When we think of Emily Dickinson we think of a poetic voice filled with constrained romanticism. Dickinson, influenced by the metaphysical poets of 17th century England as well as her own unwavering strict Christian views, and worked in a limited cocoon of puritanical views that for all intents separated her from the harsh realities of daily life. Her poetic voice and poems writes Annenberg Learner (2015) “represent a broad range of imaginative experience.” Emphasis here should be on experimental. Dickinson rarely allowed herself the opportunity to experience first-hand the often painful realities of daily life unfiltered by nature and emotional preferences. Enter Langston Hughes, one of America’s most treasured poets and playwrights. For Hughes, the poetic voice is strongly personal and experiential—a poetic offering of life as it exists for African Americans. There is no shirking of reality in Hughes’ work. His language as opposed to Dickinson’s high style is ghetto speak. Hughes allows himself to touch and be touched by life, no matter how harsh, difficult or disturbing the observation. Dickinson, writing in high style voice, and Hughes in a more conversational tone are both promoting truth. Only their method of delivery is different.
In Dickinson’s “Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant” she insists in high style language that one should tell the truth, but do it in such a way that you do not ruffle feathers of the listener. This might be expected of Dickinson for whom the niceties of life were not merely important, but also provided insulation against harsh realities outside of her cocooned existence. It is in the area of truth telling that the voices of both poets diverge. Dickinson’s is gentle, cajoling; her language is soft and flowery as one might caution a child. Speak truth in such a way as to make it more palatable, a “superb surprise.” (line 4).
Hughes, when it comes to truth telling, has no such intention. In “Mother to Son” the mother tells it like it is, with little cushioning. She says he’ll be basically going it alone “in the dark…Where there ain’t been no light.” (line 12) To extrapolate, there may never be. It is the harsh reality of Hughes ultimate subject; that is racism. But the mother will not lie to him or cushion the truth. It is what it is.
It is the same in “I, Too.” Hughes does not mask his message. “I am the darker brother, They send me to eat in the kitchen.” (lines 3-4) This is hardly an attempt to put the racist fact in the easier terms suggested by Dickinson as “Too bright for our infirm Delight.” (line 3) Hughes doesn’t care who reads the poem and may be offended. His voice is that of the ghetto, of the black man who is well aware of his skin as a divisive social categorization. He is saying straight away that if you are black you are relegated to a lesser position. In the instance of this poem, “in the kitchen.” (line 4)
Dickinson would have castigated Hughes for his unfiltered comments as “The Truth must dazzle gradually.” (line 7) Hughes refuses to mask his truth to ease the reader’s feelings. He challenges the reader [American white society] in an almost anarchistic tone that one day he will “sit at the table.” (line 9)
In conclusion, as disparate the two voices of Dickinson and Hughes may appear, in poetry there is always a commonality of tone indigenous to the writer. In this instance, one must consider the sheltered life of Dickinson as opposed to the life of Hughes as a target of racism. So the more spiritual tone of the former is also valid. She is not saying don’t tell the truth, but put it in such a way and in such a voice as to soften its blow while getting the point across. Really it is not high style versus conversational tone. It is more a difference between the notion of how best to tell the truth.
- Annenberg Learner (2015) Emily Dickinson. http://www.learner.org/catalog/extras/vvspot/Dickinson.html
- Dickinson, E. ( ) “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”
- Hughes, L ( ), “I,Too,”
- Hughes, L ( ), “Mother to Son”