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"Awen yn codi o'r cudd ac yn cydio'r cwbl"
- Waldo Williams
(Awen arising from hiding and everything binding)

Saying it Slant

“Say it slant” was Emily Dickinson’s advice to herself when writing poetry. She wrote her verse in a way that the editors of her day regarded as eccentric, if not illiterate. The earliest appearances of her work were in heavily edited form, replacing her frequent use of dashes with standard commas, semi-colons and stops. By doing so they edited the vitality out of her deceptively simple verses. Inspired, rhythmically, by the drag and pull of sung hymns, she also sought to discover, in the angle of view upon her subject matter, that which is not revealed by straight talking and asked questions like:

… who laid the rainbow’s piers

… who leads the docile spheres
by withes of supple blue?


Who counts the wampum of the night
to see that none is due?
In pursuing such questions she ventured phrases dynamically linked to other phrases avoiding standard punctuation which contained rather than released the meanings she sought. Her first editor was, it seems, bewildered by her unwillingness to contain her verse in this way, describing her as “a cracked poetess”. Later editors did what they thought they had to do to publish her, though more recently we have been given the poems as she wrote them.

She was not the first poet to suffer in this way. I think of Thomas Wyatt’s “They fle from me that sometime did me seek / With naked fote, stalking in my chamber” where “in” in that second line was rendered by an early editor as “within”. Just think of the loss of rhythmic power that causes. If Wyatt suffered from the intrigue in Henry VIII’s court, how much did he also suffer from an editor draining his poem of the menace it contained with this and other amendments?

Angles, slants, fractured rhythms, poems as confrontations with otherness, rushing over dangerous rapids or poems that run serenely along an even stream, mellifluously entertaining us with pleasing images and worthy insights? The opposition is, I know, unnecessarily crude and there is certainly a place for poems in the latter category in both lyrics and long narrative verse. But my emphasis is on this from Emily Dickinson:

There’s a certain Slant of light
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, tis like the Distance
On the look of Death -

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