Wednesday, September 21, 2016


           After posting blog entries for several years, I’m ready, in my hundredth post, to reveal another secret about how to live your life. The secret, in a word, is “slant.”

            (You’re welcome.)

            Let’s come at this from a few different angles. First, from Emily Dickenson:

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 —

I make it a point never to dazzle suddenly. As a courtesy to my surroundings, I don’t dazzle at all. Better to work obliquely, through irony, metaphor, humor, and insincere self-deprecation. A slant is often the best way to get where you want to go. Ask any sailor.

            “Tell all the truth” gives me a bit of trouble, for there is no “all the truth” – if there were, science would eventually stop. I prefer Jack Nicolson’s phrase in Something’s Gotta Give, “a version of the truth,” for which he has been unjustly berated. (Followers of Heisenberg uncertainly know what I’m talking about. Probably.) I acknowledge that the word “slant” has connotations of distortion or bias, but the act of putting anything real into language involves simplification and thus distortion, even if that language is mathematics, so why not own up to it? Telling a slanted version of the truth is all we can do.

            For another slant on Slant, here’s a poem I wrote about 30 years ago:


The doctor studies the slope
of my electrocardiogram
and announces that my heart
twists unusually in my chest.
He can't tell if this odd
axis is a recent shift,
or whether a twisted heart--
its electricity turned to strange
vectors, impulses staggering
out through my skin askew
--has always been with me.
After being told I'll die
from something else, not that,
I accept this heart:
Williams in Paterson said
to let our words visit love
by falling to it aslant.
I'm happy to know I'm equipped
for romance. Another doc said
when repairing vasectomies he
splices the tubes with oblique
surfaces joined to increase
the size of the passage for sperm.

            It may be the twist in my heart (the medical term is “right bundle branch block with left axis deviation”) that helps me come at the world “aslant.” But I’m not sure how valuable the poet’s advice is in dealing with love. I recall the true story of a guy whose marriage counselor suggested that he tell his wife how much he loves her, so he washed her car – perhaps too oblique a form of communication. And 30 years after writing the poem, I’m not sure that the quick jump from “love” to “sperm” is romantically satisfying. The poem needs a better ending, and I welcome all attempts . . ..

            A few of my readers may not look to poets for advice on how to live your life. Instead, then, here’s the most important thing I learned in college: When presented with repellant choices, come up with another option. (No, I am not commenting on the Presidential election.) Reframe the issue. Come at it from a different angle, or slant. I advised my high school students going off to college that when confronted with an exam question that they hadn’t a clue how to answer, begin your essay by saying, “What this question is really asking is . . .,” followed by writing  about a reframed question that you can say something about. Or, as Roger Sale, one of my favorite college professors advised, “You can always attack the question itself,” by which he means the assumptions underlying the question. On the rare occasions when I used multiple-choice questions, I always gave my students an option of writing in a better answer.

            More slants? Poets know about using “slant rhymes” (shape/keep, moon/run, stringer/winner) as a device to create a subtle feeling of order, of music, without the sacrificing the feeling of natural expression. Slant rhyme is also known as “lazy rhyme,” but I think that’s a slanted (distorted, biased) way to see it.

            Kim knows about slants – that’s how she places furniture in a room and the house we are building (yes!) on the lot beside Torch Lake. She knows how to use diagonals in composing her photographs. Of course, she is not fond of the slant I use when putting on shirts crookedly, or parking the car, or setting the table a bit diagonally. But my point is that she knows how to slant.

            Another beneficial slant: Kim’s radiation treatments slant in from the side, under her arm, to reduce the chances of damage to her heart and lungs. The radiation must “dazzle gradually,” though it seems to be dazzling her infirm skin rather uncomfortably.

            And finally, Kim and I find our lives veering off in a new direction, much the way blog postings sometimes veer unpredictably. We are in our 70s and have both had struggles with cancer. It would appear that we are moving down a narrowing tunnel, one with an inevitable end. But no, instead we find ourselves veering off in a new direction: We began the process of designing and building a home in northern Michigan. We know that the winter sun will shine on us up there with a provocative slant.


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