Saturday, October 31, 2009

Witchcraft was hung, in History,

It was the closests I could find to fit halloween with witches and all that? Okay, arguably "One need not be a chamber to be haunted" might have been more fitting, but I chose this instead...

Witchcraft was hung, in History,
But History and I
Find all the Witchcraft that we need
Around us, Every Day--
(F 1612)

Likely the allusion to witchcraft refers to the Salem Witch trials in New England. No doubt Dickinson was very familiar with the history of these trials and how many were suspected of witchcraft and, subsequently, hanged for the perceived crime. Many people like to think that such incidents are isolated in history, happening only rarely and then fading out of practice. Through this poem, however, Dickinson's speaker implies a reversal of the meaning of "witchcraft."

The speaker claims that both the speaker and history "find all the witchcraft that we need / Around us, Every Day", but this leaves the conclusion for the reader to draw for him or herself. Many readers might intepret this poem to mean that "witchcraft" continues in many forms, that it never dies out. This interpretation of the word might mean the casting of spells, good or especially bad, or it could refer to trouble-making, spreading of fear, and suspicious acts. Anything dark or mysterious could be included in this interpretation. And yes, no doubt, such things do continue to happen.

And yet another reading could draw an entirely different conclusion. Perhaps what Dickinson was directing her speaker to imply is that maybe those who think they are preventing evil or the dark from this perceived "witchcraft," perhaps they are the very ones who are committing true witchcraft. Perhaps their destructive or suspicious deeds are the ways they go about spreading the fear among neighbors, scaring those around them with their accusations and making everyone fear what lies around the corner or in the next home. Maybe the doubt and rumors are far more destructive than any spell or hex.

Friday, October 30, 2009

What I can do-- I will ... pt2

Continuing an analysis of the poem in the last entry...

The third and fourth lines that compose this very small poem explore the ability of imagination to go beyond limitations or restrictions. Interestingly enough, "that I cannot" is not unknown to the speaker. There is a realism in this statement, in that the speaker understands that he or she may encounter things which may be insurmountable. At the same time, the speaker refuses to let possiblity know that limitations exist. In this poem is an example of self-suggestion, or being conscious of the thoughts and expressions the persona voices.

The speaker is committed to giving everything he or she has, to going as far as humanly possible. He or she will not allow negative comments or thoughts to be voiced or expressed, and in making this decision many obstacles have already been overcome. The speaker builds faith within the self, speaking possiblity and nuturing it in thought before anything can happen in deed. This poem speaks to the abilities that the human mind has to conquer, proving that much that might seem impossible can be accomplished once the decisions is made that it can happen. Failure is "Unknown to possiblity", and the speaker puts himself or herself at a marked advantage before even starting to explore what great or what little is possible.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What I can do-- I will

What I can do-- I will--
Though it be little as a Daffodil--
That I cannot-- must be
Unknown to possiblity--
(F 641)

This poem explores the potenetial that each person posseses. There is a firmness to the persona's affirmation that "What I can do-- I will". The amount of potential is uncertain, but the speaker displays a great amount of determination that, no matter the limitations, he or she will do everything possible. Dickinson's speaker begs the question What is as little as a daffodil? Perhaps the daffodil merely exists to look pretty and smell lovely and inspire a lover or poet. It still has value, even if much of its value might be labelled aesthetic or even trivial. To the beloved, the flower is a symbol of affection and thoughfulness, and that in itself can be greater than even a gem.

Second half of the poem to be continued in the next blog...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

If I can stop one Heart from breaking

If I can stop one heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain

Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in vain.
(F 982)

At the heart of this poem is the longing for purpose, the search for significance. Purpose is not always found in the earth-moving or phenomenal acts of greatness on an epic level. The root of purpose can be found in the most basic, every-day decisions. It begins with the smallest of acts when no one is watching or would care. These silent, otherwise unknown acts are the foundations upon which all the rest of one's character is built.

This speaker desperately seeks to make an imprint upon another, to make even the smallest difference. It is the echo of Mother Teresa's famous line: "Kindness is a language we all understand. Even the blind can see it and the deaf can hear it." The smallest gift of kindness can reap exponential rewards, can begin a chain reaction. But that chain must begin somewhere, and the speaker in this poem asserts that it will begin with him or her. Without a purpose, some might argue without a meaningful purpose, life becomes an unbearable burden and loses its meaning.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The words the happy say

The words the happy say
Are paltry melody
But those the silent feel
Are beautiful--
(F 1767)

Again Dickinson demonstrates her ability to invert the reader's expectations and, in doing so, present a stunningly accurate and peculiar paradox of human nature. Many people have the tendency to speak of things that surpass a description. Perhaps they are not comfortable with silence, or perhaps they do not feel the fullness of the moment. No matter the reason, many people are not comfortable with silence-- they do not know how to let it be, that sometimes silence speaks far more than language.

A person witnessing something especially moving might have words that come to his or her mind, and yet when those words are spoken they seem to cheapen the moment. The enchantment of the event or emotions are often broken when the word is said. And yet some can think of the words that come to mind and can feel the words, in their very fullest, experiencing them in a way that surpasses merely mentioning the word. It is the difference between talking about a breath and taking one of those deep breaths that begin at the very bottom of the lungs, feeling the chest fully expand, taking in the wonderousness that is oxygen, the most essential need to continue life.

It is particularly fitting that Dickinson would write a poem about the fullness of silence. For a person who did not socialize much beyond her family and who filled the night hours alone in her room with a pen and paper, she knew silence well. She knew the awe and beauty of it, and she understood it in a way that many cannot grasp.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

This dirty-- little-- Heart

This dirty-- little-- Heart
Is freely mine--
I won it with a Bun--
A freckled shrine

But eligibility fair
To him who sees
The Visage of the Soul
And not the knees.
(F 1378)

There is a child-like simplicity in this poem, one that looks to the imporant things beyond sraped knees and finds beauty and joy. The opening lines of a "dirty-- little-- Heart" surprise the reader by inverting the reader's expectations. There is no pure heart, no courtly love or lofty intentions. The prize of love is not a magnanimous deed or heroic act, but rather is a "bun"-- common place. Dickinson draws out the theme of love found in the everyday, rooted deeper than appearances.

Love is not based upon looks or first impressions. Perhaps the overlooked knees were dirty from time spent in a hothouse tending plants, or perhaps they were scraped from stumbles while wandering through fields. Love looks beyond these things, peering into the very essences-- the soul. The one who loves peers beyond the superficial and lookes out through the perspective of the core of the one who is loved. To borrow a phrase from a friend: We don't love people because they are beautiful; people are beautiful because we love them.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Not what We did, shall be the test

Not what We did, shall be the test
When Act and Will are done
But what Our Lord infers We would
Had We diviner been--
(F 972)

This poem displays a great deal of mistrust in religion and deity. Much of it can, arguably, stem from Dickinson's frustrations with especially the Calvinists and earlier Puritan influences. This speaker clearly has issues with the "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" type of teachings-- the idea that God's eagle eye is ever on the search to spot the slightest slip up and thunder down gloom and doom and despair. There is a strong sense that the speaker feels one can never measure up to God's expectations. He or she believes each person will be held to an impossible standard, namely what they could have achieved if they had been more pious.

All the good and even selfless acts of a lifetime will be, this speaker seems to believe, wiped out in an instant. It is as though he or she sees the scales as hopelessly weighted in such a way that no one can win. Ultimately this speaker feels that goodness must equal perfection, and as perfection is unattainable, God can never be pleased. It is a highly cynical view and could very well reflect Dickinson's personal feelings. At the very least, if this poem is her commentary on the Christian religion and her struggles with it, I feel like I have to give her at least credit for her sheer honesty. She was very frank about her feelings regarding faith and religion, and her struggle was open in her poetry at least.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Luxury to apprehend

When people think about the poetry of Emily Dickinson, they so often think of her as the nature poet or as the flat-out confusing poet. She is not readily associated with love poetry, and certainly her poems are nothing like a Shakespearean or Donne sonnet, nor do they bear much obvious resemblance to something like Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poems. And yet some of Dickinson's poems are powerful and evocative love poems, though often in an almost obsessive way, fully consumed by the beloved or longing to be consumed by the beloved. Her language is highly charged, highly passionate.

Dickinson scholar Brenda Wineapple writes about Dickinson's relationships, and she makes mention of this intensity that the poet possessed. Relationships were intense and Dickinson took them seriously, from her true friendships through what some speculate might be love relationships, though there is great ambiguity concerning any lovers Dickinson may have had. Her poems are, to borrow phrases from the poem below, of the "epicure" and are fully laden with "sumptuousness supplies". Excess and lavishness are the course, parting from courtly admiration in favor of pure extravagance-- extravagance sharply contrasted with the precise and yet concise lanuage of Dickinson:

The Luxury to apprehend
The Luxury 'twould be
To look at thee a single time
An Epicure of me
In whatsoever presences makes
Till for a further food
I scarcely recollect to starve
So first am I supplied.

The Luxury to meditate
The Luxury it was
To banquet on they Countenance
A sumptuousness supplies
To plainer Days whose Table, far
As Certainty can see
Is laden with a single Crumb--
The Consciousness of thee--
(F 819)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Clouds their Backs together laid

The Clouds their Backs together laid
The North began to push
The Forests galloped till they fell
The Lightening played like mice

The Thunder crumbled like a stuff
How good to be in Tombs
Where nature's Temper cannot reach
Nor missle ever comes
(F 1246)

Started 10/19 and continued 10/20...
This poem vividly depicts the wild forces of nature unleashed upon the earth. There is a sense of opposition as the clouds stand "their backs together laid" and the north "began to push". Immediately Dickinson creates struggle as the powers of nature build and unleash themselves upon the world below. The forests "fell" and the lightening wreaks its danger "like mice." There is a powerful carelessness in the abilities of nature. Nature does not care about damage that might be done, nor about the panic it induces upon anything below. It is self-centered and self-pleasing in its abandon.

And yet, nature cannot touch the speaker. He or she is safe "in Tombs / Where nature's temper cannot reach." There is a large sense of irony in this statement from the speaker, because while he or she is safe from the wild danger of nature and its fury, it remains that the speaker is dead. One theme that can be derived from this poem is that safety has its sacrifices. To be safe from the looming clouds and the pouring rain and careless thunder, one also gives up the chance to see the glory of a sunset or the hallowed morning of fresh fallen snow or the riotous splendor of first spring or the fiery blaze of autumn harvest. There is a sense of give and take, and while there is security from the unpredictable forces above, the tomb is for the dead.

Friday, October 16, 2009

My Wars are laid away in Books

My Wars are laid away in Books--
I have one Battle more--
A Foe whom I have never seen
But oft has scanned me o'er--
And hesitated me between
And others at my side,

But chose the best-- Neglecting me-- till
All the rest have died--
How sweet if I am not forgot
By Chums that passed away--
Since Playmates at threescore and ten
Are such a scarcity--
(F 1578)

This poem is a good example of the unexpected reversals found in Dickinson's work. The poem begins rather vaguely, about wars "laid away in books," using the enigmatic language that either has the reader intrigued or utterly confused (or both). The reader is told that this final war is between the speaker and a foe that chose others while leaving her behind. All signs point to death as this foe, a sort of grim reaper in contrast to other poems which personify death as a gentleman. Death in this poem is random or calculating, a separating force. There is a sense of respect for death, for the speaker claims that death has previously "chose best" in selecting others to take.

The unexpected reversal comes in the second part of this poem, when the persona claims in lines 9-12 that it will be "sweet" if s/he is not forgotten by those who have already passed away because playmates are so hard to find in older age. Typically the reader would think of the person still living, such as the speaker, as the person who would remember those who have passed on. In the second half of this poem Dickinson inverts this expectation. Here, the speaker longs for the dead playmates to remember him or her.

Dickinson, through her speaker, expresses the loneliness of being the survivor. Rather than feeling that the deceased are lonely in their graves or perhaps missing the companionship of a lost friend, this speaker feels personal loneliness and expressed a desire to be united in friendship beyond death again. Perhaps Dickinson is implying that this final war the speaker must face-- the war with death-- is already won because there is no fear or regret in the speaker's mind?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Morning is due to all (cont)

Now that I'm not falling asleep typing and, hopefully, the words are not missing letters, I'm continuing the last entry...

I feel like some of Dickinson's point in writing this poem is to point out that everyone has a beginning, or a morning. We are given hundreds of starts, literally as each day begins and figuratively with each opportunity that comes our way. The night, or completion, only comes to some. There are those who do not see the end of the day-- those who die unexpectedly or who do not see the end of the opportunities they were given. Some see the "night" or conclusion to hopes and dreams. But some do not.

At the end of this poem lies the rare Auroral Light. It is something that a very small percentage of the world gets to see, and I would think that it would be a thing of wonder and even rarer a sight in Dickinson's time. Today there is a large percentage of the world that will never see the aurora, and I believe that Dickinson uses this as a metaphor for those who never see the miraculous or the rare. So many people live ordinary lives, perhaps even content but never aware of what the amazing and unique experiences that lie just beyond them. Some are aware of such things, but some people have no interest in pursuing them. Likewise, others are aware of things like the auroral light but have so convinced themselves that it is an experience they will never have or deserve.

Morning, night, and the auroral light are possiblities of everyone. There is potential to reach each thing. And how few people actually pursue beyond the morning? I think there is a lesson in greatness found in this poem. Dickinson leaves this poem with an open thought for the reader. Namely, which do we pursue or find: morning, night or auroral light? Are we content with what we experience? And what more could there be, waiting for us to recognize as an opportunity and waiting to be experienced as miraculous?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Morning is due to all

Morning is due to all--
To some-- the Night--
To an imperial few--
The Auroral Light--
(F 1621)

Dickinson often writes about the theme of exclusivity or society's qualifications for what is exclusive and special. This theme is one that Dickinson carried into many of her poems, typically giving control to the person least expected to have power. Wineapple's book White Heat includes several comments about the feeling of superiority that the Dickinson's family held, and it seems as if some of Dickinson's hesitancy to edit and publish might be tied to the idea that she did not want the other townspeople, or her schoolmates, to have access to the intensely private world of the Dickinson family.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Did We abolish Frost

Did We abolish Frost
The Summer would not cease--
If Seasons perish or prevail
Is optional with Us--
(F 1024)

Yet another of Dickinson's briefest of poems, and one that doesn't really rhyme. This particular poem can be interpreted as the desire to control nature, and by proxy the passage or progression of time. If people were to do away with the cold frost, the summer could linger on. There is a desire for control, to dominate that which people cannot rule-- seasons and time. Dickinson draws on this universal desire, the desire to control what is beyond controlling, to create a point at which her audience can connect with the poem. People do not care about the seasons, they don't care for change. They certainly don't care for the things which the frost represents, namely the archetype of death. The frost may also represent an entombment, isolation and a prison keeping one from contact with the outside world.

Ironically, the endurance or end of a season is not optional for anyone. The poem unveils the fallacy of thinking that control is possible. In the first two lines Dickinson uses the familiar desire to resist change as the familiar point for her reader. In the last lines, however, a careful reading reveals the unexpected reversal-- people have no option but to accept the seasons. The speaker does not overtly state this, but rather uses a fallacy to set up the reader into suddenly remembering that the seaons will never be controlled by humans, and therefore humans are forever subject to its fullness, both in life and light of summer and the dark, death, and isolation of winter.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

We never know we go when we are going--

We never know we go when we are going--
We jest and shut the Door--
Fate-- following-- behind us bolts it--
And we accost no more--
(F 1546)

This is one of the poems that I like to view as a "pseudo-gibberish" poem, because at first glance or hasty reading the words seem to talk around each other. Her clever twists of language and logic demand a careful reading, and through several careful readings, the meaning of the poem emerges. It reads much like a form of parable called similitude. Similitude is a short parable consisting of about one line. In the Bible a similitude might read something like "the kingdom of heaven is like a bit of yeast that a woman works into the dough until it is hidden". They are the most concise of parables, and this poem consists of barely two sentences, a meager four lines. In this poem Dickinson compacts language as tightly as possible to create that single moment of intense experience.

Anyone who has had a surprise, particularly a bad surprise, knows that we often live our lives unaware of what is coming in a few days, hours, or minutes. This summer a local principal was walking through a parking lot to grocery shop, only to collapse from a heart attack (thankfully he survived). Loved ones can die suddenly or even instantly, and a single word can undo a person in a second. In a slight deviation, another intepretation, one never knows when a single comment or action can "close the door" to other opportunities. It is so easy to offend or insult, and often some of the gravest injuries given are those that occurred without the insult-er being aware he or she hurt someone. Still, a door can be shut and bolted all the same, preventing any further relationship or experience.

This parable illustrates the universal experience that is common in parable-- there is a familiar experience that the poet draws upon as a point of contact to the audience. In this care there are two points of contact-- 1. going out or going upon one's normal day or routine and 2. fate shutting the door to end an experience or potential experience. The first is the familiar or a stereoptyped action, namely walking out the door. It can mean a literal walk or figuratively represent embarking upon a new decision or direction, venturing into the unknown. This experience is tweaked by the poet, however, and what should have been adventure and good things has twisted into not a beginning but an end. The archetype of the new dissolves into ruin.

A Death blow is a Life blow to Some

A Death blow is a Life blow to Some
Who till they died, did not alive become--
Who had they lived-- had died but when
They died, Vitality begun--
(F 966)

This poem seems to be a paradox in its assertion that death can produce life. At times it is a paradox, and Dickinson weilds this literary technique with great precision. Much of the poem is constructed of parallel statements, ironic and exacting. Not only does life exist in death, but death has existed in life. I feel like this concept-- life in death and death in life-- is one of the easier recurring themes in Dickinson's poetry that is easier for people in the current era to understand. We have seen people who are slaves to their circumstances, who exist merely to exist, who have no purpose or aim, who barely scrape by. The art and music world are full of this theme, including songs like the recently popular country song "Live Like You Were Dying" by Tim McGraw.

And yet, I'm not sure that Dickinson's poem means that until we face the reality of death that we cannot live. Given her frequent use of death in her poetry, as both theme and character, I wonder if this poem doesn't refer to life after death-- one that can be richer and far more extensive than the limited lives she often incorporates into her poetry. Perhaps the eternal soul-- or possibly more accurate to Dickinson would be the written word-- is the "Vitality begun" in the final line. In many ways, Dickinson's life can almost be seen as a death, and her death and its subsequent discovery of her writings as a new "vitality."

Perhaps it could also refer to the life that can grow out the death of other things. In this approach to the poem, one could draw a parallel to T.S. Elliot's "The Waste Land" with it's opening lines: "April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Down dull roots with spring rain." The spring taunts those who are dead inside, mocking those with no inner life with its vitality. Similarly, in Dickinson's poem the speaker could be trying to make the point that everything is a matter of perspective. Therefore, what is a death blow to one might very well be a life blow to another, shocking the person not into destruction but into new vigor.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Pain-- has an Element of Blank--

Pain-- has an Element of Blank--
It cannot recollect
When it begun-- Or if there were
A time when it was not--

It has no Future-- but itself--
It's Infinite contain
It's Past-- enlightened to perceive
New Periods-- Of Pain.
(F 760)

This poem perfectly captures the essence of pain, particularly chronic pain. Whether physical, emotional, or psychological, pain can take on that "element of blank", wherein the person enduring the pain feels lost in the sensation and may feel, for brief or longer periods, as though the pain always has previously existed and could continue to exist indefinitely. Sometimes pain can become so all-encompassing that it is consuming, seeming to stretch itself into all time.

Dickinson's poem parallels this perception of pain, as her poem focuses on the subject of pain but does so in a blank manner. There are no specifics as to what kind of pain this speaker experiences, no context given for the occasion of pain. Although only eight lines, this poem ironically creates a feeling of eternity in its compact language. Despite the lack of memory, as it cannot recall a beginning or end, it is full of the intensity of the feeling in the moment, sharply and achingly aware of the depth and breadth of hurt.

For the readers who may think the pain can be overcome with "mind over matter" or some sort of enlightenment or hope, this hope is squashed in the second stanza. The only enlightenment or perception offered to the reader comes in the final line-- the revelation of "new periods-- of pain". Just as the poem claims pain seemingly has to beginning or end, the poem begins and ends with the word "pain." It is all encompassing in structure, circuitous and another symbol of a self-perpetuating eternity, demonstrating again Dickinson's ability to use language and structure compressed into one another to heighten the emotion to a single moment or experience of intensity.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

How ruthless are the gentle--

How ruthless are the gentle--
How cruel are the kind--
God broke his contract to his Lamb
To qualify the Wind--
(F 1465)

This is one of probably dozens of Dickinson's poems that has confuses me. I really don't know what it is "supposed" to be about, and the last line doesn't seem to make much sense at all. That said, the first two lines are intriguing. It makes me think perhaps this is a commentary on society and what is "dignified" and "proper." It seems that so much of what was socially acceptable and the "refined" behavior of the upper class could be truly cruel and brutal. Lives, physically and emotionally and likely mentally, could be pulled apart with one wrong word or move.

Perhaps it could also be a commentary about institutions like slavery. The southern states defended slavery, often claiming the Africans taken as slaves were less intelligent, not human, and that it was for their own good. The "gentle" treatment is revealed in horrifying detail in books like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, and even the most well-meaning of those who keeps slaves only perpetuate a system of pain and separations, even death.

I wish I understood the last line.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

An escape

The problem with taking a day or two off from writing, sick or headaches aside, is that it's so hard to get back into the discipline once it's been broken...

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotion know what it means to want to escape from these.
-Emily Dickinson

I found that quote while searching for Dickinson articles and coming across a page of quotations. I wish I knew the source, but more than that-- I wish I could get more of a context for this quote or, better yet, an explanation of it from Dickinson herself.

It reminds me of what Madeleine L'Engle wrote in her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. In one oarticular chapter, L'Engle writes about the discipline of writing and how one can reach the point where he or she moves beyond the acts of writing and the words and steps aside, letting the writing take over and become more than the writer could have ever meant for it to be. Instead of bringing the words to the page, the writer enters into the words as they develop and falls sort of "through the looking glass" into whatever else could be-- things that could not be plotted or planned or contrived.

I believe that there are moments in writing where, as a writer, it is possible to move beyond the here and now, beyond emotions and personality. Yes, some of the writer's personality is inherent and will possibly always be found in traces in the work. But the conscious and deliberate aspects of writing fall away in these moments, and the inner truths and beauty of the writing come out and develop whole new lives of their own.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

An Hour is a Sea

An Hour is a Sea
Between a few, and me--
With them would Harbor be--
(F 898)

Emily Dickinson never fails in her ability to capture in a few words, even in about a sentence and a half or three small lines-- to capture an experience. It's not quite a miniature experience, because the full impact of emotion lies in these lines, rich and overwhelming. Her compression of language is superb, and I feel like I'm gushing as I write this, but her poetry is so rich in expression.

This speaker is full of longing and fear, isolation and maybe even a tinge of depression, yet there is an underlying hope. This "hour of sea" may seem unending. One could liken it to the experience of Santiago in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, when the giant fish has dragged Santiago out into the waves, much farther than he ever expected. There is no land in sight, only the swell of waves and the stars as a guide at night. In ways, the speaker in this poem seems to use the hope of the friends as a map to guide into the harbor, much as Santiago used the starts to navigate until he could see the lights of Havannah.

The moment of safety is not played out in the poem, however. And this lack of a real conclusion casts a little shadow of uncertainty upon the poem. The speaker is aware the harbor exists, but whether he or she will make whatever effort is necessary to reach the harbor-- that is another matter that Dickinson does not answer. Will the persona fall short of the harbor and sink or die at sea? Will he or she even try to reach the harbor? The answer must come from the reader, and the reader's answer will reveal far more about himself or herself than it will reveal about the speaker or the poet.