• Ian House

In ‘Satyre III’ (1933:136) Donne declares:

                                                On a huge hill,
            Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and hee that will
            Reach her, about must, and about must goe;
            And what the hills suddennes resists, winne so.

Although Donne is writing about theological disputation, it is tempting to apply his thought to poetry. This paper explores the idea that the kind of truth or knowledge we might be said to gain from poetry is bound up with how that truth is won.

I should say at the outset that there are many great poems that are not oblique. Though Keats tells us that we hate poetry that has ‘a palpable design’ upon us (1958), there are many powerful political and social satires and poems of protest, crusade or celebration. Furthermore, many great poems plunge us immediately in medias res: Donne’s ‘Busie old foole, unruly Sunne, ...’ (1933: 10), Vaughan’s ‘I saw Eternity the other night ...’ (1963: 299), Hopkins’s ‘Thou mastering me / God ...’ (1963: 12). Even in our modern world, allegedly more complex and fractured and disturbed than all previous ages, and therefore needing an oblique and subtle approach, for every Dickinson there is a Whitman, for every Stevens a Lowell, for every Muldoon a Heaney.

For all Herbert’s rhetorical question, ‘Is all good structure in a winding stair?’ (1970: 56), even the knottiest poems of the Metaphysicals or the most elevated allegories strike me as being dense or layered rather than oblique, their difficulty following from their compactness or their remoteness from our own world view rather than from their coming at things slant. Donne’s ‘A Valediction : forbidding mourning’ (1933: 44) is dense with traditional beliefs about souls, the connections between the macrocosm and the microcosm, the spheres, the difference between sublunary life and the world beyond the moon. But the relevance to the two separated lovers of each point or image (such as the ‘gold to ayery thinnesse beate’ and the two legs of the compasses, one running obliquely and the other fixed in the centre) is clear and straightforward.

Still, there is no denying that a lot of great poems are oblique and ‘by indirections find directions out’. Touchstone (an appropriate name in this context, perhaps) shows, clearly and riddlingly, how what is said depends on how it is said: ‘The truest poetrie is the most faining.’ (Shakespeare, 1995: 198). The truest is both what is quintessentially poetry and what corresponds to the way things are; ‘faining’ is both ‘passionate’ and ‘fictitious’ (feigning). So the remark has four separable meanings of which the upshot is that the truth is brought to us in language that stirs the feelings and is at a remove from the straightforward. We come to accommodate the truths of poetry by accommodating to them rather than by passively receiving them. We grow as they grow in us. At the least, even if our behaviour isn’t changed, even if in the real world we remain cruel and selfish, our awarenesses and feelings become more subtle and supple and potentially responsive.

These truths are not philosophical or scientific statements. ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ Keats’s urn assures us (1949: 365). But to experience the poem we don’t need to spend any time considering whether this is true. It isn’t. ‘Beautiful’ and ‘true’ are not synonyms and they are not even co-extensive in their application. Yet the emphatic epigram is splendidly effective in its context and is consonant with the beauty and rightness of the urn that declares it. Both the urn, as envisioned by Keats, and the epigram have a resounding clarity, a sense that this is, in the moment of reading, all that we know on earth and all we need to know.

Poems don’t so much convince us of truths or even give us the knowledge that would enable us to debate an issue as induce us to grasp, and even to share, opposing outlooks. Reading Lawrence’s ‘Mountain Lion’ (1975: 185), we don’t seriously debate whether a mass cull of human beings might be a good idea but we are led to know, to enter deeply into, the feeling that ‘we might spare a million or two of humans / And never miss them.’ Similarly, in Heaney’s ‘Early Purges’ (1966: 23), we are moved to pity for ‘the scraggy wee shits’ and for the boy of six who watches the drowning of the kittens, while recognising the justice of the last line that ‘on well-run farms pests have to be kept down’, and yet regretting that the boy, losing ‘false sentiments’, as he must, has now acquired a skin thick enough to grunt ‘Bloody pups’ as they are prodded to drown. We have acquired not the rational understanding that a philosophical essay might have given us but a deeper knowledge of what it is like to live in the world, faced with impossible choices. 

While I don’t deny the pleasure in a poem that tells us what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed, I’m here less concerned with a poem like Frost’s searing ‘Out, Out —’ (1955: 86), which expresses unforgettably the relative unimportance of most other people’s lives to our own (‘And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs’) than with those poems that are either ambivalent or in some other way less clear-cut, that seem to discover themselves in their progress, like Frost’s ‘Mowing’: ‘The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.’ (1955: 24)  I already knew how much and how little I matter to people but if I did know the truth about labour I didn’t know that I knew it, didn’t know it as fully, until the poem allowed me to come across it. It feels as though not even Frost knew it until the words came to the poem.


‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant.’ (Dickinson 1970: 506)  It’s a strange recommendation because it is or at least appears to be completely direct. And every word seems gratuitously provocative. ‘Tell’: surely readers have rarely expected poems to tell them stuff, at least in the way that articles on anthropology or zoology or even theology or moral philosophy do. ‘All’ seems an imposingly and impossibly tall order. ‘The’: is there only one truth? And if you’re telling, how can it be slant? What Dickinson gives us here, I think, is less a prescription or program for all poetry than a device in this poem, a feint, to prepare us for an éclaircissement, ‘The Truth’s superb surprise’, to burst upon us ... even though, in this short poem, there’s hardly room for the ‘Circuit’ that the poem claims to be necessary for success before we’re given the surprise that the Truth must ‘dazzle gradually’ (and are presumably, because of its suddenness, blinded).

Wallace Stevens’s ‘Man Carrying Thing’ (1997: 306), also announcing at the outset that a poem should not be plain sailing, has a similar structure and, given its message, a similarly surprising clarity in its opening statement and perhaps in its conclusion:

The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:

A brune figure in winter evening resists identity.
The thing he carries resists

The most necessitous sense.

And after a somewhat foggier circuit of some seven or eight lines, we are told:

We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.

We can of course identify this brune figure, brown, seen at dusk, the man carrying thing, as a metaphor, a carrier, a transporter, for metaphor. A metaphor identifies a thing as something it is not. And in this winter dusk he is offered as an illustration, etymologically a lighting. The poem puzzles us agreeably, I think, leaves us wondering perhaps, in whatever sense of wondering, by joining a rhetoric of directness with an obliquity of method.

Our experience, my experience anyway, of embarking on writing a poem is of having no complete idea of what one’s trying to say. Indeed one’s trying not to say anything. I’m scratching an itch, walking to find where my feet (ambiguity intended) take me, not shining a bright light on what’s there already. Without claiming to be, when I write, a shaman or an oracle or a prophet or to be swimming in the deepest, darkest rivers of the mind, I do at least find that part of the clamouring, conscious mind is quiescent, that I am usefully half-asleep, that the doors of perception have opened a fraction wider, that I’m taking a fresh squint. That’s why some of one’s best lines or ideas occur when the mind seems to be otherwise occupied: in washing up or mowing the lawn. It is the desire to keep things open to possibilities, not to tie the poem and the reader down, not to come to a hard-edged or premature conclusion.

At one extreme there’s no point other than the scene which the poem presents to us: Eliot’s ‘the smell of steak in passageways’ (1963: 23) and lighting of the lamps, or the picture that Stevens creates, by refusing it, of the nightgowns: ‘None are green, / Or purple with green rings / Or green with yellow rings.’ (1997: 52)

The most obvious way of coming at something slant is by coming at it from a fresh direction, offering a new point of view. No doubt in ‘A Short History of Migration’ Jane Yeh (2019: 3) wants us to think about or to get inside the experience of migrants. She doesn’t say so but simply offers a series of bold, even eccentric, instances that the reader almost certainly will not have thought of. For example, in the third verse:

We joined a fruit-of the-month club to widen our horizons.
The mastery of our foliage required an endless sea of mowing.
We attended bake sales with a suspicious degree of fervour.
We hindered our children with violins, bad haircuts and diplomas.

The poem reflects the many-sidedness, complexity, uncertainty, simultaneity and ironic awareness of human experience. A prose statement would be likely to need more connective tissue, to spell things out at greater length, to leave more room to effect transitions of tone, to supply some generalisations, abstractions and explanations (‘We tried to adapt to our new circumstances by engaging in the typical pursuits of native families in the neighbourhood such as incessantly mowing our extensive and unruly lawns ...)   

Sometimes a poem brings home to us an old subject by a startling new approach. There’s the almost blasphemous-seeming denial of the all too familiar knowledge, of ‘the weariness, the fever and the fret’ of human lives, the ‘vile incurable sores’ of suffering, in Jack Gilbert’s ‘Games’ (2018: 120): 

            Imagine if suffering were real.
            Imagine if those old people were afraid of death.
            What if the midget or the girl with one arm
            really felt pain? Imagine how impossible it would be
            to live if some people were
            alone and afraid all their lives.

‘Games’! A whole paper could be written on the spin that can be given to a poem by the unexpected, puzzling, bizarre title, brought to a fine art by Stevens, Muldoon and Jorie Graham. 

A poem is the experience of reading it, the ‘Circuit’, not merely what may be offered as the pay-off. What seems ‘The Truth’ bursts upon us with superb surprise only because we’ve been kept waiting and thereby made ready. Why do we walk to the pub along five miles of country paths, up and down, when we could drive there in five minutes? The poem is less a vehicle for truth than an opportunity for experience.

One thinks of Dickinson’s ‘I dwell in Possibility’ (1970: 327), which suggests all the gratifications made possible by delay. In most of the world’s literature we could have reached the consummation, devoutly to be wished, of sex or death much quicker but that would have been to miss the life of the design, to miss everything.

Keeping things open and delaying, delaying ... almost inevitably generates complexity, layering, a dense use of language, loading every rift with ore, perhaps allusion to other landmarks of the culture (whether that’s ‘high art’ or pop songs or quantum theory), to myth and to history. When so many cats are put into the bag, yet more cats are seen in the bag: a never-ending vista of concatenations of reference, of meanings generated by stark juxtapositions and by language that is, so to speak, fuzzily suggestive or that qualifies and undermines its own explicit meanings. The fullness and depth of a poem does not rule out a gappiness. A poem offers us not a bridge but a series of stepping stones and, maybe, more than one possible destination or just a new horizon. Such writing can remove itself from those norms of prose discourse that foreground clarity and obvious relevance. The reader becomes not a passive receiver but a collaborator in the making of the poem. She fills in the gaps, understands what’s not spelt out, thinks out the relevance of this to that. No doubt this is true of all reading. But it, and the need for it, is experienced more strongly in reading poetry, especially poetry that comes at things slant, than in, say, reading a newspaper. What the reader gets from such poems is not so much ‘The Truth’ as a momentary glimpse, Stevens’s ‘fitful tracing of a portal’ (1997: 72). The words that seem most natural are not ‘tell’ but ‘reveal’, ‘disclose’, ‘invent’ (which means ‘make up’ and etymologically ‘find’).

This is the secular equivalent of the Lectio Divina, the careful reading of passages from the Bible or the Fathers, likened by the Benedictines to the ruminations of a cow. The rich reception of poems and the rich construction of poems are locked together: each not only allows but also compels the other.

At its worst this leads to coteries writing for self-appointed and self-congratulatory cognoscenti, priestly guardians of the Word. Many reviews of contemporary poetry concentrate almost exclusively on explication of a collection’s themes as though the complexity and originality (not to mention the moral or political worthiness) of the themes were guarantors of a poem’s excellence. They are not. If the intellect is sent into overdrive, as with some poems of John Ashbery, for example, which generate puzzling new directions from moment to moment and line to line, I’m simply not open to anything else they might offer.

We don’t need a poet to tell us that war is horrible but Muldoon’s ‘Medley for Morin Khur’ (2006: 89), both oblique and direct, confronts us with the horror, after its misdirecting opening verse, with abrupt vividness. It’s like going on a pleasant walk, rounding a corner and finding a corpse. In the first verse we learn, in the manner of an encyclopedia, how the instrument is composed of a horse’s head, its skin, its hair. But as we read on, the music of ‘the thoroughbred of Mongolian violins’ becomes the call of stallion to mare, jinn to jinn, ‘blood kin to kin’, and this vibrant sound leads us to the central square of a city strewn with corpses and the body parts of horses:

A square in which they’ll heap the horses’ heads
by the heaps of horse skin
and the heaps of horsehair.

The poem has taken us on a journey from the harmony of music to the discords of war, a journey made inevitable by the echoing sounds of the verse, a journey through the real world of the city and the spirit world of the jinns. At the horrifying end we realise that we were in the beginning, looking at a horse’s head, already in mediis rebus. The inescapability, the ungainsayability, of war isn’t pounded into us. The poem’s design upon us isn’t palpable from the beginning. ‘The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.’ We discover that for ourselves in the poem’s knight’s-move journey to the place it started from, the place we know afresh, more fully.



Works cited: 


Dickinson, E 1970 ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant’ (1129) (c.1868) and ‘I dwell in Possibility’ (657) (c. 1862) in TH Johnson (ed.) Emily Dickinson: The Complete Poems, London: Faber & Faber

Donne, J 1933 [1633] ‘Satyre III’, ‘The Sunne Rising’ and ‘A Valediction; forbidding mourning’ in H Grierson (ed.) Donne: Poetical Works, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Eliot, TS 1917 1963 ‘Preludes (I)’ in Collected Poems 1909-1962, London: Faber & Faber

Frost, R 1955 ‘Out, Out —’ (Mountain Interval) and ‘Mowing’ (A Boy’s Will) in Robert Frost: Selected Poems, London: Penguin

Gilbert, J 2018 ‘Games’ in N Laird and D Paterson (eds) The Zoo of the New, London: Penguin

Heaney, S 1966 ‘The Early Purges’ in Death of a Naturalist, London: Faber & Faber

Herbert, G 1970 [1633] ‘Jordan (I)’ in FE Hutchinson (ed.) The Works of George Herbert, Oxford: Clarendon Press

Hopkins, GM 1963 [written 1876, publ.1918] ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ in Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, London: Penguin

Keats, J 1958 [1818] Letter to JH Reynolds (3 February 1818) in HE Rollins (ed.), The Letters of John Keats, 1814-21, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Keats, J 1949 [1819] ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ in JM Murry (ed.) The Poems and Verses of John Keats, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode

Lawrence, DH 1920-23 ‘Mountain Lion’ (Birds, Beasts and Flowers) in K Sagar (ed.) D.H. Lawrence: Selected Poems, London: Penguin

Muldoon, P 2006 ‘Medley for Morin Khur’ in Horse Latitudes, London: Faber & Faber

Shakespeare, W 1995 [1623] As You Like It (III.3) in Doug Moston (ed.) First Folio of Shakespeare, New York and London: Applause

Stevens, W 1997 ‘Man Carrying Thing’ (1947), ‘Disillusionment of Ten o’Clock’ (1923), ‘Peter Quince at the Clavier’ (1923) in F Kermode and J Richardson (eds) Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose, Library of America

Vaughan, H 1963 [1650] ‘The World’ in LC Martin (ed.) Henry Vaughan: Poetry and Selected Prose, Oxford: OUP

Yeh, J 2019 ‘A Short History of Migration’ in Discipline, Manchester: Carcanet