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A Certain Slant of Light


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Given the success of David's Seamus Heaney thread, I thought I'd take a risk on a different poet and see what happened.

 

Emily Dickinson was an American poet, writing in the second half of the 19th century. I think she was virtually unrecognised and unpublished in her life time, and virtually a recluse for the later part of her life.

 

There's a certain Slant of Light

 

There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons—

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes—

 

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us—

We can find no scar,

But internal difference,

Where the Meanings, are—

 

None may teach it—Any—

’Tis the Seal Despair—

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air—

 

When it comes, the Landscape listens—

Shadows—hold their breath—

When it goes, ’tis like the Distance

On the look of Death—

 

 

 

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

 

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—

 

 

I have a strong gut reaction to both these poems, rather than an analysed, thoughtful appreciation. The first takes me straight to my childhood in Lincolnshire, bizarrely enough, where you often got that architectural quality of light, as sun beams broke through the clouds, in the huge flat landscapes - and wherever you were, you could see the cathedral in the distance somewhere. It's only in copying them both here that I notice they both use the word slant in the first line. Is that significant at all???

 

So - do you love them or hate them? Does Emily do anything for you?

Which, if either, do you prefer?

 

Any other comments at all very welcome. I'd love to see these poems in a new light, by seeing other people's responses to them.

 

Thank you!!

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Hmm, first thought on the use of 'slant' is that in the second poem the word is used in a way I've never seen before, but oddly its the first poem which is much harder to 'get'. Do you think I'm right of thinking about thinking the second poem is about religious faith? The incomprehensive nature of God? That was my immediate reaction.

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I don't get any kind of immediate reaction to these poems, and the more I read the first one the more incomprehensible it gets.

 

Sometimes I don't 'get' a poem on the first reading, but reading it again and concentrating on the grammar, so I'm pausing in the places the poet paused, helps make sense of it. Not so with 'There's a certain Slant of Light', the more I try to pick sense out of the commas, dashes and apparantly random, capital letters, the more obscure it feels.

 

'Tell all the Truth, but tell it Slant', doesn't stand up to being picked over, either, but having gone back to it after reading Cathy's post I do get an overall 'religious' message from it. It seems to be saying that the Truth (or God) is too powerful, or dazzling for us to look at straight on, and we need to catch small glimpses from a bit of an angle.

 

To mix the metaphor, as one would 'look' at an eclipse of the sun with a pinhole camera!

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Excellent poems to choose, Claire! Dickinson is absolutely unique and I actually love the ambiguity built into these poems, the absence of need for any overt explication. For me, these are poems that encapsulate the power of experience, the profound effect that a moment can have, the devastating way that it can consume the individual and incorporate inexplicable understanding.

 

In the first this is linked to the physical phenomenon of a beam of light - the sort of which we've all seen powering through gaps of clouds, and which, on a smaller scale, is seen through church/cathedral windows, hence the link that comes to her mind with cathedral music (there is a real 'stream-of-consciousness' feel to her poems). In that sight Dickinson is moved to a sense of truths in life, which is very much like the English Romantics, who see Nature as the key to understanding all things.

 

What is wonderful, though, is that this understanding is painful, weighty. Consequently, I don't see this so much as a revelation of God or anything too doctrinally religious, but perhaps more a consciousness of mortality against the eternal beauty of Nature. Although I think you could argue it is a revelation of God and his distance from the mortal world that we inhabit.

 

I'm not sure I see an easy link between the two uses of 'slant'. In one it describes a physical phenomenon, which seems fairly absolute and instant in the truth it conveys, whereas in the other it is more abstract, describing the gradual process of revealing truth. More interesting, maybe, is that the 'truth' being conveyed in these poems is either different, or she sees it differently at separate times in her life. The truth in the first is one that none can teach, it is an experiential knowledge, whereas the second is an injunction on how truth should be told, unless you take it as a poem addressed to 'God', which is possible although a little presumptuous on her part!

 

She has a superb economy of expression, packing so much into small phrases, which of course adds to the potential ambiguity. Compressed ideas carry more power, but also leave more room for interpretation and application. "Our infirm Delight" holds a wealth of ideas, for instance. Her distinctive use of dashes (very much Dickinson's preferred punctuation) adds not only to the unconventionality of the poems, but I think helps convey the sliding thought process she undertakes in each poem, the fluid movement of her mind as it ranges over these ideas and the free association that takes place.

 

It's a good choice of poems, too, because of the contrasting moods. The second seems far more positive and upbeat, which is not to say that the first is downbeat, exactly - again, it's the ambiguity of mood that makes this poem so wonderful. It holds 'hurt' and 'despair', yet it is somehow reassuring and peaceful, echoing the emotional response we might feel on seeing such a shaft of light.

 

I keep meaning to go back and read some more Dickinson, who was mightily ahead of her time, writing in a way that would not be out of place in the early 20th century. You've inspired me to do so, Claire!

:)

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Sometimes I don't 'get' a poem on the first reading, but reading it again and concentrating on the grammar, so I'm pausing in the places the poet paused, helps make sense of it. Not so with 'There's a certain Slant of Light', the more I try to pick sense out of the commas, dashes and apparantly random, capital letters, the more obscure it feels.

 

Is it helpful to say that I'm not sure I 'get' what it's on about either :P I'd find it very hard to paraphrase what it's about in any comprehensible way, (though I thought David made a pretty good stab at it in his post) I think for me it describes a moment of experience - a sense of other-worldliness that's both beautiful, yet somehow disturbing and unsettling and very fleeting.

 

I absolutely agree that her grammer and structure is loose to the point of being incoherent! I rather like that, to be honest - I like the sense of immediacy it gives, almost that the poem is a spontaneous exclamation or outpouring of her reaction to what she saw, rather than a carefully worked, tightly controlled description. Whether that reflects her working practice, I have no idea, but I'd be interested to find out. I guess it's perfectly possible to write very carefully and precisely, to create a convincing effect of having written very spontaneously!

 

Do you think I'm right of thinking about thinking the second poem is about religious faith? The incomprehensive nature of God? That was my immediate reaction

 

Yeah, I would say something like that - though again, I agree with you on finding her somewhat hazy!

 

'Tell all the Truth, but tell it Slant', doesn't stand up to being picked over, either, but having gone back to it after reading Cathy's post I do get an overall 'religious' message from it. It seems to be saying that the Truth (or God) is too powerful, or dazzling for us to look at straight on, and we need to catch small glimpses from a bit of an angle.

 

To mix the metaphor, as one would 'look' at an eclipse of the sun with a pinhole camera!

 

I like that metaphor! I guess when I first read it, I was in the midst of a lot of conversations with people who were convinced that The Truth about Life, The Universe and Everything was very simple and straightforward - I find the sense in this poem that it's all so much bigger and harder and more mind blowing than we can possibly cope with, full on, to be very powerful (and a vast relief!)

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