What would happen in this one world of ours if we went around speaking our true feelings to each other – the unvarnished truth, plainly and directly? The President, for example, might say to another world leader, “I am going to appear to be listening intently to what you are asking me, but I am not – in a thousand years – going to give it to you or respect you!”
There are good and obvious reasons why we soften and adjust our speech to each other, reasons why we try to communicate a truth while not appearing to be doing so. We are good at it, and I would like to remind you of some ways we do it.
For three years in the early 1970s I was an Intelligence Evaluation Officer on the staff of Admiral John McCain, the Commander in Chief, Pacific. I would regularly brief him on the preceding day’s intelligence, fully aware that his son was a severely injured Prisoner of War in Hanoi. Before my first briefing of the Admiral, a senior staff officer took me aside and said, “Never tell him an untruth, never whitewash the truth and always be short and to the point.”
I followed that advice and stayed out of trouble, because I was already aware that truth was essential to military order and discipline. A commander absolutely had to know he was getting the best possible and truest answer when he had to make a decision affecting his command.
Yet, in civilian life we are allowed to take some liberties. When your wife asks a question like, “Does this dress/belt/color/blouse/hairdo make me look fat?” You had better have the reflex of a cobra and the sleight of hand of a magician, because you are going to have to deflect, dodge, misdirect ….and do so quickly!
And in all our interactions with others we consciously or unconsciously practice “the art of misdirection” or else we would be without friends or family. In our interactions, we do, and are expected to, keep a conversation going, but we often have to slant our responses in the name of all that is holy.
Some were better than others at this. Emily Dickinson, to whom I return frequently to make a point about poetry and the creative process, dealt with difficult subjects by substituting and by turning distasteful subjects into ones the reader can more easily handle. She says in one of her more famous poems:
“Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
and Immortality –“
To her, Death is a gentleman caller who kindly stops by in his carriage to pick her up and transport her to…(Read the poem to find out.) She is certainly being indirect. There are other ways to be indirect, to slant our language.
But, all of us use Miss Emily’s techniques, without calling ourselves poets. As an Officer in the US Army, I was required to be formally evaluated each year by my supervising officers. This happened also upon each re-assignment. The official document was the “Officer Efficiency Report” (OER). Most OERs were boring narratives about how well the officer had accomplished his duties. Rarely did a supervisor damage his junior so greatly that he/she could not continue in the service. I found that most evaluators were fair, perhaps more than fair, but some were determined to reveal a clear, no nonsense opinion. A few of their OER’s achieved legendary status among the Officer Corps:
“The only way I would follow this officer is to see where he is going.”
“This Officer is destined to go through life pushing on doors plainly marked “Pull.”
And my favorite: “I would follow this Officer anywhere, anytime!”
The evaluators may not have followed a prescribed script, but they gave enlightened answers!
I guess that’s just our nature – to be kind to the unaware and those not accepting of their limitations. For example, we all know there are untalented ones who can butcher any tune! To respond to their efforts, we have to weave a way through potential minefields!
Most of us show consideration for the feelings of others by softening our criticisms, and thus we have no problem with trying to impart truth by telling little or big lies!
These are a few of the techniques used, some labeled and some not. Emily Dickinson tells us to, “tell all the truth but tell it slant!” That is the art of indirection I mentioned earlier. On the other hand, while you are watching his flying fingers, the flimflam man at the circus is lifting your wallet – Misdirection!
Nearly every poet, sooner or later comes to use “slanted” language, and he does it to tell a greater, more universal, truth. When he says that somebody “eats like a horse,” we know he is not being literal. We may tell ONE such story and let it stand in for all such stories.
There are many ways that a poet uses these techniques, especially in the employment of figurative language – that is language that is not meant to be taken literally – and other tools of indirection in order to evoke feelings and suggest greater truths than can be shown in every day photos and conversation. Here is a story of an attempt – and an apparent failure in that attempt:
An elderly lady in Rural Georgia finagled my email address from the editor of a weekly newspaper to complain about a “dirty” poem she found in an early book of mine. (The newspaper had re-published an article about the book and my connection to the area when I was a youngster back in the 1930s.) I went through the book, cover to cover, and couldn’t figure out the offending poem or passage. I asked the Editor to find out for me, and meanwhile I sent him a refund check to give to the lady. This despite the fact hat I had not personally sold her the book, had no idea how it came into her possession, and was going to be out ten dollars!
After some back and forth, the editor learned that this particular poem was one titled, “Rat Snakes.”
The editor told me that nobody at his paper could figure out what had bothered this particular lady until she came to his office, thumbed through the book, and placed a forefinger on the word – “privates.” (I’m sure she shuddered when she pointed!)
The poem, a complete fabrication, relates how an uncle of mine always protected Rat Snakes because they hold down the rat population, that is, “until a big one bit his Bluetick Hound in the privates, and they both lost the urge to hunt.”
I thought I had done a pretty good job of substituting and “slanting” for the real word, but the complaining reader did not think so.
In another example, Robert Frost avoids the problem by narrowing choices. In his famous poem about a road not taken, the speaker comes to a fork in the road and has ONLY two choices. He or she chooses the “road less travelled,” and that decision has “made all the difference.”
In reality, this is hogwash! Everyone knows that when you’re out walking and come to a fork in the road, you have ENDLESS choices! You don’t have to choose one or the other – You can always turn around and go back. You can walk a short distance down one trail and turn around and take the other. You can just stand there at the fork in the road or anywhere along one of the roads and call for help, or die, or faint or have a fit, or have a stroke, etc
In poetry, as in most writing, you try to EVOKE the world AS IT CAN BE. Therefore, in Frost’s poem, the walker has only two choices – to take the path others have chosen or strike out on the road less travelled and take a few more chances.
Sometimes we try to say something that we anticipate may not be accepted kindly, and we fumble around and finally use a figure of speech that doesn’t do much to soften the message. And, 090the use of misdirection does not always work. A writing teacher at the US Army Intelligence School once told a young officer, “This essay is a tiny bit better than the worst paper I have ever read.” His indirection was not accepted lightly!
The secret then is to tell it, but TELL IT SLANT, because “it” is sometimes easier to accept if it comes upon us gradually, or from a different angle. Here is the Emily Dickinson poem that deals with the subject:
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 –
– Emily Dickinson
As I try to say and Ms Dickinson states so directly: Some truths are too hard to accept when delivered directly and should be delivered with care, “slanted” if you will, to make them more acceptable, otherwise they could “blind you.”
And isn’t that what we all try to do? The Army Officers in their OERs, Rick Cornish in his cartoons (which you and I realize are suggesting much more than the mere words can say) and, of course, all poets. Poets make their reputations by slanting their efforts and through the desperate use of all other available means.
Here is a poem that uses the narrative of a ranch and a cowboy’s story to represent an entire lifetime. In a manner used by artists throughout history, I use this straightforward story to suggest the greater one of a lifetime…. complete with birth, living the life, and then the preparation for the “final act” (See what I just did?)
This is not my ranch.
I sit borrowed saddles
and ride broken ponies.
Arriving from the east,
I showed up weak and dusty
to ask my place.
I was given a bunk,
three squares a day
beneath big skies.
I rounded up and
drove fat cattle,
in cowboy ceremonies.
I listened to the call
and sang to the night
as longhorns bawled.
When the West was won,
my part played out,
while the Lazy 8
still rests here
along the trail.
Today, I ‘rose up early –
stripped my bunk –
and after the chores,
my day’s work done,
I rode off to the west
in a borrowed saddle
on a branded horse
in worn work clothes.
– Charles Brady