How Emily Dickinson Writes A Poem: A Short Video Introduction

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Online Emi­ly Dick­in­son Archive Makes Thou­sands of the Poet’s Man­u­scripts Freely Avail­able

Watch an Ani­mat­ed Film of Emi­ly Dickinson’s Poem ‘I Start­ed Early–Took My Dog’

An 8‑Hour Marathon Read­ing of 500 Emi­ly Dick­in­son Poems

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Bill W. says:

    Inter­est­ing bit of triv­ia, most Emi­ly Dick­in­son poems can be sung to the tune of “The Yel­low Rose of Texas.” It was a top-hit of her day, and she loved the song. The tour-guide at her home said that she could often be heard hum­ming or whistling it repeat­ed­ly from her room…

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