Monday, September 14, 2009

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.

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