Emerson’s Scholar Now

November 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Marilynne Robinson, novelist, essayist, and teacher at the University of Iowa, recently delivered the Presidential Address at Stanford’s Humanities Center. Her title and the topic for that address demonstrates her deep interest in Emerson: “The American Scholar Now.”

I haven’t read or seen the lecture; I don’t think a copy is available yet. But judging from the summary, I take it that Robinson means to forward Emerson’s example of critical engagement with education: Emerson not just as a scholar from an earlier period in America, but a scholar involved in the public and critical mission of higher education in America–alternately excited by its mission but concerned with its prospects. As we finish up our readings in Emerson with another address he makes at a college, the 1861 “Celebration of Intellect” (delivered at Tufts in 1861), we can think about how Emerson’s vision of the scholar translates into American culture twenty-five years later, at the beginnings of the Civil War. What’s different in his approach to intellect here? What sounds and seems familiar? Is there a critique in Emerson of the kind of utilitarianism in education that concerns Robinson?

And with our final projects, we can follow Robinson’s lead–which is also Emerson’s–and ask how and where Emerson translates into our thinking as scholars today, and what we as scholars in the college–standing by our order, as Emerson puts it in “Celebration of Intellect”–can put that translation to work, transform that genius into practical power.

Think of the final project, then, as “Emerson’s Scholar Now.” As you turn to working on the project proposal and your further reading for the annotated bibliography, continue to think about Lawrence Buell’s complex insight regarding the ways that readers have learned from Emerson. How do we read Emerson the way he wants books to be read? Or to expand slightly to the context Robinson and Emerson also have in mind, how do we learn from Emerson in the ways that are consistent with his vision of education?


Emerson’s Art and Criticism in the Twenty-First Century: Harold Bloom and TED

November 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

Harold Bloom, one of the more famous living literary critics and theorists, is also among the most well-known readers and critics to have been inspired by Emerson.  He refers to him as “the Mind of America” and “our father Emerson.” Bloom is, if nothing else, a student from Emerson’s school.

Among other things, Bloom developed a highly idiomatic theory of poetic criticism (known by one of the titles of his books, The Anxiety of Influence, with critical perspective analogized from the Kabbalah, a Hebrew mystical tradition and method of interpretation). For Bloom, every great poet is a critic of precursor poets (Stevens and Whitman must wrestle anxiously with Emerson, for example) and every great critic (Bloom, of course, most prominently seeks to make his or her criticism poetic. As Emerson puts it at the end of “Art and Criticism”: “Then the critic is poet.” This is something Bloom has in mind. For Bloom, a key rhetorical principle in the Emersonian toolkit of poetry becoming criticism and criticism becoming poetry is the figure Emerson names in “Art and Criticism” as the “principal power of rhetoric,” namely “metonymy.” [Bloom refers to Emerson and metonymy in his book The Breaking of the Vessels]

How does Emerson’s understanding of metonymy provide a foundation for critical perspective? If metonymy is the rhetorical figure that represents or relates by way of context and contiguity (parts that are touching or proximate), what kind of criticism results? How might such “metonymy” guide your own critical work in the final project?

All conversation, as all literature, appears to me the pleasure of rhetoric, or, I may say, of metonomy. “To make of motes mountains, and of mountains motes,” Isocrates said, “was the orator’s office.” Well, that is what poetry and thinking do. Whatever new object we see, we perceive to be only a new version of our familiar experience, and we set about translating it at once into our parallel facts. We have hereby our vocabulary. [“Art and Criticism”]

What new version and vocabulary of familiar experience might you translate in your project?

For some further reading into Bloom on Emerson, of a sort that might be useful for the final project, and for bibliographic exploration, consider this recorded interview with Bloom from 2003 (the year of the Emerson bicentennial). In the first tape early on, Bloom discusses contemporary Emersonians. This gives us some sense of what, at least according to Bloom, Emersonian means.

Bloom is something of a public intellectual. Though an academic and theorist, longtime professor at Yale, who is also known for publishing books intended for a wider audience, including Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and an entire series of introductory guides to literature designed for high school students. Another place–is it the only place?–we might locate an Emersonian criticism, an intellect speaking to a public audience beyond the academy, is TED. This is something I’d like to explore further. This discussion of TED talks begins with reference to Emerson and the importance of lecturing for his writing. This public forum of intellect from the 19th century, the Lyceum which shaped Emerson’s work and writing, has seemingly moved to a digital forum. This TED talk on the power of aphorism and metaphorically speaking refers briefly to Emerson. With an understanding of Emerson’s theory, not just practice, of creative reading and metonymic thinking–where criticism reveals new versions of familiar experience–we might recognize Emerson’s larger influence in this new media forum of conversation and intelligence. We might even think of the 18 minute limit of TED talks in terms of Emerson’s principle of “compression,” the value of omitting. And we might wonder, yet again, about the problem of getting transcendent ideas and genius into some sort of readable or translatable form. Consider this problem Nathan Heller raises in his essay about TED, “Listen and Learn”:

Should we be grateful to TED for providing this form of transcendence—and on the Internet, of all places? Or should we feel manipulated by one more product attempting to play on our emotions? It’s tricky, because the ideas undergirding a TED talk are both the point and, for viewers seeking a genericTED-type thrill, essentially beside it: the appeal of TED comes as much from its presentation as from its substance.

I am curious to explore this potential parallelism further. I do so with questions and concerns motivating my curiosity. Is there the potential here for conformity. Is TED just the newest kind of house that inevitably comes to confine the spirit? Or a spirit for possibly better understand the houses we live in?

Double Consciousness: Echoes of Emerson in Du Bois and Ellison

November 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

Ralph Waldo Ellison

As we further explore the rhetorical Emerson, continuing with racial implications in his rhetoric of “Fate,” and Emerson’s rhetorical lineage that can be traced in the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Ralph Waldo Ellison in the twentieth century, we should keep in mind Buell’s assertion that Emerson represents well both the promise and the problem of doing socially significant intellectual work. Du Bois and Ellison are intellects who are also socially significant in the broader American culture–one could argue, more significant than Emerson. The question, then, as you read their work after reading “Fate”:  In this intellectual and rhetorical engagement with American society and the issue of race, what do we see and hear that we could say is significant in Emerson?

One of the potential Emersonian relations found in Du Bois emerges with his phrase “double consciousness.” That phrase also appears in Emerson’s “Fate” as well as his address on “The Transcendentalist.” For recent scholarship that explores Emerson and Du Bois, consider this article, Contending Forces‘ Intellectual History: Emerson, Du Bois, and Washington at the Turn of the Century. There are also relations that can be drawn between the two with regard to their vision of education, specifically liberal education. The author Michael Roth addresses some of this in his book Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. Roth will be visiting our campus in February 2016 for a lecture on the topic. Du Bois, to my mind, sounds particularly Emersonian in his argument for what he calls “The Talented Tenth.” The emphasis, there, is for an education that focuses on intellect and genius, rather than one that focuses on manual skills.

Ellison, in his “Hidden Name and Complex Fate,” helps us think about some of the questions of his Emersonian relationship. Because there is a character named “Mr. Emerson” in Invisible Man who is not likable, critics long assumed that Ellison was only lampooning Emerson and his transcendental aloofness from social problems. However, I would point us to recent scholarship by James Albrecht, who argues for a more complex influence in Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison. To my mind, having recently reread Invisible Man with this scholarship in mind, I read Emerson’s relation to Ellison, and recognize significant traces of Emerson’s socially-engaged intellectual work, in the prominence and power of oratory in the novel. A power that Ellison learns from Emerson and writes about in the novel is the rhetorical power that Emerson would call “eloquence.” Ellison shows us how this power is at once socially significant and intellectual.

Finding the right balance for this power–for being or having an intellect, human thinking, but also enacting thought, acting upon intellect–seems to be the conclusion that Emerson reaches in “Fate.” These are the lines where “double consciousness” emerges at the end:

One key, one solution to the mysteries of human condition, one solution to the old knots of fate, freedom, and foreknowledge, exists, the propounding, namely, of the double consciousness. A man must ride alternately on the horses of his private and his public nature, as the equestrians in the circus throw themselves nimbly from horse to horse, or plant one foot on the back of one, and the other foot on the back of the other.

Notice that we are off the ground, but not uplifted into the blithe air. We are seeking to plant our feet on “the horses of [our] public and private  nature,” moving somewhere, and trying to keep our balance. Emerson here forwards an allegorical image circulated by Plato in his dialogue “Phaedrus”: “First the charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character. Therefore in our case the driving is necessarily difficult and troublesome.” The poet Wallace Stevens in the 20th century also picked up this image of movement and balance in an essay titled “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.”

Emerson and the Rhetoric of Race

October 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

Emerson lecturing in 1848 Concord Free Library

You will recall from our discussion and reading of “Self-Reliance” that long-standing conventional wisdom has assumed Emerson’s transcendentalism to be aloof, removed from social concerns, if not hostile to them. We might wonder, then, where Emerson stood regarding the crucial social and political problem at the time of his major work, the 1830s through the Civil War: American slavery. Remembering this passage from “Self-Reliance,” we might understand (knowing how it is easy to misread this essay) where Emerson gets this reputation:

“I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways. If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass? If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, `Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.’ Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it, — else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pules and whines. I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me.”

But, as we should expect by now, Emerson’s perspective on reform generally, and antislavery reform specifically, are more complicated than that. Some of that complication might be found in a re-reading of “Self-Reliance.” This complication of Emerson and reform and race has been pursued in criticism over the last twenty-five years, guided in part by the attention given to Emerson’s antislavery lectures and other writings, demonstrating his active engagement with abolitionism, beginning with his August 1844 address on “Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies.” In his lecture in 1851 “Address to the Citizens of Concord” condemning the Fugitive Slave Law, Emerson renders this engagement in clear terms: “The last year has forced us all into politics,” and later declares, “the law is suicidal and cannot be obeyed.” Here Emerson sounds much more like his “student” Thoreau, known for his essay on “Civil Disobedience” and usually given more credit for acting upon his beliefs.

The Emerson reader and critic most responsible for this work in rethinking and rereading Emerson by way of his antislavery writing is Len Gougeon, author of Virtue’s Hero. A book that builds on Gougeon’s work, while extending the rereading of Emerson and race into twentieth-century writing (and relations to writers like Ralph Waldo Ellison and to cultural forms like jazz) is Michael Magee’s Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Jazz, and Experimental Writing. Versions of the critical view of Emerson that these authors counter include John Carlos Rowe’s At Emerson’s Tomb, who sees Emerson’s legacy for American literature as problematically anti-social. If interested in doing further work on Emerson’s rhetorical engagement with race and reform for the final project, I recommend you look at these works.

What does the 1844 “Emancipation” address show us of Emerson’s rhetoric of race (as I will term his engagement in the issues of anti-slavery and the racial issues that are involved)? How does this rhetorical Emerson compare or contrast with the poetic and philosophical Emerson we have studied thus far? Is this a new Emerson?

Yes and no. The explicit focus on reform is new to our reading; Emerson is not in this address worried that his love afar might be spite at home. In fact, that becomes the argument, that home is not unconnected to what is going on afar. There is, as Emerson memorably and devastatingly puts in, blood in the sugar that derives from slavery, and that sugar is sweetening the tea in Boston. What’s not new, at the same time, is the idea that this institution of slavery can be defeated by the powers of ideas, by the force he terms “eloquence,” by intellect, by a “moral revolution.” At the end of Nature, in the chapter “Prospects,” Emerson anticipates a “revolution in things” that he analogizes to the blind being restored to sight: “As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.” Isn’t the pure idea of human freedom now simply extended to the revolution in the thing of slavery?

I think so. But Emerson complicates matters in the 1844 address by using the word “power” to describe the intellect and applying it to race. Race (and the “form” of race) does and doesn’t matter in the face of this power. Emerson later names this power “Fate” (an 1860 essay we will read next week). Does this power of intellect abolish race? Reinforce it? Make racial distinctions immaterial or more material? (These questions begin to suggest to me why Emerson might be taken up as both hero and villain in America’s history of race and reform).  Here is the passage–I leave it now for your rereading and our further thinking:

I have said that this event interests us because it came mainly from the concession of the whites; I add, that in part it is the earning of the blacks. They won the pity and respect which they have received, by their powers and native endowments. I think this a circumstance of the highest import. Their whole future is in it. Our planet, before the age of written history, had its races of savages, like the generations of sour paste, or the animalcules that wiggle and bite in a drop of putrid water. Who cares for these or for their wars ? We do not wish a world of bugs or of birds ; neither afterward of Scythians, Caraibs or Feejees. The grand style of Nature, her great periods, is all we observe in them. Who cares for oppressing whites, or oppressed blacks, twenty centuries ago, more than for bad dreams ? Eaters and food are in the harmony of Nature; and there too is the germ forever protected, unfolding gigantic leaf after leaf, a newer flower, a richer fruit, in every period, yet its next product is never to be guessed. It will only save what is worth saving; and it saves not by compassion, but by power. It appoints no police to guard the lion but his teeth and claws ; no fort or city for the bird but his wings ; no rescue for flies and mites but their spawning numbers, which no ravages can overcome. It deals with men after the same manner. If they are rude and foolish, down they must go. When at last in a race a new principle appears, an idea, -that conserves it; ideas only save races. If the black man is feeble and not important to the existing races, not on a parity with the best race, the black man must serve, and be exterminated.’ But if the black man carries in his bosom an indispensable element of a new and coming civilization; for the sake of that element, no wrong nor strength nor circumstance can hurt him: he will survive and play his part. So now, the arrival in the world of such men as Toussaint, and the Haytian heroes, or of the leaders of their race in Barbadoes and Jamaica, outweighs in good omen all the English and American humanity. The anti-slavery of the whole world is dust in the balance before this, – is a poor squeamishness and nervousness : the might and the right are here: here is the anti-slave : here is man : and if you have man, black or white is an insignificance. The intellect,-that is miraculous! Who has it, has the talisman: his skin and bones, though they were of the color of night, are transparent, and the everlasting stars shine through, with attractive beams. But a compassion for that which is not and cannot be useful or lovely, is degrading and futile. All the songs and newspapers and money subscriptions and vituperation of such as do not think with us, will avail nothing against a fact. I say to you, you must save yourself, black or white, man or woman; other help is none. I esteem the occasion of this jubilee to be the proud discovery that the black race can contend with the white : that in the great anthem which we call history, a piece of many parts and vast compass, after playing a long time a very low and subdued accompaniment, they perceive the time arrived when they can strike in with effect and take a master’s part in the music. The civility of the world has reached that pitch that their more moral genius is becoming indispensable, and the quality of this race is to be honored for itself. For this, they have been preserved in sandy deserts, in rice-swamps, in kitchens and shoe-shops, so long : now let them emerge, clothed and in their own form.

Editing Workshop: The Poetics of Sentences

October 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

As we have seen and read, Emerson is thought to have applied his poetic theory best in his prose. His sentences are his poetic lines.

When we revise and when we edit, we can also think of our sentences and our words with reference to poetics, ways for making  the essay move. Here are some ways for giving more attention to the specificity of sentences and words.

  1. Varieties of Sentence Style. A useful overview of what sentences are, how they work, the different kinds.Sentence variation is effective poetically and rhetorically in an essay–so having a better grasp of sentence variety will help. A
  2. Syntax: Parataxis vs. Hypotaxis. See this short article for a discussion of the two basic ways of organizing sentences. Emerson’s sentence style is known for its parataxis.There is also further discussion of this here that extends to periodic vs. running style of sentences. Since variety, again, is effective, think of providing some variation of paratactic and hypotactic.
  3. Topic Sentences and Signposting. Topic sentences are a key element in the arrangement of the essay–how the writer moves the reader through the argument. Signposts are key for coherence. Emerson’s essays, despite appearances, effectively and deliberately use both. In fact, part of the problem may be, as the philosopher Stanley Cavell noted, that every sentence in an Emerson essay functions like a topic sentence.
  4. Specificity of Language. Edit out phrases that leave things the argument or idea  vague; replace with more specific reference. Sometimes this is a matter of selecting stronger verbs and more complex nouns; sometimes, this is a matter of substituting for some of the pronouns we use too frequently (it, he, she) or too loosely (this, without a reference to what this is: this idea of creation…). It is also a matter of editing for more specific verbs. Consider, as one tool for getting a better grasp on the implications of words (as well as relations, synonyms), using Wordnik.
    1. Consider: is there a word in Emerson’s essays, or in Dickinson’s poems, or even in the entirety of Leaves of Grass, that you could argue wasn’t somehow deliberate and specific in its purpose? For a good poetic demonstration of, and argument for, specificity, read Robert PInsky’s poem “Shirt.”
  5. Worst sentence ever? You can try your hand, with an international contest–The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, named for the guy who wrote this sentence:
    1. It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” — Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

Elements of Dickinson’s Poetics

October 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Dickinson's handwritten manuscript of her poem...

Image via Wikipedia

To see the Summer Sky

Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie–

True Poems flee–      [#1472]

Here are some elements of Dickinson’s poetics, her grammar. For Dickinson, it seems, poetry is and isn’t formal, can and can’t be captured in a structure: it lies in a book–thus hearing one of her poetic elements, the play on lie. This tension between the formal and the resistance to form should sound familiar, given its prominence in Emerson’s thinking and Whitman’s example.

  • Form: there is form, and the resistance to form. As  Professor Folsom argues in “Transcendental Poetics,” Higginson thought of Dickinson as struggling a bit with formlessness, in need of help–but not as wildly formless as he viewed Whitman: phrase without form. Our foray into Dickinson scholarship and its more recent interests in the manuscripts of Dickinson, in the implications of her variants, suggests one way to think of Dickinson’s riddle of formless form. Her writing in its materiality (her physical use of the page) is both formal and at the same time, resistant to form.
    • For an overview of Dickinson’s manuscripts, visit this page of the Dickinson museum.
  • Rhetoric: Like Whitman and Emerson before her, I would argue that we have another poet interested in the argument of poetry as much, if not more, than in particular conventions of poems. In other words, there is rhetoric for us to reckon with.
    • Compression: A prominent rhetorical element of her poetry I would identify as its compression. This is, on one hand, a formal element: her poems take place in short space; this is not Leaves of Grass. But compression is also a key rhetorical figure, one associated in particular with metonymy. [In his lecture Art and Criticism, Emerson identifies “compression” (and metonymy) as key virtues of rhetoric: “The silences, pauses, of an orator are as telling as his words.1 What the poet omits exalts every syllable that he writes.”] Metonymy figures association and reference by way of compression, reduction. Something is taken out, elided, in the process of making the connection, leaving the reader with relation that is suggestively partial, somewhat elliptical. For example, one might imagine: “In my emotional state I felt as though the mourner who feels overwhelmed in her head attending a funeral” becomes “I felt a funeral in my brain.” This extreme sort of elliptical metonymy is known by the rhetorical term metalepsis, figuring by way of remote association–the poet skips a step or two in suggesting the relationship, or crosses (transgresses) narrative boundaries. (In film,, for example, metalepsis is evident when a song playing on the radio in a scene becomes part of the film soundtrack, or the reverse). A vivid example of this sort of transgression  comes in another famous opening figure: My life had stood a loaded gun. This example is so wildly remote in association as to be unconventional and trangressive. The rhetorical term for that is catechresis: basically, a mixed metaphor or other misapplication of a word or figure according to conventional standards.
      • In comparison to Whitman and to Emerson, there is a good deal more metaphor we reckon with in Dickinson. True. And yet, there is more metonymy than some might think–particularly if we think of the ways many of her figures, seemingly metaphors (like a loaded gun) may be more metonymic (associational, contextual), just with the association having been removed or compressed or condensed.
    • Consider this electronic poem, “This is Not a Poem,” for elements of the way Dickinson’s poems compress–and also, perhaps, desire to flee from the page.
  • Punctuation.
    • The dashes, of course. Perhaps another marker of transgression and compression. I like the idea that some in the class have begun to explore, that Dickinson writes and wants to be read more dynamically, dramatically. The dashes, from this perspective, signal movement in her poetry and mark places not to read, but to perform or play the poem.
  • Diction.
    • I notice the ways her word choice moves from very specific, capitalized nouns (in the manner of German) that are uncommon or unusual in some form: Sagacity, Crucifixion, Circuit, Circumference. And then others, such as the relative pronoun “this” or the adverb/adjective “then” that leave things rather suggestively vague. The “then” at the end of “I felt a funeral”–is it an adverb, marking time, or an adjective, indicating a next step that has been cut off by the dash? Or in the same poem, the word “here” which rhymes with ear, thus evoking its homonym, hear, at the same time that it signals its location–here, this poem, this reading, this hearing .Or “this” in any location, when used without a clear referent: suggests the possibility, always, of this poem, her writing, sitting in her room. Something like Whitman’s “you.”
      • from the perspective of linguistics and semiotic theory (the study of signs), words such as “here” and “this” (like “I” or “you”) can be thought of as indexes–a sign that points to something. For more on indexicality.
    • When not confusing or vague, there is the simple oddity of a word choice that strikes me. To the point where Dickinson’s imagery, her conceits, seem almost metaphysical, in the manner of a poet like John Donne. Consider: I hear a fly buzz when I died–the way the fly is “interposed” in the middle of the poem.
  • Sight.
    • A theme, among others: Dickinson’s interest in the eye. Some of that seems to be biographical–Dickinson experienced severe problems with her vision at one point in her life. But there is also a way to think about sight as one of her poetry’s senses, given the ways her poems exist on the page: both in terms of the manuscripts and the printed versions. The visual form matters for any poem; for this poet, it seems crucial. For a compelling and insightful critical look at sight in Dickinson, in relation to nineteenth-century photography, read Marta Werner’s digital essay.
  • Sound.
    • We spoke initially of Dickinson’s use of common meter, of the highly metrical element of her poetry, but always at some sort of slant: for example, the use of slant or half rhymes–where the rhyme is almost there, but partially…missing, emerging, compressed? I note from “This world is not conclusion” the tension or difference the poet draws between music and sound: music is invisible, but sound is positive.
      • The American composer Aaron Copland’s version of “I felt a funeral in my brain” (note the last stanza is missing). It helps us think about the performance of the poetry as necessary for reading.
  • Syntax
    • As Donna Campbell points out on her Dickinson site, there are different kinds of Dickinson poems, often marked with a different syntax in the opening.
      • What kinds of poems did she write?
        According to William Shullenberger and Sharon Cameron, Emily Dickinson has characteristic ways of opening poems:

          1. Definitions: S LV SC form.
            • “Pain has an element of blank.
            • “This was a Poet–It is that
            • “Longing is like the Seed”
          2. Riddles, some with lack of specific referents for pronouns.
            • “I like to see it lap the miles”
            • “A narrow fellow in the grass”
          3. Declarations: “I’m wife–I’ve finished that”
          4. Landscape descriptions.
          5. Tales, parables, allegories
          6. Requests
          7. Complaints
          8. Confessions
          9. Prayers

Dickinson: invisible as music

October 19, 2015 § 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 compression? 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?

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 lose 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 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


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) available at the library, or the Dickinson Electronic Archives. 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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