It became fashionable during the European Renaissance for poets to write what is called an ars poetica, a “meditation on poetry using the form and techniques of a poem.” The form follows Horace’s 19th century, B.C.E. Ars Poetica, in which the Roman writer recommends that poetry should both “instruct and delight.”
Theories of poetry varied from one generation to the next, but the ars poetica persisted throughout modern literary history and into the modernism of Archibald Macleish, Ezra Pound, and Marianne Moore, all of whom issued magisterial dicta about poetry that has stuck to it ever since.
“A poem should be motionless in time / As the moon climbs,” writes Macleish in his “Ars Poetica,” famously concluding, “A poem should not mean / But be.” In Moore’s “Poetry,” which she revised throughout her life, finally whittling it down to just three lines, she writes of “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”
Such cryptic images and elliptical aphorisms enact ambiguity as they prescribe it, but they make perfectly clear they are making critical judgments about the art of poetry. Then we have Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (1263), a poem that serves as her ars poetica, argues Evan Puschak, the Nerdwriter, in his video essay above, but purports on its surface to be about truth, capital "T."
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 —
Rarely is Dickinson so “direct,” says Puschak. “Known for ambiguity, odd manipulations in meter and rhyme” and “images that seem mysterious and sometimes out of place,” she wrote “poetry brimming with slant truth, poetry that’s seemingly laid out here, in perfect meter and matching rhymes.” The poem’s message is restated four times, from the thesis in the first line to the simile of the final four. “The meaning could not be more clear,” says Puschak.
But no, of course it's not. A poem is not a manual or manifesto. Like those poems more explicitly about poetry, this one enacts the ambiguity it prescribes. Are we, for example, to “tell all the truth” as in “the whole truth?” or as in “tell everyone the truth”? Does “success” lie "in circuit" like a patient lies on a table? Or does it tell lies, like, well… like poetry? Does the word “circuit” refer to an uncertain, circuitous path? Or, as one critic has suggested, to “circumference” (a term Dickinson used to refer to one’s lifespan or proper sphere)?
The next couplet, whose reference to “infirm Delight” may or may not take Horace to task, pushes us further out to sea when we begin to read it carefully. What is this truth that can be told, slanted, but also comes as a “surprise,” like lightning—terrible, sudden, and blinding? Is this a poem about “Truth” or about poetry?
In the final, heavily truncated, version of “Poetry,” Marianne Moore concedes, grumpily, that “one discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine.” As Dickinson’s poem demonstrates, trying to find a “place” in poetry for any stable meaning may be impossible. Still she insists that truth should “dazzle gradually,” an oxymoronic phrase, says Puschak, but it's as evocative, if more abstract, as real toads in made-up gardens—both are paradoxical means of describing what poetry does.
Dickinson realized that her poem “had to be the philosophy... that feeling of the text being destabilized from within, oscillating from meaning to the negation of that meaning.” Truth is inexpressible, perhaps inaccessible, and maybe even fatal. Yet it may strike us, nonetheless, in the dazzling ambiguities of poetry.