Monday, August 31, 2009

Sweet is the swamp with it's secrets

Sweet is the swamp with it's secrets,
Until we meet a snake;
'Tis then we sigh for houses,
And our departure take
At that enthralling gallop
That only childhood knows.
A snake is nature's treason,
And awe is where it goes.
(F 1780)

I hate snakes with a passion, and in fact am extremely afraid of them. And yet Dickinson's poem makes me almost consider giving them a second chance. They are unknown, the exotic, and the dangerous but fascinating possiblities in this poem. There is something terrifying about coming across a snake, especially among the great wild beauty of a swamp. And in the midst of that heart-stopping flight from the swamp, there is something about the utter panic that can bring a sordid sense of euphoria. Something about those moments of sheer terror can bring a little shiver of delight in their wake, for isn't that why we read ghost stories and scare ourselves silly with horror movies? It's the gothic mind-twist that entices us to read, even as we long to cover our eyes or plug up our ears and turn away.

I think that Dickinson and her speaker understand that without a little risk, without the snakes, the swamp wouldn't hold the half-forbidden lure. What is the point of exploration and adventure if the outcome is safely delivered as neatly as it could have been within the familiar confines of home? For all of the over protective nature of her childhood and the secluded nature of her adulthood, the inner part of Dickinson freely roamed the woods and swamps-- if only in her imagination. Her own imagination held its own allure, beautiful and terrifying, filled with not only those mossy landscapes and muddy waters but with what lies beneath. She eases her toes into the waters of the gothic and stirs those hints of the haunted self and the fallen humanity within.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Some say good night-- at night--

Some say good night-- at night--
I say good night by day
Good bye-- the Going utter me--
Good night, I still reply--

For parting, that is night,
And presence, simply dawn--
Itself, the purple on the hight
Denominated morn.
(F 586)

This poem fascinates me, and I was surprised to find it hiding so impishly among the other poems in Franklin's anthology of Dickinson. Yes, there is a speaker or persona in this poem who narrates it-- an other who is not the poet herself. And yet, I think it shows the depth of feeling and love that Dickinson had for those closest to her.

While she did not have a huge range of friends and people to whom she spoke or even wrote, she was prolific in what letter writing she did. Her language in her letters is practically poetry instead of prose, in its highly charged language and abundance of imagery and exacting phrases. Perhaps all of her poems truly were letters. At any rate, there is a deep connection to others. "Presence, simply dawn" expresses the glorious joy and eagerness that friends brought to Dickinson, as well as the speaker.

I think it is a bit interesting that Dickinson chose night and sunrise as the metaphors in this poem. Humans have no control over nightfall or sunrise, and it implies that Dickinson or at least the speaker has little or no control over the comings and goings of those beloved. Perhaps this could serve as an extended metaphor for death, as though each goodbye could be a literal and not just metaphoric death. Certainly death was not predictable and could strike far too suddenly. This may have enhanced the feeling of "goodbye" as a death and every "hello" as not only a sunrise but as its archetypal plot motif dictates, it could be a rebirth or resurrection. Again, hope tries to eke out some space in this poem, and I think Dickinson and her speaker ardently wish for the next "hello" of a sunrise and its revival of all things new and fresh.

The largest Fire ever known

The largest Fire ever known
Occurs each Afternoon--
Discovered is without surprise
Proceeds without concern--
Consumes and no report to men
An Occidental Town,
Rebuilt another morning
To be burned down again
(F 974)

Dickinson's sunset is a fire, wild and yet steady. Opposites war within this poem, as is typical in her writing. The town is burned completely, and yet it will rise again like the phoenix. Or perhaps the fire will rise again like the phoenix. There is a free license this fire has to burn, and yet it burns within its parameters, so predictable that it is of little concern to men.

She has the gift of the poet to make the reader look at the next sunset and marvel at its intensity and its audacity to ignite the sky so. Her language arrests the reader's attention, mixing clinical words like "discovers", "occurs" and "report" with the highly charged words like "largest fire" and "burned down". Language in the poem follows the progression, using inciting words when describing the fiery sunset, then cooling to a clinical description of the lack of awareness in the middle of this poem, only to flare again in the final lines. Her word choice guides the emotion of the poem, plotting its progression.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Fame is a bee

I'm not sure what Dickinson's thing with bees was. I think I saw an article about it, possibly entitled "In the name of the Bee," which is the title of one of her poems. At any rate, bees are a common theme, symbolizing in today's poem the nature of the insect as industrious, menacing, and fleeting:

Fame is a bee.
It has a song--
It has a sting--
Ah, too, it has a wing.
(F 1788)

Just the other day I read an article on AOL news about one of the American Idols, and the article suggested this former idol was trying to escape the fall from interest that former contestants like Fantasia Barion and Rueben Studdard have endured. Overall, our interest in celebs tends to follow trends. I doubt that in more than a few years that quasi-celebs like Octomom or Jon and Kate Gosselin will be much heard from.

Dickinson's poem is ardently true in both the cases of Nadya Suleman and the Gosselins. All found fame under what seemed a song. In Suleman's case, this was the birth of surviving octuplets. In the case of the Gosselins, it was their family of eight-- twins and then sextuplets-- and their struggles and successes in raising the children. And quickly with Suleman, the sting of fame made itself known as the circumstances around the conception of the children, all invitro including her six previous children, were made known. Recently the sting of fame has hit the Gosselin family, too, as Jon and Kate are seeking divorce. Both Suleman and the Gosselins have become almost daily fodder for gossip magazines, and neither they nor any of their children seem to be able to find any privacy from the constant attention from paparazzi.

It seems perfectly logical that the "wing" of fame may soon make itself known. As soon as Suleman and the Gosselins fail to make the photogs and writers money, their five minutes of fame will end. They will be relegated to the history pages, the scandal or intrigue long gone.

Perhaps this is again why Dickinson so shyed away from public life. Part of me wants to believe that she knew how brilliant she was, that she understood she had a great gift. And maybe she chose her life of semi-isolation as her own buffer, to protect herself against the sting and the wing of fame. If left alone, the bee will produce something exceptionally better than a sting-- namely honey. By stepping back from fame and letting it flitter past, Dickinson achieved far greater rewards, a longer lasting and sweeter legacy (even if her poems can still often contain sting that would rival the bee's).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The going from a world we know

Death is a common topic in Dickinson's poetry. In his Dickinson biography My Wars are Laid Away in Books Alfred Habegger recounts many incidents of Dickinson's childhood where death was prominent. Child mortality rates were much higher, and the Dickinsons were often cautioned to keep careful watch over their children, often keeping a young Emily and at times their youngest child, Lavinia, from school for fear of the slightest illness. It is known that Emily Dickinson witnessed the death of a child when she was still young, and it seems to have made a strong imprint upon her mind.

The mystery of the journey between life and what lies beyond seems to fascinate the poet, and much of her writing muses upon possibilities. Sometimes it is a carriage ride, sometimes darker. But always it is a trek into the unknown and unfamiliar, and the poems pose far more questions than any solace they seek to create:

The going from a world we know
To one a wonder still
Is like a child's adversity
Whose vista is a hill,
Behind the hill is sorcery
And everything unknown,
But will the secret compensate
For climbing it alone?
(F 1662)

"Sorcery" is a loaded image in this poem, indicating that the appearance of the world might not match reality. It implies there is misleading, possibly with malicious intent. Again, I can't help but wonder if this is Dickinson's way of snubbing religion, suggesting that "heaven" might to be all that the Bible leads the reader to believe. There are tones of doubt that are cleverly disguised with one of Dickinson's most stable and most interlocking rhyme schemes (ABCBCDED). A consistent and more direct rhyme lend the poem and sing-song rhythm that puts the reader at ease and lowers his or her guard.

In fact, it should only amplify the reader's suspicions that perhaps the final two lines really indicate that nothing in this manipulated and illusory world that exists over the hill or just beyond life is really worth the pain of separation and isolation in climbing the hill alone. What started as a similie that seems to be offered in comfort-- facing death is like spying the hill and wondering what lies beyond-- has terminated in distrust and uncertainty. Are the risks of deception worth the separation? Dickinson's tone indicates that the risks are not worth it, but she and the unknown speaker leave this final conclusion for the reader to decide.

I do wonder, though, if this poem could also be viewed as the soul considering entering the world, pre-birth. Looking at the poem as a soul pre-incarnate it could be viewed as a play off of William Blake's The Book of Thel, considering whether it is good to remain as is, in heaven and innocent, or whether to risk the toils and pains of earth and to be born into a human body. I wish I could discuss this with Dickinson. Possibly she meant the poem to read as I have previously interpreted it-- as the person considering death and what might lie beyond-- but I still wonder if maybe she was aiming for the pre-incarnate soul as well.

Elysium is as far as to

Just when I think so much of Dickinson is cynical and dark and depressing, I stumble across something like this:

Elysium is as far to
The very nearest Room
If in that Room a Friend await
Felicity or Doom--

What fortitude the Soul contains,
That it can so endure
The accent of a coming Foot--
The opening of a Door--
(F 1590)

There is a tone of torturous expectation in this poem. Restraint is stretched to its very limit, enduring the "accent of a coming Foot" and the build of expectation both in the speaker and the reader. It's a bit mean to leave the reader dangling in anticipation, but it's very Dickinson. The entire premise rests on the simple word "if," and yet that word is highly charged with meaning. The condition-- "If in that Room a Friend await"-- remains unresolved.

The unknown amplifies the anticipation, for perhaps the friend is coming and joy will follow. But then perhaps it is not a friend and all the expectation is for naught. Or worse yet, what if the friend turns out to be no longer a friend and what started in joy or should have been joy will quickly dissolve from "felicity" to "doom." As usual, Dickinson stretches the poem between poles of existence-- in this case felicity and doom-- and leaves the reader hanging. The conclusion that the reader arrives at is something like the old question "Is the glass half-full or half-empty?" and the reader's conclusion to this will reveal more about the reader than it ever does about Dickinson or the speaker in the poem. This is a perfect example of the parable element of open endings. No clear cut resolution exists, and the predicament demands a resolution that the reader must find for himself.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Letter is a joy of Earth

A Letter is a joy of Earth--
It is denied the Gods--
(F 1672)

This tiny poem might very well have come out of a letter, and is typical of the statements Dickinson often made-- gnomic thoughts compressed tightly into a single sentence. I love when she comes up with these seemingly simplistic statements. Anyone might thing "A letter is a joy of earth," because most people really do enjoy getting mail. I think at times that Dickinson would like instant messaging, because not only does it retain some anonymity but it also thrives on the sharp, witty intellect that she possessed. And yet instant messaging has both destroyed and enhanced the art of letter writing. I say destroyed because so few students really know how to draft a formal letter, and few see the value in such a slow form of communication in our technologically advanced society. And yet techology has enhanced letters in the sense that a note in paper means even more and receiving one shows great consideration.

Going more directly back to the poem, though, few people except Dickinson would add on the afterthought: "it is denied the gods." I'm still researching to make sure my grasp of grammar is correct, but if this is a compound sentence (and really even if it's not and it could go either way with Dickinson), then the second line could arguably serve as a nominative clause, renaming "joy" in the first line.

Ironically, the gods who ought to have access to everything are denied one thing-- the joy of letters. It's the unexpected reversal found so often in Dickinson, where the reader would assume gods have access to all, only to realize that while a god might receive a letter, it is unlike that it would happen. And if the god was omniscient, as Christian tradition maintains God is, then the letter really isn't much of a joy. As humans we have expectation or anticipation while we wait for a letter to arrive. There is the sudden surprise-joy of an unexpected letter, but still the anticipation is there when we see the envelope and wonder even for a few seconds before opening what could be inside. The omniscient god would already have foreknowledge, thus making the letter mundane or expected.

Arguably, the Christian response to this could be that even if God is already aware of letters or communication, the very act of communication is a joy to him. It makes me wonder how Dickinson might have responded to this defense.

He ate and drank the precious Words

He ate and drank the precious Words--
His Spirit grew robust--
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was Dust--
He danced along the dingy Days
And this Bequest of Wings
Was but a Book-- What Liberty
A loosened Spirit brings--
(F 1593)

Words and language held great power for Dickinson, and she spent much time in her childhood surrounded by books-- prose and poetry alike, as well as other literary publications like magazines and newspapers. It's obvious in this poem-- and in many others like "There is no frigate like a book" (F 1286)-- that Dickinson greatly valued literature and had a deep appreciation for books.

Yet what she does in this poem is create a sort of heresy, in which literature or the act of reading brings liberation and joy to the reader. Rather than a sermon or conversion experience, it is the book that shows him he is more than the mere dust of the earth in Genesis. The speaker in this poem becomes the preacher, testifying of the soul is that finds redemption and heaven in a mere book. It would have been horribly blasphemous, and yet Dickinson deliberately wrote the poem that way.

This poem bolsters the idea that words and language were salvation to Dickinson, that she found faith within them. She struggled to embrace the faith of her family and neighbors and wrote to her dear childhood friend, Abiah Root, "I was almost I was persuaded to be a Christian" (Wineapple 50), giving allusion to King Agrippa's words to Paul "Almost thou has persuaded me" (Acts 26:28). And yet she felt no absolute security in the faith surrounding her, unable to reconcile pain and the unknown with the hard realities of loss around her. Much of her writing was, after all, her way of singing like the boy in the graveyard. It was an exploration of the unknown, and yet it was simultaneously a distraction from what might be lurking in the shadows. Language was both her faith and her fear, and controlling it so carefully perhaps gave her the illusion of control that she craved.

Monday, August 24, 2009

I stepped from Plank to Plank

I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea--

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch--
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience--
(F 926)

The trouble with so many parts of life is that we can learn and learn, but the time come when we must step out into our own experience. Some people are bold and jump "plank to plank," while others take the "slow and cautious way," feeling out the path before them. It would be all well and good if the planks remained steady and sure and predictable. Life, however, is anything but steady and sure and predictable.

Dickinson's acute observations about the harrowing aspects of experience show her ability to tap into fears and distill them into a single poem. In eight lines she perfectly describes the uncertainty that we all face when we step into the unfamiliar-- whether the unfamiliar is going off on our own into world, being left to fully master a new skill, or even face the risk that is love. Every part of life requires risk. There is the chance the next step will not be there, that the persona will fall on his or her face. Trips and stumbles and free-falls happen. But life cannot happen without risk.

No matter how much Dickinson may have seemed to be isolated in her home in Amherst and distanced from the world, even she realizes that risk is necessary. That the "precarious Gait" is innate in the human experience called life. We stumble and fumble and trip along our way. And maybe someday we learn and risk enough to run.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Soul unto itself

The Soul unto itself
Is an imperial friend--
Or the most agonizing Spy--
An Enemy-- could send--

Secure against it's own--
No treason it can fear--
Itself-- it's Sovreign-- Of itself
The Soul should stand in Awe--
(F 579)

For many people I do believe that the soul can be one's dearest friend or worst enemy. We don't hear as much about one's conscience any more. Many people have managed to shut out that voice that directs them, to tune it out so effectively that they no longer hear it. I like to believe that it speaks up now and then to even the most calloused person. And yet the news is full of people who have committed horrible acts and have absolutely no remorse.

I supposed the flip side is that we still hear about people who truly live beyond themselves-- and who do it for no other reason than wanting to help others. People like Mother Teresa spend their lives in total service to others, and yet I know she has written that even her own soul could bring her great torment. In this regard, perhaps our souls are things we should be in awe of-- the megaphone through which we hear the divine. And this poem makes me think that perhaps Dickinson felt great awe, both the friend and spy at war perpetually within her.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Will there really be a "morning"?

I'll always remember sitting in the movie theatre the first time that I saw the second Lord of the Rings movie, "The Two Towers." It's my favorite of the trilogy, and my favorite moment is the dreary scene atop the stronghold as the men of Helm's Deep prepare to fight a battle they feel they are sure to win. There is a moment where a young boy is handed a sword that he obviously has never held before and is looking at Aragorn talking about how little chance they stand. Aragorn simply answers, "There is always hope."

I feel like much of Emily Dickinson's poetry is her search for hope, for some kind of assurance. She saw her share of heartaches and pains, and I think she felt them much more intensely than most people do. She obviously felt things very deeply, and I somewhat suspect she would be labelled in current day as a "highly sensitive person." Her poetry often reflects this searching and longing for comfort in poems like:

Will there really be a "morning"?
Is there such a thing as "Day"?
Could I see it from the mountains?
If I were as tall as they?

Oh some Scholar! Oh some Sailor!
Oh some Wise Man from the skies!
Please to tell a little Pilgrim
Where the place called "morning" lies!
(F 148)

This is listed as an earlier poem, and her tighter rhyme scheme certainly reflects earlier work. Later, she often sacrificed neat rhyme for "eye rhyme." The reader should not allow the simplistic cadence to lull him or her into believing Dickinson meant these questions to be glib. If anything, the overt nursery sound of the poem should cause the reader to be hyper suspicious of the theme and its meaning.

Perhaps in a cynical mood she wrote this in the bitingly sarcastic of tones. Clearly the persona finds no one to adequately answer these questions. The speaker remains a "little Pilgrim", seemingly not worth the time for explanation, much less assurance. And "Wise Man from the skies" reads as nearly mocking, as though some apparition or magical all-knowing genie might appear to answer such wonderings. No, Dickinson provides no hope for these questions, leaving a void for the speaker and for the reader. Perhaps this was more of a reflection of her doubts and fears concerning religion and its inabilities to settle her inmost needs for security.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Brain, within it's Groove

The Brain, within it's Groove
Runs evenly-- and true--
But let a Splinter swerve--
'Twere easier for You--

To put a Current back--
When Floods have slit the Hills--
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves--
And trodden out the Mills--
(F 563)

So many people have set ideas and ideals, and I much of who we are the choices we make are things that are ingrained in us, conciously or not, from childhood. We absorb so much through our environment and through what psychologists call our "nurture" or upbringing. Recently I heard a speaker explain that we all have "stories" that we make up for the events that happen in our lives. They may be simple stories, like the ones such as "that person is a jerk" when we're cut off when driving. Other stories that we've made up are more more complex.

Still, stories are part of our lives. We have convictions, ideals, and morals. Some of these are flexible and some are practically set in stone. And then there are those beliefs that we have that are so second-nature that to have one contradicted is much like the splinter in the groove. It is a violent shift, and can leave us reeling and lost. Indeed, Dickinson is right to say that it's easier to put back a current or flood than to realign the mind that has encountered such an abrupt paradigm shift.

It's tempting to think that everything is arbitrary, or to fall into chaos internally or externally when everything that seemed one way now seems another. I believe that it's good to have an open mind, to consider possiblities. I have a great interest in parables, and I think much of Emily Dickinson's poetry contains the elements of parable. By parable I don't mean a trite story in which a comparison is made. Parables are confrontational, they invert values and reverse expectations. The ultimate goal of a parable is to take the mind within the groove and throw a splinter directly in its path. They are meant to disorient the reader, to challenge the reader to consider or embrace an entirely new perspective. Maybe that is why Jesus' teachings were so rarely embraced and why Dickinson's poetry is sometimes passed over as too challenging or too confusing. You have to want it. You have to spend time with it. And you have to make the choice to accept it or walk away.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

To put this World down, like a Bundle--

Emily Dickinson's seclusion has become one of the most readily remembered parts of her life. To a certain degree, I believe she chose it as a way of protecting her gift. It gave her time to cultivate her talents in ways that could not happen if she had been more engaged in public life. And yet, she took it to an extreme.

To put this World down, like a Bundle--
And walk steady, away,
Requires Energy-- possibly Agony--
'Tis the Scarlet way

Trodden with straight renunciation
By the Son of God--
Later, his faint Confederates
Justify the Road--

Flavors of that old Crucifixion--
Filaments of Bloom, Pontius Pilate sowed--
Strong Clusters, from Barabbas' Tomb--

Sacraments, Saints took before us--
Patent, every drop,
With the Brand of the Gentile Drinker
Who indorsed the Cup--
(F 404)

In a typical Dickinson paradox, the world is a "bundle" to be put down, like a burden, and at the same time it holds a sacred value of sacrament. The common and the eternal are united, bonded with pain and perseverance. Perhaps this is an indication that Dickinson saw her vocation and isolation as a poet to be sacred and to be her own crucifixion. That again takes the poem into the category of autobiography. No doubt much of her views and attitudes leak into her poems, but perhaps the poem itself extends far beyond the shades of biography.

The world and its demands are often a burden. Ironically the allusion to Christ only complicates this comparison. His delight was to do the will of the father that he was assigned, as he often mentions in the Bible. And yet, the story of his turmoil in the Garden of Gethsemane certain shows the extreme burden that the world created.

Such a comparison between struggles of others and the struggls of Christ make the reader wonder exactly what Dickinson may be implying about religion in this poem. She refers to the "Gentile Drinker / Who indorsed the cup", which seems to come into conflict with the sacrament of Communion, which is traditionally seen as instituted by Christ and later taken up by Paul, both Jews. Perhaps she did mean to imply that the burdens of the world were imposed on others and not originally meant to be religious. Taken in this context, the burdens might be those very things that we impose upon ourselves and the things that others impose upon us.

Certainly Dickinson was no stranger to burdens, having to deal with her mother's poor health, the complicated issues with her brother and his mistress, and even the passing of her beloved nephew, Gib. Heartache, pain, and burdens were no stranger to her, and it seems that Dickinson felt all these things very deeply and intensely. Life was fragile, and this attitude is reflected in much of her poetry and in her letters as she writes "In such a porcelain life, one likes to be sure that all is well, lest one stumble upon one's hopes in a pile of broken crockery" (Wineapple 66). Like so much else, her exact meanings remain nebulous and attempts to reconcile her writing with definite meanings and explanations are difficult.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Luck is not chance

Luck is not chance--
It's Toil--
Fourtune's expensive smile
Is earned--
The Father of the Mine
Is that old fashioned Coin
We spurned--
(F 1360)

I don't think it's coincidence that Dickinson wrote this poem in the time period that she wrote it. It speaks volumes of the Puritan work ethic, bastioned by the "self made, up-by-the-bootstraps" echos of Benjamin Franklin and the more obvious example of Dickinson's father, Edward who labored fiercely to secure his family financially in ways his father had failed.

It might seem strange to think of Dickinson writing these words when one considers that she was a woman of leisure in her own right. The only chores she performed are the ones she enjoyed, namely baking and tending to the flowers in the hothouse. Dickinsons were the cornerstone of Amherst, and while there were some financial struggles early in her parents' marriage, by the time she grew old enough to fully realize what was going on, the Dickinson's financial situation was resolved. It semes she was granted all of the priviledges of her class to indulge in her own pursuits, and she was given the privacy and space in which to create her art.

Though she might know little of any physical toil, clearly she does not take anything for granted. Despite the genius displayed in her writing, it was developed painstakingly, poem by poem. Over time her very distinct style emerges and lodges firmly on page. I sincerely believe that even if she had been published openly in her lifetime, Dickinson would have maintained that her abilities were as much (if not far more) because of persistence and practice than from sheer gifting alone. She crafted her gift, cultivated it as lovingly as she did her dear flowers, feeding and pruning as the years passed.

Monday, August 17, 2009

I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground

Dickinson's poetry is highly notable for its compact or compressed language. Her word choice is exacting, never wasting a syllable in meaning or sound. Wineapple relates a comment Higginson once made regarding good writing: "'There may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence,' he explained. 'A single word may be a window form which one may perceive all the kingdoms of the earth ... Charge your style with life'" (White Heat, 6). No doubt he immediately recognized this gift in Dickinson's poetry. She did not pick the good words for her poems, but she picked the best word in all cases, which makes it yet more of a miracle that she managed to write at least 1789 poems during her lifetime. They are sharp, exacting, and often demanding writings.

I think it's particularly interesting that Wineapple includes a quote from Dickinson that may explain the motive the poet had in writing. Dickinson writes "I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground-- because I am afraid" (8). Fear is a great paralyzer, but it can also be a great motivator. We do a lot of things, make a lot of choices, because of fear. But only truly successful and great people are able to recognize this fear and address it, much less channel it into something useful.

Perhaps when it was all said and done, part of Dickinson's reluctance to push publication of her poetry was because her poetry was so self-revealing. In the pages of the anthologies of her writing, we find insecurity, doubt, stark fear, questions, and a great longing for what is unknown (and what she possibly believed was unknowable). There is simultaneously peace and riot, joy and pain, surrender and fight. Hardly can she be called a shy door mouse or a total hermit. For all of her isolation, through her writing she fully embraced life and all of the experiences that make up our existence. Dickinson walked into the unknown dark, sometimes with eyes wide and alert and sometimes shut closed in searing trust of what she did not know.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Adrift! A little boat adrift!
And night is coming down!
Will no one guide a little boat
Unto the nearest town?

So Sailors say -- on yesterday --
Just as the dusk was brown
One little boat gave up its strife
And gurgled down and down.

So angels say -- on yesterday --
Just as the dawn was red
One little boat -- o'erspent with gales --
Retrimmed its masts -- redecked its sails --
And shot -- exultant on!
(F 6)

I first read this poem sometime in college, and it reminds me of the loss of someone that I knew. When she passed away, everyone seemed to assume that they knew exactly who she was and what her fate was. It was this view that she had lived alright until an event or series of events, and then things happened and made assumptions. In many ways, it was one of those pitying things where everyone tries to say something but can't think of much to say that isn't downright rude. There were much deeper parts that most people never knew. And honestly I believe there were things she could not control. Yes, this is vague but there is a point...

That point is that so much of life exists in parts that we don't see, in things that are private and beyond us. The perceived dusk may well be a dawn waiting to be recognized. There is hope and there is potential even in the most dire situations. At least I would like to believe that, and perhaps it is a naive belief. At times it is a downright impossible belief.

This poem echoes Dickinson's recurring theme of time and eternity and what is temporal versus what is everlasting. The poem seems to be deceptively simple, with an almost nursery rhyme regularity the ABCB DEFE GHIHJ scheme. Always ready to invert our expectations, we find ourselves lulled by the rhyme into very clear expectations as the words gently rock us into a familiar pattern-- thought perhaps a dark pattern. The little boat flounders, sinks, and the seamen watch it go down. Simple, yes? But it isn't, for in the third stanza Dickinson twists perspective, reaching a whole new level of perception and launching her audience into the celestial realm.

Our perspective in life is so finite and limited, governed strictly by the rules of life and death and without any more control than the floudering ship. And while the storms and devastation of the sea, perhaps a metaphor for life, are beyond our control, we do control how we view and react to the situations we face. We can sit back and do nothing but say "how sad" and watch the ship sink. Why did those sailors not try to save anyone who could be saved? Or we can accept what happens and find joy in the situation and celebrate with the enduring soul. This isn't to say that we are not deeply affected by grief, and I don't mean to imply that mourning should be avoided or is wrong. Nor do I mean that we should not do all we can with whatever means we have to help those struggling. But perhaps more to Dickinson's point, we need to look deeper in the first place, beyond our limited view of the situation and find what lies at the heart of the matter, what endures or could endure.

The Riddle that we guess

One of the fascinating things, to me, about Emily Dickinson is the fact that so little is actually known about her. She did not leave much besides her poetry and a great air of mystery and myth. Her family was prominent in Amherst, particularly her grandfather who founded Amherst College, as well as her father, both of whom were prominent figures in the community. And yet for the family's involvement in public affairs, Emily Dickinson chose a smaller audience. She did not completely seclude herself within the family homestead. She was a person of letters, and the sheer volume of mail that she put out shows she was not a recluse. She certainly selected her own society-- a quientessential Dickinson phrase often quoted in reference to her limited contact with others outside of her home.

Much speculation rests on her poetry, and it seems in her letters to Higginson, Dickinson warned against making her poetry autobiographical. It's a trap that many readers and scholars fall into-- wanting to make her writing a literal explanation for her life. And yet I'm about to do that same thing. Sometimes I wonder if the following poem wasn't her own little inside joke on everyone that may read her work:

The Riddle we can guess
We speedily despise--
Not anything is stale so long
As Yesterday's Surprise.
(F 1180)

Anything easily explained is quickly dismissed as common and menial. We crave mystery and riddles, wanting to understand or make up motivations and explanations for everything around us. Reality shows and "inside" celebrity exposes gain great ratings because we are extremely curious people (sometimes morbidly so). Great mysteries keep our attention-- what happened to the Russian princess Anastasia? Did Amelia Earhart disappear in the Bermuda triangle or was she killed or did she die? What is really kept in Area 51? Why did John F. Kennedy, Jr's plane crash? Who killed Jon Benet Ramsey? Did O.J. Simpson really kill Nicole Brown Simpson? And the list could go on and on. These things, along with other unknowns draw our attention to them because they are not easy.

There is great truth in the phrase "Not anything is stale so long / As Yesterday's surprise," and I wonder if maybe that was part of why Dickinson remained a mystery within even her neighborhood. Certainly I think she generated a lot of gossip simply by her notorious seclusion and unique dress (she dressed in white). I believe she chose her isolation to protect her insights and to keep herself in the space she needed to be able to nurture her poetry. After reading excerpts of Haebegger's biography of Dickinson, My Wars are Laid away in Books, it seems that she was a sensitive child and was highly influenced by events in her childhood. Some of her isolation was, I believe, because of her family's belief that she was, as a female, frail and fragile and to be protected.

At any rate, both Dickinson and her poetry remain a perpetual surprise-- a surprise that for someone limited to such an insular part of the world, she shows phenomenal awareness of human nature and insight into life and the human condition. That her poetry survived her instructions for her sister to destroy her papers is a surprise (although it's not completely clear to me if those instructions meant solely letters or included her poems). And it is a surprise that her poetry survived in its original form after the changes made to her work when published, words and even entire stanzas altered or deleted because her family who published her works felt some parts were not in line with accepted faith and religion.

Dickinson will always hold equal intrigue for me, because no matter how much I learn, I will still have more to learn and more to wonder or infer. As Brenda Wineapple writes in her book White Heat, "For all people, [Emily Dickinson] is the biographied par excellence: elusive, inexplicable, inscrutable, like the light that exsists in spring: 'It passes and we stay--' " (35).

Saturday, August 15, 2009

We play at Paste

For those of you who don't already know this, Emily Dickinson did not title any of her poems. They are referred to by the first line, or by numbering systems. Later I may break down the difference in the numbering systems used by Thomas Johnson & R.W. Franklin, but at the most basic level, they both numbered her poems in the chronological order of how they believe the poems were written. I own the Franklin edition, so the numbers included with each poem follow the Franklin system. For this first poem, I will later add the number.

We play at Paste--
Till qualified for Pearl--
Then, drop the Paste
And deem Ourself a fool--

The Shapes, tho', were similiar--
And our new Hands
Learned Gem Tactics
Practising Sands--
(F 282)

This poem was one of the very first poems that I choose, if not the first, for my master's thesis. I love Dickinson's writing because it goes straight to the heart of what it means to be in a process. I've realized that many parts of our life are cyclical, but it works like a spiral, taking us up into a higher level as we go around, or if you prefer to think of it in another way you can think of it as a spiral leading inward.

We start at a basic level, whether it's in a job or something as simple as learning to walk or write. I've worked with young children, and I know that when they start with projects it's best to start simple with things that are expendible like Elmer's glue or glue sticks and construction paper. I wouldn't give a preschooler a piece of marble or glass to make a sculpture or stained glass window. First of all, s/he doesn't possess the fine motor skills needed to use the items necessary to create. Secondly, it would be dangerous to let a child use tools that are sharp when s/he is not able to safely and responsibly handle them. And lastly, s/he would not understand the concepts needed (unless dealing with a prodigy) to create art on that level.

Does that mean that his/her art has no value or that the work was pointless? No. A preschooler must make a lot of squiggly lines and scribbles before s/he can learn to write and draw. There is value in the process. Eventually, s/he will reach the level of advancement for something --more like going from crayons to markers or drawing to clay. But the mistake that we make is in reaching the level of clay and scorning our feeble attempts to draw. Or reaching the point of using a pottery wheel and scorning the finger-molded and likely misshapen pot. Without the misshapen pot, we would not have developed to reach the use of the pottery wheel.

The tendency might be to read this poem and think that Dickinson is praising the pearl, the accomplishment. Our society rewards accomplishment but often scorns or shies away from the hard work that led up to the accomplishment. Certainly, we don't like at all to think about the mistakes that led to the refinement of the skill that finally reached the "pearl."

And while she challenges the reader to consider the entire process as valuable and of worth, she asks the next question. Maybe we should not only value what got us to the point of skill or advancement that we are at, but maybe we should also realize we are always in the process of learning and changing. We are in a new place, but this "pearl" is only the "gemtactics" and "practicing sands" that will lead us to an even greater level of achievement. It's all interwoven and a part of us, and denying one part of our experience with all the value it created in our live denies part of who we have become. Likewise, limiting ourselves to the perception that we have "arrived" robs us of the chance to look for opportunities and to be aware of our progress (whether we choose to be aware of it or not) into yet a higher or deeper level.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson is my favorite poet, and I choose to write my master's thesis about her poetry. I am keeping this blog with the goal of writing in it every day-- writing about the poet, her poetry, and my experiences with her writings.

I hope to become one of the many experts about Dickinson, but I am not the expert by any means. Much of her life remains a complete mystery, and no one will ever truly know the "real" Dickinson.

It is, however, my firm belief that she was not coy girlish woman who wrote nice little poems about nature and immortality. One read through her poem "She dealt her pretty words like blades" should bring that misconception to a crashing halt. Neither do I believe she was some kind of New England spinster wacko living in her own fantasy world. No, she did not marry. Yes, she was rather reclusive. Yes, her imagination is astonishing, but she was hardly a spectacle.

I think it's time for a newer look at Dickinson, really an approach that many scholars have proposed for years but which teachers and others overlook in favor of the quick, historically held labels of Dickinson as a sap or kook. She was a real, breathing person with hopes and dreams and pain and disappointment. I hope through this writing to understand her better as a person, though much of what I make of her will inevitably be some of what I want her to be. For those of you who have seen the movie Julie & Julia, you'll remember that Julie's perceptions and ideas of who and what Julia Child was reflected Julie. A small side note: this blog is partly inspired by that movie and the Julie/Julia project.

I have no intention of covering all of Dickinson's poetry (at least 1789 poems) in the next year. To do so would drastically short change the works and the brilliant mind that was Dickinson. Her language is dense and has to be processed. This project may very well last beyond a full year, maybe 5 years, maybe more than that. Comments are welcome, but please keep comments applicable to Dickinson and her work and understand that I'm a limited person only offering my opinions. Additionally, these thoughts are my original thoughts, unless I reference a writer, and I consider them my intellectual property. Plagarism in all forms is only a temporary solution and has severe consequences. Welcome and happy reading.

One final note, which I may expound upon in later entries: all of my quotes from Dickinson's poems will be taken from R.W. Franklin's book The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Each poem will be follwed with the letter "F" in parenthesis along with a number. The "F" indicates it is numbered according to Franklin's system and the number is the number he assigned to the poem quoted. Any poetry not by Dickinson will be followed with the name of the poet in parenthesis.