania. It is a treasure. Today I listened to the close reading and discussion of Emily Dickinson’s Tell The Truth But Tell It Slant (sometimes presented as #1129, sometimes as #1263). Below the link (which I hope y’all can all access and enjoy) is an item I wrote up directly after viewing the videos this morning. I hope the viewing, and the reading is as enjoyable for y’all as it was for me.
Tell all the truth …
It is possible to get lost in the lines that follow, to mistake Dickinson’s intent as an attempt to perpetuate paternalistic attitudes, or the assertion of myth over fact in order to salvage the feelings of lesser beings. It is possible, unless the reader pays close attention to the first four words of this poem.
but tell it slant –
When I read this separate from those first four words, I immediately think of spin doctors – those speech writers employed by politicians that value tone and presentation more than content. Slant is not immediately recognizable as a tool of honesty, but of creativity. And creativity can be a tool used to twist honesty into lies. Is Dickinson suggesting that people corrupt the truth in order to spare feelings, in order to salvage the self-confidence and hope of the less mature, the less intelligent? No.
The Truth must dazzle gradually …
Again, truth. I like what Max says about a harsh light vs. a softer light. A softer light allows the viewer to see. Think of the heat and glare of a spotlight blazing into a dark area of the woods. Sure, it can kill the darkness that existed in that targeted area, but the onlookers cannot see anything on either side of that targeted area, and the ability to see where they stand becomes impossible. If that light is shone into the eyes of a living thing, seeing beyond the light becomes impossible, the option of movement becomes frightening and dangerous.
Or every man be blind –
When presented with the bare ugly truth from someone else’s perspective, negative results can outweigh the importance of what is being revealed. Negative results such as, loss of hope, revulsion, a sense of losing control on one’s own life. Truth, therefore, becomes unbearable. When we cannot bear something, many of us are apt to question, to doubt, to disbelieve for the sake of our own wellbeing.
Al states that Dickinson was a radical in terms of how she challenged traditional verse. This fact stands in sharp contrast, upon first glance, of her seemingly obvious acceptance of traditional social roles and religion revealed in her poetry. That radicalism is overshadowed by what we know of her personal history as well – her agoraphobia and reluctance to publish makes her seem a fragile creature, and her tendency to chastise and plead through poetry lends to that sense of minding a Christian woman’s place in society, and in literature of the time.
But this recognition of how she challenged traditional verse, coupled with Anna Maris’s revelation of just how not acceptable a woman’s direct opinion would have been in Dickinson’s time, lends to the profoundness of this particular poem upon a close reading. The wisdom gleaned and retained from Dickinson’s personal experiences shines through in #1263 like no other, in my opinion.
Imagine a woman of the era entering a room where men are debating the topics of the Civil War. The woman interrupts and states her own opinions to the shock and horror of all those men. At best, she would have been ignored. However, if she were a creative woman, a wise and intelligent woman of that era, she would have never made the mistake of interrupting and overtly challenging their opinions. She would not chance being ignored. Such a woman would make it possible for those men to be gradually dazzled by the Truth.