Dickinson: invisible as music

November 5, 2011 § 1 Comment

Emily Dickinson

Is it Leaves of Grass under her elbow?

Dickinson’s poetry presents us with something of a riddle. There are two types of responses I have heard from students in the past, seemingly contradictory. The first is that she is inscrutable, that her poems feel like puzzles in which too many pieces are missing. The second is that she is transparently and obviously interested, obsessed even, with matters of death. Both come together in the stereotype of the madwoman in the attic.

These may or may not be true. But as we begin to explore Dickinson, particularly in the context of Emerson, Whitman, and American Transcendentalism, we can consider some approaches to the complexity of her poetry. This may not render a Dickinson that is easier to read; but it may maker her poetry, strange as it might seem, more familiar.

One approach would be to give thought to immediate and obvious differences (but also possibly connections) with Whitman.  There is the matter of size and length. If Whitman’s is a poetry of size, what do we make of Dickinson’s compaction? Extending from this perspective, does her poetry seem more or less in line with Emerson’s vision of the Poet? We talked about both Emerson and Whitman as exponents of experimental writing, of writing that has a theory (or argument) behind its lines. Is Dickinson also experimenting? Does she have a theory? We will be reading a particular critical perspective on this poet, Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. Howe names her a “poet-scholar” in the tradition of Emerson’s creative reading; Howe’s own reading of Dickinson’s writing, we will see, is very much in the manner of this same blend of the poet and the scholar, of the reader as inventor.

On the matter of the riddle of her poetry: we can give more thought and attention to the ways that the poetry is interested in the language of riddles, of surprise. For example, #1222:

The Riddle we can guess

We speedily despise–

Not anything is stale so long

As Yesterday’s surprise–

How do we read a riddle? We can start with the words; we can recognize that Dickinson gives such incredible attention to our words. If Whitman acts as the tongue of us, Dickinson is our lexicographer with a slant. One resource for exploring this will be the Emily Dickinson Lexicon.

There is the matter of Dickinson’s musicality, her prosody. There is a metrical ‘scheme’ to her writing. This is something we can hear often, yet also loose sight of. This is a poetry that operates in sound, that is (in the phrase of #501) “positive as sound.” And so we will need to give more thought, and time, in our reading to the sounds of her sense. I offer this analog. I was recently listening to the new Wilco album “Whole Love” and one of its songs in particular, “Born Alone.” Some of the lyrics made me think of Dickinson. But it wasn’t the lyrics alone; it was the interesting and uneasy combination of the heavier lyric (“sadness is my luxury”) with the lighter and highly melodic sound. I think there is something to that in Dickinson–as the line in the song suggests, the postponement of loneliness. It turns out that the songwriter, Jeff Tweedy, wrote the song directly from lines, and particularly verbs, taken from Dickinson’s poetry. Read more about that here. The song, we learn, has an interesting chord progression at the end known as the Shepard tone, a musical trick in which one can’t distinguish whether the sound is ascending or descending. There is something to that, it seems to me, in Dickinson’s poetry. The lyrics of “Born Alone”:

i have heard the wall and worried of the gospel
ferry faust it crossed a void
i have married broken spoke charging smoke wheels
spit and swallowed opioids

i am the driver at the wheel of the order
marching circles at the gate
my eyes have seen the fury
so flattered by fate

tonight i’d rather count the warm fuse?
subtract the silence of myself
i would rather choose a million mind of mystery

be just the rigor for my health
i wonder why strange rhymes overpower me
toss the chimneys in the sea
i believe i’ve seen the finger
to hide extremity

please come closer to the feather smooth lens fry
sadness is my luxury
will you wear torn the cold come before i die
more aware of it than me

without the glowing stone
the kids are unabashed
loneliness postponed
my eyes deceiving glory
i was born to die alone

alone

And finally, we will be exploring the strangely familiar perspective of beginning to consider Dickinson’s manuscripts and her fascicles: where we find that the poems are not so much inscrutable as fluid, emerging in a process of writing that the print texts have largely hidden. A resource for this will be the Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (edited by Franklin) on reserve at the library. Perhaps, we will find, there are ways to see that Dickinson, in her own terms, is interested as Whitman is in the suggestiveness of words. Her poem, as she suggests of the world, is not conclusion.

For a gateway to various Dickinson resources, biographical, bibliographical, and critical, visit here.

Specific references:

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