Poetic truth and indirectness
  • Paul Hetherington and Cassandra Atherton

1. Truth and slant

In poetry, there is probably no such thing as simple or unslanted truth. This is because, as John Gibson remarks, ‘[p]oetry does not earn its claim to truth by mirroring an external world or by stating discrete, correct, “facts” about it’ (2015: 14). Yet, notwithstanding poetry’s aversion to discrete ‘facts’, poets fairly often mention truth in their work and a well-known example is Emily Dickinson’s teasing and ambiguous statement, ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant —’ (1998: 1089). This is a good starting point for our discussion about the indirectness of poetic truth — and in the rest of her poem she has even more intriguing things to say on the subject:

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind — (1998: 1089)

A writer who has recently taken a great deal of interest in the connection between truth and poetry is the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). His best-known contributions on the subject are collected and translated in Poetry, Language, Thought (1971). In this volume, while discussing Van Gogh’s painting, A Pair of Shoes (which he understood in broad terms as ‘poetic’), he comments that the painting:

is the disclosure of what the equipment, the pair of shoes, is in truth. This entity emerges into the unconcealedness of its being. The Greeks called the unconcealedness of beings aletheia. We say ‘truth’ and think little enough in using this word. If there occurs in the work a disclosure of a particular being, disclosing what and how it is, then there is here an occurring, a happening of truth at work. (1975: 36; emphasis original)

Heidegger’s ideas about poetry and the poetic are too intricate to fully summarise, but they include the idea that ‘[t]he setting into work of truth thrusts up the unfamiliar and extraordinary and at the same time thrusts down the ordinary and what we believe to be such’ (1975: 75). In this way, truth may be understood as lying at the juncture between the extraordinary and the ordinary.

In considering Heidegger’s views about poetic uncovering, Ben Rogers remarks:

Common language does not require us to read signs very deeply, whether those signs be beings in the world or other humans. Heidegger sees us as losing ‘our tongue in foreign lands.’ We still communicate, certainly, but our tongue and heritage are not often enough the aletheia of the pre-Socratics, the tongue that spoke in the world instead of breezing over it. (2002: 5; emphasis original)

Taking these statements together, one may understand poetic truth as presenting — or ‘unconcealing’ — deep, ‘unfamiliar and extraordinary’ insights into the human situation; and, what is more, Rogers observes that ‘Heidegger himself thinks that we often take the easy road, “erring” by fleeing “from the mystery toward what is readily available ... passing the mystery by”’ (2002: 3). In this context, and through Heidegger’s lens, we may understand Dickinson’s slantwise address of truth as an acknowledgement that truth is something readers are not necessarily ready for — because they are not used to the confronting unconcealment of truthful language. Joanne Dobson uses similar terminology in discussing Dickinson’s poem, stating that ‘[r]ather than an aesthetic of concealment, this poem seems to posit an aesthetic based on gradual revelation of abstract truth’ (1989: 104). In other words — combining Heidegger’s and Dickinson’s terms — truth is too unfamiliar and extraordinary to be swiftly encountered, constituting a way of seeing that, if we are not careful, may blind us with the full import of its disclosure.

John Keats may also have had some such thought in mind when, after a long poetic meditation on death and eternity, he had the Grecian urn voice the challenging idea that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’ (2003: 283). Certainly, these lines appear to foreshadow Heidegger’s assertion that ‘the beautiful belongs to the advent of truth, truth’s taking of its place’ (1975: 81). Keats dwelt further on such issues in his famous ‘Negative Capability’ letter to his brothers when reflecting on the deficiencies of Benjamin West’s painting ‘Death on the Pale Horse’:

But there is nothing to be intense upon; no women one feels mad to kiss; no face swelling into reality. The excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth. (Rodriguez 1993: 57)

In this letter Keats praises Shakespeare’s King Lear, so it is clear that his idea of Beauty and Truth relates, at least in part, to the capacity of art to probe and reveal difficult truths and, in doing so, to bring forth a related beauty. Heidegger remarks on this relationship when he writes:

Truth is the truth of being. Beauty does not occur alongside and apart from this truth. When truth sets itself into the work, it appears. Appearance — as this being of truth in the work and as work — is beauty. Thus the beautiful belongs to the advent of truth ... (1975: 81)

There is mystery, and even ineffability, in such a relationship, and the twentieth-century American poet, Wallace Stevens explores these qualities when he writes, ‘The poet speaks the poem as it is, // Not as it was: part of the reverberation / Of a windy night as it is, when the marble statues / Are like newspapers blown by the wind’ (2011: 256). In Heidegger’s language, this poem is re-encountering the mystery rather than ‘“passing the mystery by”’ (Rogers 2002: 3), a mystery that is perhaps most strongly conveyed by the idea of statues being like blown newspapers. We see here a ‘thrust[ing] up [of] the unfamiliar and extraordinary and at the same time [a] thrust[ing] down [of] the ordinary’ (Heidegger 1975: 75). This, in turn, powerfully confirms that poetry’s truth (and beauty) resides within an expanded sense of being and apprehension, connected to a deeper and transformative sense of the here and now, speaking out of its moment. Further, as Daniel R Schwarz argues, ‘The emphasis is on the poem as the primal expression of creative energy as much as on the imagination as a source of insight’ (1993: 222).

What is certain, however, is that neither critics nor poets will necessarily agree about the full import of Keats’ and Stevens’ lines. This is because they are, to a degree, opaque. They trouble the mind with the truths that inhere in true poetic complexity. And, in using the phrase ‘poetic complexity’, we are not in any sense advocating for wilful obscurity in poetry. Rather, we are suggesting that poetry cannot ‘get’ at its particular species of truth without, at least, the complexity that comes with laterality — what Dickinson names as slantness. In this way, ‘telling it slant’ has significant implications. As Kenneth Stocks argues:

[T]ruth must be presented not nakedly, but mediated in and through the complex relationships of which it is the essence of organizing principle. Properly mediated in this way, truth becomes not only truth but wisdom. (1988: 99)

In this light, it may be argued that indirectness is the only possible manner of saying something poetically truthful, deep and compelling (and thus beautiful). In what follows, we will flesh out Roger Scruton’s notion that ‘The meaning bestowed by the words [of poetry] is also instilled by them. Poetry transfigures what it touches, so that it is revealed another way’ (2015: 154).

We will shortly turn our attention to exploring and reflecting on such matters in our own poetic practice. In two case studies, we will explicate prose poems from our recent sequences: Paul Hetherington’s book Palace of Memory (2019) and Cassandra Atherton’s sequence ‘Touch’, focusing on intertextuality, humour and subversion to demonstrate our way of approaching ‘slantedness’ in our own prose poems. However, first we will examine some of Dickinson’s poetic strategies to frame our discussion of poetic practice.


2. Dickinson’s slant

Dickinson’s poem ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes —’, concludes with the following stanza:

This is the Hour of Lead —
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —
First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go — (1998: 396)

We cannot truly know the ‘great pain’ expressed in this poem, or its shocked aftermath, because the truth of the experience is intensely private and beyond our capacity to communicate it — except through poetry. This is because of all literary forms, poetry — with its compression and focus on brevity — comes closest to asserting the ineffable. Mags Webster states:

Poets try to do something impossible: coax the ineffable to speak. The unsaid is implicit in poetry, and every poem is, to a greater or lesser degree, an attempt to write into the unsayable. (2017: n.p.)

We can name the experience by a phrase, as Dickinson does — ‘After great pain’ — but, in order to say something interesting and truthful about the nature of this experience, she has to delve sideways — ‘slantwise’ — into metaphors and mixed figurations. Her poem not only mentions snow and chill, but it invokes leaden hours; ceremonious, tomb-like nerves; mechanical feet; a profoundly slowed sense of time; and a quartz contentment. Furthermore, connections between words are constructed in a slantwise manner to create, as Jeanne Kammer argues, ‘pain which emerges from the awkward and syntactic silences of the poem, twisting and gnawing and pressing at the restraints of words and lines’ (1979: 156).

Every one of Dickinson’s similes, metaphors and the powerful use of ‘syntactic silences’ are ways of approaching her subject — the aftermath of pain — sideways, crab-like. Each approach, however wonderfully evocative of the experience she tries to communicate, is so insufficient, that she is compelled to add another figuration, and then another — metaphor upon metaphor, image upon image, slantness upon slantness and silence upon silence, to gesture towards the subject-matter. Dickinson states, rather exhaustedly, that this experience is a form of stupor and a letting go — and she manages such directness because of the slantness that has preceded these lines, and which buttresses them. Furthermore, she is still speaking through a figuration — we are asked to think of ‘[f]reezing persons’ rather than an individual who is suffering the aftermath of the kind of emotional pain she has so surely focalised in this poem. This is the paradox — her focus is powerful, clear and unrelenting because she keeps glancing away from it.

Poetry, of course, is a mode of language use that is primarily invested in registering what it is like to be alive, aware, feeling and thinking. Language registers such aliveness and awareness both superbly well and terribly badly. So much of what we know bodily and care about, has no real equivalent in language. Yet we give language priority in our efforts to communicate such experiences, partly because, as Heidegger says, ‘language alone brings what is, as something that is, into the Open for the first time’ (1975: 73). In these ‘first’ times we often reach for poetry and, as Michael Austin argues:

Poems encourage us to notice things that we have missed and to see common things in new ways. They teach us how to name what we have always felt but could never describe, and they show us how to ask questions that we didn’t even know were questions. To be successful, a poet must convey impressions and images with the force of revelation. But this is not quite the same thing as conveying facts or transmitting instructions. (2013: 127)

In writing poetry, poets are trying to goad language into speaking about the obscure, complex and shifting things we know in the body, emotionally, and through trauma and deep thinking. In contemplating these ideas in relationship to our creative practice, we are edged into new territories of ‘knowingness’, searching to unconceal what we knew.


3. Telling it slant: Paul Hetherington’s elegy

For some time, Hetherington tried to find a way into writing an elegy for his father, who died in 2015. It was only when he realised he may not be able to address the subject directly that he found a way to begin to write the prose poetry sequence, Palace of memory: an elegy — four years after his father’s death. This is to say that it was only when he realised he could not write the elegy he thought he would write, that he began to understand how to write it.

Hetherington began to approach the task slantwise rather than directly; and he stopped trying to decide what his elegy would be. In many ways, it was akin to a process identified by DN Rodowick:

One must live an external discontinuity before past internal continuities become visible, and this is no easy task. The possibility of tracing out the architecture of a thought occurs only by standing on the far side of a fracture or division in which we believe, rightly or wrongly, that our own thought has become different. (2014: 201)

Hetherington realised that he had already been writing parts of the elegy in poems he had written about other subjects after 2015. His father was laterally present in a good number of poems — even in poems that were apparently nothing to do with his father. This exemplifies what Roger Scruton argues is part of a process whereby,

[t]ruth ... wins through to the reality of things. This reality consists in what things show, and what they withhold, when brought into the open. And poetry has a special part to play in this process: it is a ‘bringing forth’ which is also a ‘bestowing’. (2015: 149; emphasis original)

Hetherington also used another form of slantness or indirection in approaching his topic. He decided to employ Hamlet (First Folio version, 1623) as an intertext after Atherton suggested he might do so. This connects to Paul Williams’ arguments about borrowing:

Writers will continue to take on both the conscious and unconscious task of creating intertextual palimpsests, scraping off and writing on top of the old, innovating, modifying past texts, and allowing readers to play the game of scraping off their words and finding others underneath. Writers are not originators of meaning, but are part of a community in dialogue with the past and the future. (2015: 178)

Once Hetherington began thinking about fathers, Hamlet and intertexts, along with the way intertexts could speak about present issues from their already-written perspectives, it soon occurred to him that Laurence Sterne’s The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman (1759-67) was another possible intertext for his work. Not only does Sterne refer to Hamlet, but he is greatly concerned with the relationship between fathers and children.

After that revelation, Hetherington wrote and assembled a manuscript fairly quickly, producing a work that is fractured and opaque, and which elegises his father through (mostly) speaking sideways. Here is a brief example, from part 40 of his prose poetry sequence:

Although we loved abstruse thought, academic even to the laces of our shoes, our family was a machine consisting of a few wheels. Yet they were set in motion by many different springs acting upon each other with a variety of impulses and passions. Our machine had all the advantages of complexity, with many odd movements.


In the family, a remark was soon an extrapolating conversation or took the shape of a debate. And each occasion had its machine simplicities; though every instance brought subtle or brutal differences.


Further, whatever motion, harangue, dialogue or project was going forwards, there was often another proceeding at the same time … How finely we argued upon mistaken facts! (2019: n.p.)

This prose poem makes use of paraphrases from Tristram Shandy in a way not entirely dissimilar to Laurence Sterne’s own paraphrasing of the works of Rabelais, Francis Bacon and Robert Burton in his novel. In Tristram Shandy, the following passage appears:

Though in one sense, our family was certainly a simple machine, as it consisted of a few wheels; yet there was thus much to be said for it, that these wheels were set in motion by so many different springs, and acted one upon the other from such a variety of strange principles and impulses — that though it was a simple machine, it had all the honour and advantages of a complex one, — and a number of as odd movements within it, as ever were beheld in the inside of a Dutch silk-mill.

Amongst these there was one, I am going to speak of, in which, perhaps, it was not altogether so singular, as in many others; and it was this, that whatever motion, debate, harangue, dialogue, project, or dissertation, was going forwards in the parlour, there was generally another at the same time, and upon the same subject, running parallel along with it in the kitchen. (1996: 252)

Palace of memory employs this technique of creative paraphrase and variation sparingly — but it is a glancing way to get at truths about family, many of which seemed to Hetherington to be almost unfathomable until he was able to achieve a certain distance from his poetic material and consider how like and unlike Tristram Shandy’s or Hamlet’s father his own father might have been.

Indeed, in Hetherington’s case, most of his difficulties in writing about these matters — and in seeing them clearly in the first place — had to do with the problem of being too close to them. He knew his father and had difficulty stepping back from him, which troubled and haunted the process of trying to make poetry out of this knowledge. Initially, what he wished to unconceal simply eluded him. Paraphrasing or quoting a few passages from Tristram Shandy and Hamlet — not to mention Emily Dickinson[1] and several other writers — and using tropes from these works, allowed him to find the distance and perspective he needed.

As Harold Bloom argues in The anxiety of influence (1973), writing of all kinds depends on what has gone before it and also, to some extent, on the redeployment of ideas and techniques learnt from one’s predecessors. It depends, too, on an imaginative engagement with what Stevens calls ‘the reverberation / Of a windy night as it is’ (2011: 256). Palace of memory takes up the challenge of expressing intertextual elegy in an effort to express grief and the complexities of patrimony.


4. Another slant: reflecting on subversion

Atherton wanted to create an extended prose poetry sequence that self-reflexively wrote back to some of the themes her prose poetry has been identified as exploring. Siobhan Hodge has described her work as encompassing ‘the challenges to women’s agency via the bodies of women that are both key features of, and subjected to, other canonical works’ (2018: 43). Atherton had already experimented with intertextuality as a ‘slanted’ critique of women’s lack of sexual independence in her book Exhumed (2016). Therefore, she decided to use subversion and humour in her prose poetry sequence, ‘Touch’, to approach the truth of women’s experience in various slanted ways. She took inspiration from the way Dickinson uses humour — what has been identified as her ‘comic power’ (Juhasz, Miller and Smith 1993). Suzanne Juhasz argues:

With tease rather than with direct attack, Dickinson questions and negotiates power relationships as they are traditionally structured in terms of hierarchies and dominance. (1993: 27)

Atherton decided to use similar techniques to explore a pro-sex feminist stance, bearing in mind a transformative interview she conducted with public intellectual Camille Paglia (Atherton 2013), whose discussions about sexual freedom for women made an impact not only on Atherton’s scholarship but also on her creative practice. Paglia’s provocative arguments about women’s equality are often about women’s responsibility to themselves. She recently stated:

[Women] have to govern their own relationships with men or with anyone else. And that is the only way women will ever become totally free and totally equal. (2017: n.p.)

Atherton’s prose poetry sequence gives priority to women’s actions and choices. The opening prose poem, ‘Dentist’ sets up the initial conceit of a woman’s male lover being named after his occupation and the narrator’s movement from one sexual partner to the next. It begins:

It started when I caught you fingering my x-rays, tracing the outline of each tooth with a wet index finger. You asked me to show you my brush stroke, placed your hand over mine as I moved the bristles across my front teeth. Up and down. (2019: 5)

And ends:

You left when I chipped my front tooth playing netball. I switched my dental floss for two bags of fairy floss and went to bed without brushing. (5)

In this way, the sequence of prose poems charts a series of sexual relationships from a female point of view, and through a woman’s voice, introducing aspects of dark comedy as it does so. This humour is pushed to its limit towards the middle of the sequence in works such as ‘Professional Netflix Watcher’ and ‘Freelance Fortune Cookie Writer’, which have satirical titles and end with spots of black humour. These techniques approach women’s sexual oppression slantwise:

On Netflix the credits only go for fifteen seconds but you still finished before they ended. (2019: 14)

I went back to Panda Express and ordered vegetable spring rolls. My fortune cookie said: You will be hungry again in one hour. (2019: 15)

Perhaps most importantly, the sequence ends by personifying the rhyme ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief’ in order to expose double standards and slut-shaming through the slanted techniques of subversion and black comedy:

When you told me you were a cat burglar, I warned you I was an animal activist. You said you didn’t steal cats. But I wanted to know where you stashed your felines and what your intentions were. ‘Pure breeds or tabbies?’ ‘I’m the Cat,’ you said, ‘like Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief.’

The ‘Touch’ sequence takes the ‘unorthodox, subversive, sometimes volcanic propensities’ (Schuessler 2019: n.p.) in Dickinson’s poetry to comment on the truth of women’s sexual experiences in contemporary society.


5. Conclusion

Michael Austin argues:

poems are true. But they are almost never true in the same ways that history and science are true. They do not present us with the same kinds of fact claims, nor are they subject to the same kinds of hypothesis-testing and falsification protocols. (2013: 126)

Poets marry perceptions arrived at in the here-and-now with reflection, and with what they have read, in order to produce new works and new revelations of truth. As they do, a conscious intertextuality offers one ‘slant’ way of approaching subjects that may otherwise seem intractable. ‘All’ the truth is probably rarely available to us, despite Dickinson’s statement in her poem, but if we are serious about telling as much of the poetic truth as we can, other writers can help us out through what they have already said, even when they speak about apparently personal and private subjects.

We often circle the most difficult ideas, approaching them sideways and tentatively, or being subversive and comic, because if we do not — if we are too direct and reckless — they have the capacity to blast and blind us; their unconcealments may be too sudden and unfamiliar. Many philosophers have debated the nature of truth, but poets project truth claims that, as Heidegger knew, inhere in the fabric of a poem’s utterance and cannot be disentangled from it. In one passage, he states: ‘[p]rojective saying is poetry ... Projective saying is saying which, in preparing the sayable, simultaneously brings the unsayable as such into a world’ (1975: 74). What we say when we approach the unsayable poetically is something indirect; an intimation; a way of locating what is hidden — slantwise, prising it open.



[1] We have discussed intertextuality and our use of Dickinson’s tropes and poetry in ‘An intertextual poiesis: the luminous image and a “round loaf of Indian and Rye”’, New Writing: International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, 2019 Vol. 12, No. 2, 169–180, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14790726.2015.1036887



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