Monday, September 28, 2009

Color-- Caste-- Denomination

I took a break to do more reading/research, and yet I haven't really done very much. That said, I don't want to get out of the discipline of writing, so here I go writing with or without research...

Color-- Caste-- Denomination--
These-- are Time's Affair--
Death's diviner Classifying
Does not know they are--

As in sleep-- all Hue forgotten--
Tenets-- put behind--
Death's large-- Democratic fingers
Rub away the Brand--

If Circassian-- He is careless--
If He put away
Chrysalis of Blonde-- or Umber--
Equal Butterfly--

They emerge from His Obscuring--
What Death-- knows so well--
Our minuter intuitions--
Deem unplasusible
(F 836)

In this poem Dickinson captures not only the universal-ness of death, who misses none, but she also captures and portrays the leveling of death. In death there is no regard for class, race, religion, gender, or any other distinguishing feature that we living are so tedious to create and maintain. Often I wonder if this is why Dickinson writes so much about death and seems to fascinated by death-- because it is the humbling experience everyone faces, and no one is exempt from it. There are no kinder deaths for the rich or refined, there are no chances to name one's own death (save suicide, which is not guaranteed to be successful as some survived the attempt, often a with devastating aftermath).

Death truly has "democratic fingers," and the only ones that may have escaped death would be found in the biblical accounts of Elijah, Enoch, and Jesus. I would be curious to see a poem of Dickinson's regarding those three. Disregarding those three men and disregarding myths of similar people escaping the actual death experience, it is clear that death is fixed. We are all dying someday, and we will all die someday. Whether the coffin is fancy or plain, whether it is made of crude planks or mahogany, we cannot forever avoid death. I think Dickinson took some comfort and possibly some satisfaction in that fact. It's surprising how morbid a wren-like poet perpetually in white can be. And yet, I think she embraced death as a natural part of the life-cycle, and I don't believe this poem is necessarily dark or twisted. She understood that there is purpose in endings and in even death.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

They'll have to remember me

"I have a horror of death; the dead are so soon forgotten. But when I die, they'll have to remember me." -Emily Dickinson

taken from National Women's Hall of Fame website:

Time and time again in Dickinson's poetry she refers to the lasting power of poetry, which was, afterall, the "fairer house than prose." For the speakers of her poetry, it poetry was a home, eternity, and life. I think it says a lot about Dickinson's faith and confidence in her writing abilities that she could make such a statement. Maybe some people see it as arrogant, but either way, Dickinson was right. When she died, we did remember her.

She was not immediately remembered beyond her family, but to this day thousands of students continue to read and learn about her work. Her impact on form and structure in poetry, or rather her deconstruction of both, were revolutionary and make her a true trailblazer. It is a little disappointing that Dickinson was not inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame until the late 70s, but even if she had never been named, her contributions to the universal body of poetry is still phenomenal and would still be remembered.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I lost a World-- the other day!

I lost a World-- the other day!
Has Anybody found?
You'll know it by the Row of Stars
Around it's forehead bound!

A Rich man-- might not notice it--
Yet-- to my frugal Eye,
Of more Esteem than Ducats--
Oh find it-- Sir-- for me!
(F 209)

One of Emily Dickinson's many remarkable gifts is her ability to see worlds and find value in what is unseen or not valued by others. She could see entire worlds in a snowflake or feel the oppression of millions in a beam of light. She found value in the things that society did not, and I think she reveled in that and probably felt at least a bit of superiority over it.

It is interesting to note that in this poem the speaker is unable to find the lost world alone. Built into this poem is a dependence or at least the inability to be independent. Also there is the iconic Dickinson polarity evident. The "rich man" the persona speaks of contrasts directly with the frugal Eye" of the persona. And while the reader would expect the rich man to be quick to spot the valuable world, the speaker is sure that such a person "would not notice" the lost world. While the lost world may be overlooked, the persona is convinced of its dear value of "more esteem than ducats." It is beyond price and holds great intrinsic value. It is of the mind and imagination, beyond the restrictions and attempts at set worth, often materialistic worth, set by society.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In many respects a genius 1882, Mabel Loomis Todd first recorded her impressions of her mysterious Amherst neighbor. Emily Dickinson always wore white and had her hair arranged "as was the fashion fifteen years ago." "She writes the strangest poems, and very remarkable ones," Mrs. Todd noted in her journal, adding, "She is in many respects a genius." Few scholars would disagree. Emily Dickinson was a genius and her poems were remarkable, indeed. Although she lived the majority of her adult life in seclusion, she wrote some of the most potent poems in the English language. When she died in 1886, her sister asked Mabel Todd to copy and edit the poems. In 1890 the first volume was published. Only then did the world discover Emily Dickinson.

-taken from

I still can't make up my mind about Mabel Loomis Todd. It's impossible not to appreciate her, on some basic level, as one of the people who published Dickinson's work. Clearly she had an understanding of the incredible talent evident in Dickinson's poetry, and yet it spawned a huge war over the editing of the poetry-- to the point that I have heard rumors that the fight over editing and publication is still in existence through the ancestors of Mabel Loomis Todd and Susan Dickinson.

I also still take issue with the "editing" liberties taken by both Mabel Loomis Todd and Sue Dickinson. At least some of their attempts at editing and publication of Dickinson's work seem to be more a reflection of their own selves, their senses of propriety and need for control, rather than Dickinson's work.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Over the fence

Over the fence--
Strawberries-- grow--
Over the fence--
I could climb-- if I tried, I know--
Berries are nice!

But-- if I stained my Apron--
God would certainly scold!
Oh, dear,-- I guess if He were a Boy--
He'd-- climb-- if He could!
(F 271)

This is one of those poems that I chanced upon, finding it only when I opened my anthology and looked at the first poem I saw. It seems to me that I find some of my favorite Dickinson poems this way, and today was not an exception.

I love when Dickinson writes about the limitations that we put on ourselves-- the impositions of society and our own guilt and self-made obligations to conformity. The possiblity of a stain upon the apron can be symbolic of the potential stain upon one's reputation. As one critic wrote, much of Dickinson's poetry hinges on the balance between the actual and the hoped for.

There are gender issues here, and it is open for feminist criticism. I suppose Freudian interpretation would make it that way, emphasizing the erotic in the berry and desire to act upon the suppressed desire. And feminist criticism could take issue with the Eve complex. The boy can hop the fence of propriety, sow his wild oats, and hop back into the good graces of all. Again the societal limitations become the theme of this poem, trapping the speaker in her corseted traditional role-- stifled and suppressed.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Death is a Dialogue between

Death is a Dialogue between
The Spirit and the Dust.
"Dissolve" says Death,
The Spirit "Sir
I have another Trust"--

Death doubts it--
Argues from the Ground--
The Spirit turns away
Just laying off for evidence
An Overcoat of Clay.
(F 973)

Much of Dickinson's poetry casts the religion of Amherst and her family into doubt. She never made peace with the Christian view of her family, although through her poetry she struggles time and time again with issues of faith and belief. Specific answers as to what Dickinson believed or put her faith in is unknown-- she took that secret to the grave with her. It does seem, through her poetry, that she did believe in an afterlife or some existence beyond death. She also has a firm trust in the idea that people consist of body and soul and that the soul is eternal.

This poem is one of the closer hints that readers have at a profession of belief or assurance of some sort of faith. It's mystical, unclear and sort of like a statement a deist or even agnostic might make. If Dickinsons belongs in any specific "belief" category I would be tempted to put her in the "agnostic" column, because she seems to think that God might exist but really doubts that a personal relationship with him is possible.

All that aside, the speaker's description of the "overcoat of clay" and shedding that coat for a "another trust" is one of the most beautiful metaphors for the end of mortality and the eternal state of the soul found in poetry. Interestingly enough, death is never fearful or the winner in Dickinson's poetry. Death is personified as a gentleman at times, sneaky and sometimes even spiteful. But death never wins in Dickinson's poetry. Memory and the eternity of the soul always trump death.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

I taste a liquor never brewed

I taste a liquor never brewed--
From Tankards scooped in Pearl--
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of air-- am I--
And Debauchee of Dew--
Reeling-- thro' endless summer days--
From inns of molten Blue--

When "Landlords" turn the drunken bee
Out of the Foxglove's door--
Whe Butterflies-- renounce their "drams"--
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats--
And Saints-- to windows run--
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the-- Sun!
(F 207)

This poem is often mistaken as one of Dickinson's nice little poems about nature, lauding the joy and finding inebriation and sheer pleasure in the sky and the spring. Worse yet, it is often taken as a sort of transcendentalist approach, one of the few times Dickinson's work is ever supposedly meshed with the likes of Emerson or Whitman.

What a close reading of this poem reveals, however, is the exact opposite. Dickinson rejects the transcendentalist idea of embracing nature and becoming one with it and with all life. There is no union with a higher power and transformation through union. This "drunken" speaker takes in the liquor of the skies and the air, when he or she passes by the bee drunk on pollen, it is not enough. There is none of the transcedentalist "urge to merge" as Dr Smokewood would call it. Because all of the natural world the speaker has taken in is not enough, and at the end of the third stanza the speaker still is not sated.

Resting and peace for the speaker comes only in this final stanza when he or she rests against the sun, but in that moment the persona has not found unity. Rather, the angels have rushed to the sides of heaven and are overcome with the need to see the speaker for themselves. The speaker has effectively upset the balance of man and deity, completely distracting even the angels from the glory of God and taking it upon himself or herself. There is not a deification of man through union with God, but rather a side-step of God. In the end, the drunkeness is with power and influence and recognition. It will remain possibly insatiable. There are the parable elements here of an unexpected reversal or the subversion of stereotypes-- the nature transcendence poem veers sharply from the expected route. And the conclusion is left open. The reader does not know what happens next-- if the recognition of the angels is enough or if more is required.

Friday, September 18, 2009

That nature poetry lady

While the stereotype of Dickinson as a recluse spinster and/or town nut is probably my biggest irritation when people start talking about Dickinson, here goes another...

I find myself frustrated when people talk about Dickinson like she's just "that nature poetry lady." High school (and middle school and college) anthologies like to publish poems like "A narrow fellow in the grass" or "I taste a liquor never brewed" and throw in something like "Hope is a thing with feathers" and "I dwell in possiblity" for good measure and call the Dickinson section done. Alright, usually the college anthologies are a little broader in their selections, but the perception of Dickinson as "just that nature poetry lady" persists.

Limiting Dickinson to such a narrow description is as bad as remembering Melville as "that whale story guy" or Jane Austen as "that lady with the love stories with the poor girls and rich guys." I'm sure that comment about Melville probably got a cringe from my grad school American lit prof. The point, however, is that all these writers did the things described, but they are much more than just that one thing and their work far exceeds such a narrow perception. It would be like talking to an IT worker and calling Bill Gates "that computer guy" or talking to a business man and referring to Donald Trump as "the rich dude with weird hair."

In my next entry I'm going to look at "I taste a liquor never brewed" and analyze several ways in which Dickinson goes faaaaaarrrrr beyond nature in that poem. Most people read it as a celebration of nature and the skies and clouds and "oh isn't it all pretty and free" and completely miss the point of the poem. To be continued...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Much Madness is divinest Sense

Much Madness is divinest sense--
To a discerning Eye--
Much Sense-- the starkest madness--
'Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail--
Assent-- and you are sane--
Demur-- you're straightaway dangerous--
And handled with a Chain--
(F 620)

I have so many favorite Dickinson poems that it's hard to choose just one (although if pressed, I'd have to choose I dwell in possibility), but this poem is definitely on the favorite list. In "Much Madness", Dickinson plays with the tension between sanity and insanity. It's a very fine line, and this poem reads almost like a decent-- or maybe it's an ascent-- into madness. The first and third lines utilize chiasmus to heighten the arbitrary shifts between the poles.

Reading this poem is confusing at times, and the reader may feel lost in the switches between sanity and madness. This was intentional, I believe, on Dickinson's part to further illustrate that what we perceive as crazy and what we deem normal may, in fact, be just the opposite. It's highly parable, full of reversals of meaning and language, and yet so very compact in its language. This poem is an illustration of Dickinson at her sharpest.

There's a certain Slant of light

One of Dickinson's great gifts in writing poetry is her ability to find language to recreate an experience for the reader. Through word choice and metaphor she creates not merely a description of emotion and the human condition, but she forces the reader to remember-- very literally the reader re-members. Breaking down remember to its elements: "re", as in doing again like repeating or retrail; combined with "member" or actively involving in something. Thus, the audience is transported from reader to actor as Dickinson uses words to cause the audience to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel the very core of emotions-- often at their most raw:

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 of us the Air--

When it comes, the Landscape listens--
Shadows-- hold their breath--
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death
(F 320)

Through this poem, Dickinson creates the experience of depression (and argueably of Seasonal Affective Disorder). She uses strong verbs like "oppresses" and nouns like 'heft", "hurt", "scar" "Despair" and "affliction" to create a stark picture of the soul-wearying, exhausting trial of depression. In this case, the depression renders the speaker incapacitated, which Dickinson describes through synesthesia in the first stanza: "There's a certain slant of light, / ... That oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes" (1, 3-4). This is yet another example of Dickinson's skill in bending language as mere light, ironically which one would expect to be physically light or not wearying, oppresses like the weight of a pipe organ, or the "Cathedral Tunes". Dickinson blends nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs through metaphor into a super-charged metaphor of crushing power, and all this in just the first stanza.

I'll probably take up this poem again later, too. I know I'm saying that a lot, but I will get back to it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Victory comes late

Victory comes late--
And is held low to freezing lips--
Too rapt with frost
To take it--
How sweet it would have tasted--
Just a Drop--
Was God so economical?
His Table's spread too high for Us--
Unless We dine on Tiptoe--
Crumbs-- fit such little mouths--
Cherries-- suit Robins--
The Eagle's Golden Breakfast strangles-- Them--
God keep His Oath to Sparrows--
Who of little Love-- know how to starve--
(F 195)

This poem is yet another of Dickinson's that directly challenges the all-loving nature of God, and it has many phrases and themes in common with Dickinson's poems "Success is Counted Sweetest" -- written before this poem-- and "I had been hungry, all the years"- written after this poem. The speaker in "Victory comes late" questions the provision of God, who in the first lines seems to finally offer rescue to one past saving.

Much of Dickinson's language emphasizes the mercy or providence just out of reach. The table remains "spread too high for Us" and the speaker strains "on Tiptoe" to reach what seems to be spread so liberally for the taking. Everything is inches beyond reach, within sight and smell but not accessible. Dickinson famously struggled with the faith or religion of her family and peers, and I believe that she had the sights and scents of faith and religion within her range of senses, but a true feeling of God or a real experience seemed to elude her. Then again, this borders on making the poem autobiographical. That said, I think that the tone of frustration and accusation is at least a slight reflection of the poet's attitude toward deity.

The most twisted part of the poem lies in the inversion of values or stereotypes-- an element of parable-- which are found in the last two lines. The speaker scoffs that "God keeps His Oath to Sparrows-- / Who of little Love-- know how to starve", playing off of a biblical passage from the gospel of Luke. The passage reads "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid: you are worth more than many sparrows" (Luke 12:6-7, NIV). Dickinson's poem, when analyzed through the allusion to the biblical passage, reads all the more haunting and brings the poem from a tone of disappointment to that of betrayal. The dying are analagous to the sparrows, and the sparrows die of "little love", meaning God and his economy are-- to the speaker-- beyond "economical" into downright calloused and deceptive.

Interestingly enough, parallels can be drawn between the concept of the sparrow choking on the eagle's meal and the idea of growing ill from partaking of a banquet feast in "I had been hungry all the years". I might return to this at some point.

The trouble with Emily Dickinson

So many people look at Emily Dickinson's poetry as challenging and downright confusing. They feel she is a difficult poet, and as one scholar put it, they transfer their own feelings of frustration and confusion with her writing to the poet, believing that Dickinson was confused or frustrated. It's not easy to understand a poet who makes so much use of enigma and who requires a lot out of her reader, requiring the reader to spend time with the poetry.

Dickinson's poems are not iambic pentameter, they are not trite, sometimes subjects and verbs are nebulous, her lines are typically enjambed, and few people really know what to make of the artillery of dashes. Her images are startling and confrontational. They synthesize multiple senses at once, and often the aural or auditory richness of her poetry is completely overlooked because no one really knows exactly how she meant her poems to be read.

Furthermore, much of her poetry cannot be understood until it is experienced. Without spending time in the world of society and its rules-- written and unwritten-- one cannot appreciate the truth of a poem such as "I like a look of Agony," which praises agony as the only emotion that cannot be contrived. Her poem "Pain has an element of blank" cannot be fully understood or appreciated until one has experienced deep pain that has that "blankness" where one forgets, if even for a few moments, that such a time existed when pain was not part of one's life.

What's worse, we're never really sure where we stand with Emily Dickinson. She likes to confuse and invert things, leaving us doubting what is truth and what is made up. A poem like "Tell all the truth but tell it slant" looks at the experience of trying to sort out truth with its seeming ambiguity. Dickinson tests the boundaries of truth, challenging the reader's paradigm and questioning the solidity of the line between black and white. Her speakers are slippery and her intents throw us right and left.

That said, it's never a dull ride with Dickinson. Yes, I still find a great deal of her poetry utterly confusing. There are poems that I read and try to reflect upon, only to feel more and more confused and impatient. At times I want to throw down the collection of poetry and wish I could give her a piece of my mind for making it so hard. But I come back. Because it's challenge, because if it was easy and familiar, I would not find it so fascinating. And I love those moments when I come across a poem that so succinctly voices exactly the situation and/or emotions that I have been wrestling with. And I love those moments when a poem I previously skipped suddenly makes perfect sense. She is unexpected, her work is hard, but I like a puzzle and I like a troublemaker.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

An absolute monarch overseeing an intensely private kingdom

There have been a lot of theories concerning Emily Dickinson's reclusive tendencies. Traditionally, many people have believed her to be a recluse or hermit. This stereotype, unfortunately, is very pervasive and is still sometimes taught in schools. Those who hold to this view of Dickinson, however, discount the intense relationship that she had with her family members, and it also ignores the large amount of writing she did. She wrote prolifically to her sister-in-law before Sue and Austin Dickinson settled next door, she wrote to extended family, and she wrote to a small, tightly-knit group of close friends.

Others have theorized that perhaps Dickinson had some sort of phobia of people and, therefore, shut herself inside the homestead. This could be a plausible explanation in part, but I don't think it's accurate. One on hand, Dickinson seemed to be famous for ducking out of the room when strangers visited. The reason for avoiding people could not be because of her literary skills or literary fame, since only a few of her poems were published in her lifetime and all anonymously. Sometimes I truly think she enjoyed messing with the minds of Amherst and provoking, on some level, the gossip. I wonder if she didn't mention, on the sly, to her sister Lavinia that she was going to don a white dress yet again and let herself be seen in the garden for a moment or two then disappear for a week or so inside and have laught with Lavinia later over what fantastic stories the townspeople made up in the subsequent days.

Honestly, I feel like she was simply bored by most people. Upon a visit to Washington, DC in her twenties, Dickinson is said to have reported that in DC society "everybody knows everybody and the nobodies are the most clamorous of all" (Wineapple 64). She seems to have had little regard for the games that society plays, and her poems such as "Much Madness is divinest Sense" and "I'm nobody! Who are you" seem to reinforce this. I don't think that Dickinson was afraid of society-- but I think she saw little point in the rules, games, and structures of "polite" society.

Having said all of that, I do partly blame her family for some of her strong attachments to home and growing reticence to leave. Habegger's biography of Dickinson, My Wars are Laid Away in Books, goes into great detail about Dickinson's childhood. He discusses the high child mortality rate, as well as Edward Dickinson's firm belief (that seems rather unfounded) that young Emily Dickinson was frail and his insistence that Emily remain at home, rather than going to school, any time she showed the slightest sign of sickness. Dickinson was strongly attached to both siblings-- older brother, Austin, and her younger sister, Lavinia. After one year at Mount Holyoke Seminary, Edward Dickinson decided that Emily would not stay at the school for a second. Dickinson wrote "Home was always dearer to me & dearer still the friends around it" (Wineapple 54).

Family was vital to the Dickinsons, and often they seemed to reject nearly all others in favor of one another. Much of Emily Dickinson's letters to her family reinforce this tenacious bond, as in her letter to Austin in which she claimed "We're unlike most everyone and are therefore more dependent on each other for delight" (Wineapple 61). Neither Emily nor Lavinia Dickinson ever married, and both lived their entire lives with their family. Much of these years were spent in the Dickinson homestead, which had been Edward Dickinson's home as a child. Lavinia Dickinson best characterizes the Dickinsons' need for privacy and the unity of family when she remarked that the Dickinsons "loved with greedy ardor, each in his or her own individual way, each an absolute monarch overseeing an intensely private kingdom" (Wineapple 60).

Thursday, September 10, 2009

This World is not conclusion

This is where it gets a little personal... An old friend of mine, in every sense of the word, passed away earlier this week. I was surprised, because I had not heard news of her in a while. Lucy was like another grandmother to me as a child, and she was always so sweet and hilariously funny. Tomorrow is her funeral, but I'm glad she passed. She was 91, and although it seemed like she had been around for forever and would always be there, her health had very rapidly declined in the last month or two. It was her time, and I believe she was at peace with death and eternity.

I have no idea if Lucy ever read Dickinson's poetry, but I think she would have liked the poem "This World is not conclusion." Lucy had very definite feelings about eternity, and I think she would have liked the poem. So in memory of my good friend Lucy, I dedicate this:

This World is not conclusion.
A Species stands beyond--
Invisible, as Music--
But positive, as Sound--
It beckons, and it baffles--
Philosophy, dont know--
And through a Ridde, at the last--
Sagacity, must go--
To guess it, puzzles scholars--
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown--
Faith slips-- and laughs, and rallies--
Blushes, if any see--
Plucks at twigs of Evidence--
And asks a Vane, the way--
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit--
Strong Hallelujahs roll--
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth--
That nibbles at the soul--
(F 373)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Nobody knows this little Rose

Nobody knows this little Rose--
It might a pilgrim be

Did I not take it from the ways
And lift it up to thee.
Only a Bee will miss it--
Only a Butterfly,
Hastening from far journey--

On it's breast to lie--
Only a Bird will wonder-
Only a Breeze will sigh--
Ah Little Rose-- how easy
For such as thee to die!
(F 11)

This is yet another of the many poems Dickinson writes that seems sweet in tone and in the objects mentioned, while the poem actually contains a darker content. It reads much like William Blake's poem "The Lamb", while containing echoes of the "The Tyger". Dickinson chooses for her subject the "little rose," a seeming young bud just coming into bloom and picked before its time.

The speaker in this poem seeks to assure the rose through a recounting of the supposedly few that will actually miss this young rose. Dickinson's use of "only" in lines five, six, nine, and ten are meant by the speaker to smooth over the many that will miss the rose. The repetition, however, is Dickinson's way of illustrating just how much this seemingly expendible rose will be missed. The repetition of "only" follows a pattern of three, an extremely common number of repetitions in writing, plus an additional echo of "only" that greater magnifies the loss of the rose.

Dickinson draws out the theme of expendibility in this poem, and the reader can't help but wonder if the real subject of death is a rose or a person. Certainly the metaphor can be drawn to include all life. The final lines conclude "Ah Little Rose-- how easy / For such as thee to die!", which begs the question: is any death easy? Even the most benign small roselet clearly has a place in the world and is missed by bee, butterfly, bird, and breeze (the alliteration Dickinson employs also heightens the impact of the repetition and enforces the ties the rose has to more than itself). Isn't all life interconnected? And therefore, each small loss would affect life on a much larger scale.

more on this poem and the theme of control in the future...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Surgeons must be very careful

Maybe I'm particularly interested in it because I've been reading a lot of fiction lately that involves medical drama, or maybe I've just watched too many television episodes, but I can't help but find this Dickinson poem to be highly ironic:

Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit-- Life!
(F 156)

This poem is an excellent example of Dickinson's earlier work and its signature paradox written with great irony. The first two lines seem rather ridiculous, for what surgeon would take up the knife without great care? Certainly the Hippocratic Oath has been around for thousands of years, and no good surgeon would take up the delicate and potential lethal tools of the trade without caution. It's a typical Dickinson ploy-- lull the reader into a sense of something common or make the reader feel superior, wondering why on earth a poet or her speaker would bother with such an obvious caution.

Dickinson's strike comes in the last two lines, though. Too quick of a reading could cause one to miss the vital word "culprit" in the fourth line, which would render the second half of the poem as seemingly pointless as the first line-- for of course life exists underneath the incisions. Dickinson's poetry demands careful readings, and skipping that single word in line four completely derails any paradox or irony.

What the poet is pointing out, in her own witty way, is the paradox of the relationship between injury and healing, between disease and restoration. There are at least two paradoxes in the final lines, possibly more: the incision the surgeon makes will cause minor injury but is necessary to enable a true restoration of life; and while the surgeon's attentions might help the body to eventually recover, the body has been restores only to face yet another injury or disease yet again. The life of a virus can cause the death of a person, and the life of one person can plot the downfall and death of another.

The poem seems so innocuous at first glance, but peeling back layers of meaning only compounds the list of paradoxes. All is never as it seems in Dickinson's poetry.


I want to keep this blog for at least a solid year. My goal is to write every single day-- at least to post something. That's probably almost impossible, but it's a goal at least. Some of what I write will be like today's entry, which is mostly reflection.

By the end of this year I hope to have 365 entries to draw on, which will be a lot of writing and reflect a lot of reading about Emily Dickinson. In the past I have been drawn to other celebrities, but never blogged about it and never read so extensively. So far, I've only read more biographies of Katharine Hepburn than I have of Dickinson, but that will soon change.

Hepburn, though, wrote her own autobiography and granted some rare interviews, and she also spent an extensive amount of time in her later years with writer A. Scott Berg, helping him to write a final biography, which was posted after her death, called Kate Remembered. Dickinson did no such thing. Absolutely none of her writings were to written as biography. Her letters give us hints, and the recollections of her family and writings of other friends and family give small hints at who the poet might have been. These are only peeks at a personality that cannot really be captured, and all of these stories and reflections of others are given with layers of opinion and bias.

By the end of this year I will not know Dickinson personally, nor will I really have more of a handle on her poetry. But I hope to discover new insights into her poems, maybe find some new approaches toward understanding her world as I read biographies and articles. And I think that, above all, I'll learn a lot about myself. This year definitely holds a lot of possibility, and I look forward to the challenges of time and mystery that I will face when learning more about the poet. I may not know who she was, but I hope to have a more rounded or faceted view of how Dickinson is perceived and the impact of her work.

Monday, September 7, 2009


Supposedly the obituary of Emily Dickinson. I have no idea how reliable the site is, but it's from and it is said to have been written by Dickinson's sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson.

From The Springfield Republican, May 18, 1886 -- on the editorial page, an unsigned obituary (written by Susan Dickinson, Emily's sister-in-law):

Very few in the village, except among the older inhabitants, knew Miss Emily personally, although the facts of her seclusion and her intellectual brilliancy were familiar Amherst traditions. There are many houses among all classes into which her treasures of fruit and flowers and ambrosial dishes for the sick and well were constantly sent, that will forever miss those evidences of her unselfish consideration, and mourn afresh that she screened herself from close acquaintance.... Not disappointed with the world, not an invalid until within the past two years, not from any lack of sympathy, not because she was insufficient for any mental work or social career -- her endowments being so exceptional -- but the "mesh of her soul," as Browning calls the body, was too rare, and the sacred quiet of her own house proved the fit atmosphere for her worth and work. All that must be inviolate....

Her talk and her writings were like no one's else, and although she never published a line, now and then some enthusiastic literary friend would turn love to larceny, and cause a few verses surreptitiously obtained to be printed. Thus, and through other natural ways, many saw and admired her verses.... A Damascus blade gleaming and glancing in the sun was her wit. Her swift poetic rapture was like the long glistening note of a bird one hears in the June woods at high noon, but can never see. Like a magician she caught the shadowy apparitions of her brain and tossed them in startling picturesqueness to her friends, who charmed with their simplicity and homeliness as well as profundity, fretted that she so easily made palpable the tantalizing fancies forever eluding their bungling, fettered grasp. So intimate and passionate was her love of Nature, she seemed herself a part of the high March sky, the summer day and bird-call. Quick as the electric spark in her intuitions and analyses, she seized the kernal instantly, almost impatient of the fewest words, by which she must make her revelation. To her life was rich, and all aglow with God and immortality. With no creed, no formulate faith, hardly knowing the names of dogmas, she walked this life with the gentleness and reverence of old saints, with the firm steps of martyrs who sing while they suffer.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

New feet within my garden go

New feet within my garden go--
New fingers stir the sod--
A Troubadour opon the Elm
Betrays the solitude.

New Children play opon the green--
New Weary sleep below--
And still the pensive Spring returns--
And still the punctual snow!
(F 79)

It's really so strange how we can suffer a loss or even a long series of changes in our personal life, and it seems like the whole world should stop moving. And yet everyone else's life goes on the same as ever, as though nothing happened. The season continue, and the earth still turns. Life doesn't stop, even when we think that it should.

It's interesting, to me, how Dickinson personifies spring and snow as "pensive" and "punctual", respectively. Spring is full of thought and consideration as it returns, heavily weighing the decision to bring new life again. Curious enough, while spring considers its return carefully, snow arrives promptly. As with so many of these poems, I'm not sure what this means in the overall context of the poem, but I know Dickinson had a deliberate point in writing it this way.

Friday, September 4, 2009

I'm sorry for the Dead-- Today

Emily Dickinson has so much amazing empathy, and her seemingly limitless imagination allows her to reach into ideas that other writers could never begin to consider. Many writers might miss the dead or think of how a coffin might seem during the afterlife. And yet few can craft a poem like Dickinson who not only imagines what the coffin and eternity therein might be like, but she goes a step further to the idea of living dead or conscious thoughts of the dead, aware of a world above that they have no way of reaching.

On some level, I also wonder if this poem might be intended, at least subconsciously, to be a commentary on Dickinson's mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson. Her mother spent a great deal of time sick and Dickinson was frequently the one to care for her. Or perhaps this could be hint of reflection on Dickinson's own isolation, though she did warn not to mistake her poetry for autobiography. At any rate, this poem displays Dickinsons craft with language, her use of voice, and her vast empathetic abilities. Interestingly enough, I wonder if Robert Frost's poem about fences makes me curious if he might have been influenced to write it from reading Dickinson's poetry.

I'm sorry for the Dead-- Today--
It's such congenial times
Old neighbors have at fences--
It's time o' year for Hay,

And Broad-- Sunburned Acquiantance
Discourse between the Toil--
And laugh, a homely species
That makes the Fences smile--

It seems so straight to lie away
From all the noise of Fields--
The Busy Carts-- the fragrant Cocks--
The Mower's metre--Steals

A Trouble lest they're homesick--
Those Farmers-- and their Wives--
Set spearate from the Farming--
And all the Neighbor's lives--

A Wonder if the Sepulchre
Dont feel a lonesome way--
When Men-- and Boys-- and Cars-- and June,
Go down the Fields to "Hay"--
(F 582)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Now I lay thee down to Sleep

Now I lay thee down to Sleep--
I pray the Lord thy Dust to keep--
And if thou live before thou wake--
I pray the Lord thy Soul to make--
(F 1575)

This poem strikes me as rather sordid-- an example of Dickinson's ability to take the familiar and twist it. It seems to have gothic overtones, though it is not overtly gothic, and it reminds me strongly of something that William Blake might have penned.

She plays off of the children's prayer, which evidently must date back to at least the 1800s and is still used widely today:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

It's a simple prayer to memorize, though no doubt the archaic language leave many children mindlessly reciting something of which they have no understanding. The simplistic and highly consistent rhyme give it a sort of deceptive effect. It seems to soothe and lull in tone, but the language derails and leaves the reader in a far different place than he or she expected. Rather than going to sleep for the night, it opens with what the reader infers must be a death. The first line is only altered from the children's rhyme by the pronoun "thee," making the reader suspect something is amiss but likely thinking little of it until reaching the next line with the strange "dust to keep."

It's interesting that Dickinson inverts the language of the original prayer. The child in the original "Now I lay me down to sleep" willingly offers up the mortal part, formed of the dust of the earth in the biblical tradition, in exchange for safekeeping of the immortal soul. In this strange new version of the prayer, the speaker begs for the preservation of the mortal body and an incarnation of the soul. I still am not sure what to make of the final line and what conclusion Dickinson or the speaker lead the reader to draw. It's something I hope to return to.

We learn in the Retreating

We learn in the Retreating
How vast a one
Was recently among us--
A Perished Sun

Endear in the departure
How doubly more
Than all the Golden presence
It was-- before--
(F 1045)

This poem is yet another of Dickinson's that I have never read until I just happened to turn the page and find it. So much of her 1789+ poems have never really been discussed or read beyond those who actually created the anthology or transcribed her scrawlings from original writing to print.

Anyway... there is a distinct play on words here, and Dickinsons thrives on bending language, as my lit professor, Dr Smokewood, likes to call Dickinson's ability to reform language and test its limits. On a very literal level, this poem could be read as a speaker reflecting upon the suddenness of a sunset and how quickly the light passes below the horizon, another day ending abruptly. By extended metaphor, it also describes the sudden loss of one very dear.

It is strange to think that Dickinson wrote this poem in 1865, according to Franklin's dating, which was a full five years before the birth of her beloved nephew, Gib, and thirteen years before his death of typhoid fever at the age of 8 (Wineapple 243-244). In light of the tragedy and suddeness of Gib's death, this poem seems a particularly macabre portent. For Emily Dickinson's brother, Austin, Gib was his dearest child, the "Golden presence" of line seven. Certainly there was a great sense of shock when the child passed, who had been perfectly well and playing in a mud hole with a friend just days before (Wineapple 244).

Dickinson's language describes the acute and stunning weight of grief. There is the perpetual question of "why?", particularly when dealing with unexpected deaths. And certainly, too, sudden death leaves a strong impression of the goodness that does seem to "endear in the departure." This poem represents a strong example of Dickinson's ability to connect with the deeper and often darker human experiences-- her ability not only to put these experiences into words but to recreate, through language, the experience itself.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

They say that "Time assuages"

They say that "Time assuages"--
Time never did assuage--
An actual suffering strengthens
As Sinews do, wih Age--

Time is a Test of Trouble--
But not a Remedy--
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no Malady-
(F 861)

This poem carries a lot of parable elements to it. It plays upon the familiar adage "Time heals all wounds," but changing the saying perceptibly. Rather than time healing, it instead strengthens the body to stand against the wound. There is a subtle distinction in the phrase "an actual suffering", and I think this was Dickinson toying with double or layered meanings.

On one hand, the speaker could be implying that any injury that is inflicted is only significant if time cannot heal it. In other words, pain that one quickly recovers from is perhaps not truly pain. And perhaps "an actual suffering strengthens" can mean that pain can continue to grow and build throughout life, possibly that pain can even be nourished by those who suffer it. Certainly both interpretations could be equally valid.

The final stanza is intriguing because it lacks any real conclusion. The reader must decide for him or herself what to make of the parting words. In this stanza the speaker seems to say that time is the ultimate test, but the test does not conclude or cure the suffering or pain. And the final lines seem to imply that if a cure is found, then there was no real hurt to begin with.

Overall, the poem could be much like a description of broken bones. In time, the break never goes away. It heals over, stronger than before, reinforced better than the bone originally was. And yet the little extra calcium will always be there. Without that bit of extra bone where the break healed, a broken bone would never have existed.