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Tell It Slant

How to write a wise poem.
Detail of Guernica mosaic mural, Rome by Wendy Tanner

On the last day of a weeklong writers’ conference last summer, a student spotted me at lunch. She came over to my table, unfolded her cellophane-wrapped arm, and told me to look. New ink read, “The truth must dazzle gradually.” I was dazzled, certainly, as much by the line as by the student’s choice to etch it permanently on her forearm.
Perhaps Emily Dickinson would have approved of the tattoo. Earlier that week, I’d recited to the class the poem that begins, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”  In it, Dickinson writes that the truth can strike like a bolt of lightning, that an encounter with the truth may seem a “superb surprise.” Certainly, my student was struck by the truth she discovered in Dickinson’s poems. She told me that the moment I finished reciting its lines she knew what her next tattoo would be. And yet, the wonderful contradiction of the poem is enacted in the words she chose to have emblazoned on her body. Dickinson’s poem suggests that unless the truth is revealed “gradually” and “[w]ith explanation kind,” we will not be able to absorb what we have read. Truth, Dickinson writes, can be “[t]oo bright for our infirm Delight.” I was so dazzled by my student’s new body art that, for several moments, I didn’t know what I was looking at. "Did you really just get that tattoo on your lunch break?," I had to ask.
But since first seeing the tattoo, I haven’t been able to forget it. Dickinson’s poem, and my student’s enactment of it, made me think more critically about how poets introduce fundamental truths in ways readers can carry with them, ways that won’t be so alarming that a reader will refuse to accept the poem’s vision of the world.

Dickinson’s highest period of productivity, from 1858 through 1865, was marked by intense cultural tumult. The abolitionist movement and the Civil War, early movements for women’s suffrage, the temperance movement, and a religious Great Awakening all raged around her. Just because she did not wander much out into the world doesn’t mean that the world didn’t come in to her. Dickinson’s prime correspondent and mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was a radical abolitionist and advocate for the rights of freed slaves. For several years, he served as the colonel of an all-black regiment composed mostly of former slaves from South Carolina and Florida. Higginson was a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, which, then as now, did not shy away from addressing current affairs, and it was due to a column in this periodical that Dickinson first contacted him. She was not blind to the changes brewing around her, even if she rarely wrote directly about them. Dickinson lived in a world hungry for answers, just as we do today. Her advice? “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
The truth is that our history is a history of genocide and theft—that, as Robert Hass points out in his poem “Winged and Acid Dark,” rape is an instrument of war as much as are guns and tanks and starvation-inducing sieges. The truth is that even in war zones, some people eat well:

… Something not sayable
spurting from the morning silence,
secret as a thrush.

The other man, the officer, who brought onions
and wine and sacks of flour,
the major with the swollen knee,
wanted intelligent conversation afterward.
Having no choice, she provided that, too.

Potsdamer Platz, May 1945.

When the first one was through he pried her mouth open….

Even this poem’s construction affirms how difficult its details are to handle. Halfway through the poem, after writing that “the first one … pried her mouth open” (thus reminding us that this woman has been violated by more than one man), Hass turns from this brutal scene in war-torn Berlin to a meditation on the work of a 17th-century Japanese poet. What can we do as readers, as artists, and as humans when faced with the continual repetition of awful revelations?

The Hass poem suggests some options: “Basho told Rensetsu to avoid sensational materials. /… I think he recommended describing the slightly frenzied / swarming of insects near a waterfall.” This because “[i]f the horror of the world were the truth of the world /… there would be no one to say it / and no one to say it to.” Basho’s poetics are inserted between the revelation of a sexually compromised woman’s mouth being pried open by a military officer in Germany at the end of World War II and the nearly “not sayable” details of what the outcome of that prying would be.  

This poem is constructed in the kind of “circuit” Dickinson might have been suggesting when she claimed, “Success in circuit lies.” It manifests circuitry, the taking of a roundabout course. It enacts several kinds of revolutions. As a result of what is said and how it is said, the poem provides us with an electric charge.

Hass approaches the central pain of his poem while also moving away from it, circling the subject and thus simultaneously revealing and redirecting our focus. We are allowed to let our mind dwell on something else for a while. We can argue with Basho’s poetics. We can imagine the “slightly frenzied / swarming of insects.” We can visualize “the waterfall.” Hass suggests that even that which is “not sayable in the morning silence” is sayable if the mind, known for “hungering after likenesses,” is allowed, both directly and indirectly, to discover relevant likenesses. Eventually we will be brought back to the jolt of the poem’s most direct revelations. “Pried her mouth open and spit in it,” the story continues. In light of the interjection, in relationship to Basho’s statements and other seemingly disconnected assertions Hass makes in the poem, the scene in Potsdamer Platz becomes all the more vivid. We receive answers, but not necessarily the answers for which we had been waiting.

Pablo Picasso had his own answer for how to manage horrible illuminations. When commissioned to paint a mural for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, Picasso painted Guernica, a 25-by-11-foot rendition of the aftermath of the April 1937 bombing of the Basque city, a targeted bombing that devastated the town and its citizens. Consider the mural: the lightbulb over the horse’s head that could symbolize the bulb in a torturer’s cell, the severed limbs, the useless sword, the dead baby in the distraught mother’s arms, the smoke (Guernica burned for three days). Consider how we don’t feel as inclined to look away as we might from a photograph of Guernica after the bombings. As horrible as the images in Picasso’s painting are, his artful rendition has eased the shocking revelations that charge the mural. “As Lightning to the Children eased / With explanation kind / The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind—,” writes Dickinson. When we behold Picasso’s fantastic version of Guernica, we aren’t led to believe in any one answer. We see beyond the surface. “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,” Picasso said.

In “Winged and Acid Dark,” Hass tells us directly what happens to the woman in Potsdamer Platz in May 1945, but he does this direct telling circuitously. The poet approaches the idea, then “suggests” the rape. Note the second stanza: “the major with the swollen knee, / wanted intelligent conversation afterward. / Having no choice, she provided that, too.” The poem suggests the before by describing the “afterward” and by describing what the woman has to do “too.” Later in the poem, Hass describes the prying open of her mouth and the spitting in it, and lets these moments stand for much more. The lightning strike of this poem, the one we would expect at least, would be a graphic description of the rape, and yet, Hass soothes us on that front while delivering alternatively terrifying truths. The thing we prepare ourselves for, because we’ve heard that old war story repeated so many times, is only alluded to. Instead, Hass focuses on something else we are surprised by and therefore have to hear.

“The essence of poetry is the unique view—the unguessed relationship, suddenly manifest. Poetry’s eye is always aslant, oblique,” says poet Josephine Jacobsen. What I am arguing for is a degree of obliqueness sufficient to allow the mind to rest on something else, something unexpected. To be oblique is not the same as to be opaque. Obliqueness refers to angles and slopes, to geometry that is not parallel. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” Dickinson reminds.

Czeslaw Milosz said, “To write a wise poem one must know more than what is expressed in it. Consciousness leaves every means of expression behind. Hence the regret that we will remain sillier in human memory than we were at the moments of our acutest comprehension.” Posterity will view us as silly, as strange, as uninformed, as undeveloped, as barbarous. Posterity may even, will likely even, forget us entirely. And yet, we are writing. And we are, for the purposes of this discussion at least, thinking about writing something of immediate force that might remain relevant to the future. That’s a tricky burden. How to master that? This process of locating the reader in more than one place, the “slant” view, the “unguessed relationship” that makes “something not sayable” sayable, is a means by which the poet, and therefore her reader, gains access to knowledge that is greater than what is directly expressed in a poem.

“What a poet does, ideally, is talk about the history of the inside of people so that history is more than just the appearance of things,” says Lucille Clifton. And Clifton does just that in her poem “here rests.” From the beginning, we see the inside and outside of not only the figures of the poems but the very words we use to describe those figures. “Here rests” implies both “here is the dead body of some person” and “here is some person finally catching a break.” When we are introduced in the poem first to “my sister Josephine,” then to the dates of her birth and her death, we know the basic facts we need to draw a simple conclusion. But then Clifton tells us this sister “carried a book / on every stroll,” which tells us one thing at the beginning of the poem (Josephine was a woman who carried books with her) and quite another by the third stanza, when we discover that Josephine was a prostitute and her “stroll” was a necessity of her profession. From the beginning, the poem shows us more than we thought to look for.

Clifton continues playing with our expectations. We expect something from Josephine’s “Diamond Dick” when Clifton tells us that when Josephine “left the streets” and “moved back home / to tend” to her dying father, “her pimp came too / her Diamond Dick,” but we get quite another thing with every new line:

and they would take turns

a bible aloud through the house.

When we hear that Josephine is “one of the easts most wanted,” we wonder if that is because she is a criminal (which we understand she must have been, as a prostitute) or because she is desirable (which we understand she must have been, as a prostitute). But by this point in the poem we know that, in addition to being a prostitute, Josephine is a caregiver. We know that she reads, and that what she reads is the Bible, and this knowledge has complicated our understanding of her. We know that her relationship with her pimp is not so easy to stereotype. The poem demands that we move beyond our limited comprehension. Clifton tells us a different side of a story, several different sides of a story, so that we see a deeper truth that is both superbly surprising and also so beautiful we can’t turn away.

The upturning of expectations provides some of this poem’s biggest rewards. “[M]ay heaven be filled / with literate men,” the poem’s last stanza implores, “and may they bed you / with respect.” Reading this poem, we are moved to be more literate. We are moved toward a deeper form of respect.

Like the best speculative fiction, good poems weird the truth, rearrange it, re-present it, cause us to re-envision the past, to rememory (to borrow Toni Morrison’s word) our own history. How do they do this? For one thing, they subvert our expectations and also reward them. These poems give us what we want, but they also give us what we don’t yet know we need. The transition from one to the next can be uncomfortable because it is simultaneously obvious and surprising.

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. Degrees of discomfort can vary, and the good writer will alternate various levels of danger with the familiar so a reader isn’t at a constant level of alertness.

Consistency breeds apathy. The beauty of repetition lies in the occasional disruption of repetition: Expectation and reward. Expectation and reward. Expectation, expectation. Surprise! A writer might build a little nest in a poem, a comfortable place for the reader’s mind to rest (the material for this nest might be rhyme, might be repetition of words or phrases, might be consistency of images or ideas), but even as she makes this space of comfort, she must be aware that too much comfort breeds disinterest.

In “I Belong There,” Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish effects a sense of comfort in a variety of ways. To begin with, he saturates the poem in repetition. The sentences begin with such phrases as “I belong there…. I have… I was born… I have… I have… I have…” Then he introduces a switch in syntax: “In the deep horizon of my word….” Then a return to “I have…I have… I belong there….” Then a long stretch of altered syntax—first with its own internal repetition, “When heaven mourns for her mother, I return heaven to her mother,” and then with something almost entirely new, “And I cry so that a returning cloud might carry my tears. / To break the rules, I have learned all the words needed for a trial by blood.”
It would have been easy, based on the poem’s patterns and on our expectations, to say something like “To break the rules, I have learned to obey the rules,” but Darwish and his translators (Carolyn Forché and Munir Akash) do not rely on what is easy. Instead, in the penultimate line, the poem disrupts the pattern significantly before returning, in the end, to nearly the beginning. “I have learned,” says the beginning of the last line. “Home,” says the end. This circles us comfortably back to the title and the first words of the first line, “I belong there.”

Expectation and reward. Expectation and reward. Expectation, expectation. Are you listening? You are listening? Really? Well then, here’s what you’ve expected: your reward. That’s a forced attenuation strategy that doesn’t even call significantly on the content of the words. Even if you weren’t listening to the words, you could hear the music of them—like the songs we sing our children, the lyrics of which are often quite dark and distressing, though the melodies sound nice. This is a way to raise the threat of danger in the midst of calm. It is also a way to create calm in the midst of danger. Create a pattern, reward that pattern, and disrupt that pattern—but rather than leaving the poem in that state of disruption, return to the pattern.

In Darwish’s poem, and Clifton’s, too, we return to a pattern, but we return to the pattern informed by the changes we have witnessed, and so we see the pattern differently. We remain alert, aware that there is ever the potential for disruption, for change. The first bird mentioned in the Hass poem is a thrush. In the last stanza we see “curves the swallows trace in air.” He could have chosen any birds, but this poem, which describes a particular kind of sexual violation, refers to birds whose names also correspond to a sexually transmitted disease and a potentially sexualized habitual act. When Hass mentions silence and birds in the first stanza and returns to them in the last, he constructs a kind of resolution, but not an easy one.

Whether or not something feels safe depends entirely on the context in which that something is encountered. By changing the contexts of even the most benign objects, a writer can create a sense of nostalgia and peace or foster an entirely different response. An example from Margaret Atwood:

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

First we’re right at home with images drawn from the sewing room, from a time when people dressed in clothes with delicate fasteners. Then, quite suddenly, we’re in open water, and it is not safe there. The pattern is blown entirely. Atwood sets us up. We think we have an idea of where we are going. We had no idea where we were going.

But why didn’t we? The kind of hook and eye she comes to by the end of the short poem is an equally logical image. And, thus, we have been rewarded. It’s a thumb on the nose to the reader who thinks he knows what he wants. It’s a way to force us to pay more careful attention to the world we think we already know.

The word “careful” also means cautious and thorough, prudent and gentle. Dickinson tells us, “The Truth must dazzle gradually” so that it might be beheld. She tells us that even the revelation of the most shocking truths can be “eased / With explanation kind.” To attend to the world carefully is to attend to the world more slowly, more painstakingly, and without waste. Atwood’s little poem, like the others I’ve shared, changes the way we come to understand the world. That’s one of the most important things a poem can do.

  • Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.   Dungy’s full-length poetry publications...


Tell It Slant

How to write a wise poem.
  • Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.   Dungy’s full-length poetry publications...

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