Christopher Merrill: Tell It Slant—Notes from the Writing University
The renowned poet, journalist, and director of the International Writing Program on creating and preserving "spaces for truth telling."
By Christopher Merrill
I keep returning to a poem that Emily Dickinson wrote sometime between 1858 and 1865. This was a decisive period in American history, echoes of which regularly sound today, and this poem, conceived in a time of bitter division, when it was difficult to sort out the truth among conflicting accounts of events and derive meaning from the waves of grief and joy that washed over Americans during the Civil War, speaks to a fundamental issue of this democratic enterprise—how to create and preserve spaces for truth telling, since this is integral to our experiment in liberty:
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 —
Dickinson’s eyesight declined during the war, which adds a layer of personal meaning to the last line of th…
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