Tell it slant: A look at the poet-rebels Whitman and Dickinson

In the mid-1800s, some American poets seemed to make a departure from the traditional forms and restraints of classical European poetry. In the true American spirit, these innovators decided to “go it on their own.”


Three poems written around this time exemplify that spirit; “Beat! Beat! Drums” by Walt Whitman, “I heard a Fly—buzz…” and “Tell all the truth but it slant” by Emily Dickinson. From these poems, the reader can derive a true, organic, and often aural sense of what the poet was experiencing, as well as some insight into the emotions underlying the sounds and meaning of the words. (See also alliteration, onomonapoeia).


In “Beat! Beat! …” Whitman uses onomatopoeia to write out the expression of what banging on drums sounds and feels like. There is a rhythm to the beginning of the first line and also to the third stanza: “Beat! Beat!” starts, and then continues with “Blow, bugles, blow!” The long o in blow can be held out, almost like the sound of a drawn-out horn being blown. As in the structure of a song, Whitman uses repetition to support the rhythm he is establishing. “Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?” he asks. “Would the lawyer rise in court to attempt to face the judge?”


The timing is measured roundabout line per line, and that sustains the rhythm. Though some sense of  meter, and some slant rhyme may be detected, the lines of “Beat! Beat!” do not follow any of the Old World conventions of rhyme scheme or measured meter (see Shakespearean sonnets, Chaucer).


In the same respect, Emily Dickinson broke the rules of traditional poetic form with many of her poems. Dickinson often used very short lines which ended abruptly or abstractly. She was not married to the idea of rhyme scheme, although, she would once in a while employ rhyme, seemingly when it was convenient for her.


In this way,  the words and lines of her poem “Tell it slant…” seem to poke fun at poetic convention; subtle irony is built into (and in-between) the words.


“Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” Dickinson writes, “Success in Circuit lies/Too bright for our infirm Delight/The Truth’s superb surprise.”


I love the mention of “circuit” here. Within these short lines are implied all of the failures of human communication—the shortcomings of the Sender/Receiver exchange. Circuit lies… circuit lies… circuit lies… We are told to trust a perfect circle, but in the sender/receiver relationship, there is the implicit shortfall of the possibility of falsehood (which may—and DOES—often lead to the dissemination/propulsion/recirculation… of [a] falsehood[s]).


In principle, a poem is a condensed version of a story. A poem may be meant to capture the essence of an idea, an experience, a person, an emotion, etc. In this brevity, much may be left out or misinterpreted. Add to this the poetic challenge of forcing every line to rhyme and you could have a formula for disaster (re: bad poetry).


Dickinson may have been all-too familiar with this, and the joke becomes guessing at how your poem might turn out when you have to adhere to the rules; force your lines to rhyme. “The Truth’s superb surprise” to me means the shock that after you’ve written a piece and presented it to the reader, that the reader might have a different interpretation than your intended meaning (Hence, a different Truth).


Dickinson seems to say that in writing poetry, the poet is forced to make a compromise. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” she wrote. I think what she is saying is that within the confines of this short poem, and the brevity of its words, there isn’t room enough for the whole truth. So tell as much as you can make fit!


On the other hand, the Truth can be too much for the reader. The naked Truth may be blinding. “Too bright for our infirm Delight,” she says. Sometimes the bold, unbridled Truth hurts. So dampen the blow, she suggests you poets. “Tell all the truth [with a lowercase ‘t’] but tell it slant.” Soften the blow.


In comparison to a smooth-flowing, classical Shakespearean sonnet, such as “My mistresses’ eyes are nothing like the sun…” (Sonnet 130), “I heard a Fly – buzz..” is a lot choppier.


It is full of jagged hyphens, and nearly every line ends with a long dash. In reading it aloud, it seems as though there would be many starts and stops. It seems to be written from the perspective of a mind who keeps getting interrupted. “I heard a Fly buzz —when I died/The Stillness in the Room/Was like the stillness in the Air— /Between the heaves of a storm—” Dickinson writes.


The frequent interruptions of her words by long dashes are jarring. It almost seems like the speaker is someone who is trying to get the words out, yet convulsing. Some scholars have a practical explanation for this: that Emily Dickinson had epilepsy (“Biography Speculates Emily Dickinson Had Epilepsy”, 2010). The lines of this poem do seem like they might be delivered by someone suffering from a seizure; someone who can’t control his/her body and/or mind from jaggedly shifting on—and off—and on—and off again.


In poems like “Beat! Beat! Drums,” “Tell all the truth…” and “I heard a Fly buzz…” turn-of-the-century  American poets (19th to 20th centuries) not only departed from the restrictions of classic European poetic forms, but also display a change in poetic attitudes. Leaving the strictly Romantic behind, these poets embraced abstract ideas and emotion. This was met with skepticism from fans of poetry because it departed from illustrations of more concrete concepts in poetry.  


Both Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson took full ownership of their poems. They are unapologetic in their play with the lengths of their lines and their experiments with slant rhyme and variations on meter. Following in the tradition of the American pioneering spirit, these writers set the course for new explorations in poetry. The result would be wild variations and all kinds of experimentation through the postmodern writing and into the new poetry of today.


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