Elements of Dickinson’s Poetics

October 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Dickinson's handwritten manuscript of her poem...

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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:

Transcendental Afterlives

December 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

We have already seen some ways Whitman and Emerson live on in commercials.

Consider the recent film “Tree of Life” by the director/writer Terence Malick. It strikes me as filled with a transcendentalism that echoes with Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson–right down to an interest (as far as I can tell) in Emerson’s idea of the radical correspondences between spirit and matter, mind and world. This makes it alternately beautiful  to watch and difficult to grasp. It is out on DVD, and at least worth a look over the winter break. Here is a review of the film in The New Yorker that compares watching the movie to reading Emerson’s “Over-Soul.” Another review that directly links the director and this film to Emerson and transcendentalism, and yet another; another that links specifically to Emerson’s vision of “History.; another. As you can see, Emerson seems to live on through the lens of this screen writer and director–one who studied philosophy at Harvard (with the Emersonian Stanley Cavell, in Emerson Hall, no less) before giving it up to go into film.

Consider also a project by a poet, translating Emily Dickinson’s poems (apparently all of them) from English into English. The project is described in this recent article in the Chronicle.

Transcendental Works and Days: The Theory of This Particular Wednesday

November 29, 2011 § 2 Comments

I did some further reading in Emerson. The essay is titled “Works and Days,”collected in the 1870 volume Society and Solitude. I had forgotten that I had read it about two years ago; in fact, I discovered that I had already read it (remembered that I had forgotten it…) by finding some notes I saved on the web. Our thoughts come back to us, so Emerson says, with an alienated majesty.

My current, primary interest in this essay now is that it contains a vision and a vocabulary of technology that the 20th century media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, puts to use. Emerson writes of technological tools here as “extensions” of the human body. McLuhan borrows the very word in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. So, one of my current projects is to pursue further this interesting and somewhat unlikely association, Emerson and McLuhan. I have been planning and composting for some time an essay that explores Emerson in relation to digital technology, something I have carried by the handle, Googling Emerson: is the web, I wonder, or Google Books, more specifically, the logical extension of Emerson’s notion of creative reading, of luminous allusion? McLuhan’s connection may give me one way to frame the critical narrative.

Of such stuff critical readings are made. So, for the final project, think about going forward (into unlikely connections and comparisons, links) as well as going back. Critical readings, good arguments, are built upon experiment and surprise.

I would suggest, in the end, that the vision (and version) of transcendentalism we have explored, by way of Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson, also makes an argument for, and toward, experiencing and experimenting with the surprising and the spiritual–the enigmatical, as Emerson names it–in the everyday world of Wednesday. Here is Emerson toward the end of “Works and Days.”

And him I reckon the most learned scholar, not who can unearth for me the buried dynasties of Sesostris and Ptolemy, the Sothiac era, the Olympiads and consulships, but who can unfold the theory of this particular Wednesday. Can he uncover the ligaments concealed from all but piety, which attach the dull men and things we know to the First Cause ? These passing fifteen minutes, men think, are time, not eternity; are low and subaltern, are but hope or memory ; that is, the way to or the way from welfare, but not welfare. Can he show their tie ? That interpreter shall guide us from a menial and eleemosynary existence into riches and stability. He dignifies the place where he is.’ This mendicant America, this curious, peering, itinerant, imitative America, studious of Greece and Rome, of England and Germany, will take off its dusty shoes, will take off its glazed traveller’s-cap and sit at home with repose and deep joy on its face. The world has no such landscape, the aeons of history no such hour, the future no equal second opportunity. Now let poets sing ! now let arts unfold !

One more view remains. But life is good only when it is magical and musical, a perfect timing and consent, and when we do not anatomize it. You must treat the days respectfully, you must be a day yourself, and not interrogate it like a college professor. The world is enigmatical, – everything said, and everything known or done, – and must not be taken literally, but genially. We must be at the top of our condition to understand anything rightly. You must hear the bird’s song without attempting to render it into nouns and verbs. Cannot we be a little abstemious and obedient ? Cannot we let the morning be ?

And lest we think that Emerson urges us here into a simplistic view of simplicity, he complicates the picture in the very next paragraph:

Everything in the universe goes by indirection. There are no straight lines…. Well, human life is made up of such transits. There can be no greatness with-out abandonment.

I suggest, in the end, that we find in Whitman and Dickinson, as in Emerson, a practice of indirection (a very Whitmanian word here) and the slanting of no straight lines (Dickinson) informed by a poetic theory of abandonment: understanding and writing and transcending the enigmatical world not literally, but genially.

Dickinson and Howe

November 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

I chose Howe’s My Emily Dickinson for some critical perspective on the poet. However, I also have it in mind as an example, in Howe’s own writing and thinking, of a descendant of Dickinson. And of Emerson. Howe’s book strikes me as very much in the mode of whatever Emerson means by “creative reading” in “American Scholar”: one must be an inventor to read well. I think Howe is reading Dickinson well by reading inventively. This is insightful criticism; this isn’t easy to read or grasp, at the same time.  Among the initial insights I think we–in this course–can grasp: for Dickinson, as for Emerson before her, and Wallace Stevens after her, “Poetry is the scholar’s art” (15). Howe surely demonstrates this mix of scholarship and poetics in her writing about Dickinson. What have we seen of this scholar’s art in Dickinson? What does that mean, a poetry written as a scholar’s art?

For Howe, this means Dickinson deals with her language not just as a poet, but as a scholar deals with language. I recognize this in the final line of part one: Forcing, abbreviating, pushing, padding, subtracting, riddling, interrogating, re-writing, she pulled text from text. (29)

Here is Susan Howe’s recent poem, That This. It sheds some light on Howe’s langauge poetics; for more on Howe and language poetry, visit her page at Poets.org. I hear in these pronouns variations on Dickinson’s interest in the markers of relation–this, then, here–that bridge eternity with the very moment of the poem, the general with the specific. In this sense, since we as readers are related in that relation, situated in the “this” of the poem we are hearing now in our brains, or holding in our hands, this that serves something like Whitman’s “you.” Here, hear.

For audio of Howe reading and briefly discussing “My Life had stood–a loaded gun,” the poem central to My Emily Dickinson.

Dickinson: Higginson’s occupation

November 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

What vision of poetry was Higginson, was Dickinson, occupied with?

In “Transcendental Poetics,” Ed Folsom provides us with this insight regarding Higginson’s view of poetry that influences his understanding (and posthumous editing) of Dickinson. For Higginson, poetry had to be “perfected” before being printed. Poetry, above all, required form. For Higginson, Whitman’s poetry was formless, it had phrase but not form. Dickinson was, for him, more formal–but ultimately (from his later perspective), her poetry lacked poetic form. This sets up another vivid example in Professor Folsom’s argument of the way Whitman and Dickinson are not transcendental poets so much as creators of a transcendental poetics that relates to but ultimately resists the formal vision of transcendental poetry: Higginson’s transcendental vision of poetry mentors Dickinson, helps bring her into print, but largely by offering her a model of poetry that she subverts in her own poetics.

As we turn to looking at the manuscript origins of Dickinson’s poetry, her fascicles and their variations, we can think more about this tension between the formless and the form. One argument, we will see, is that Dickinson isn’t “formless” in Higginson’s pejorative sense of the word; rather, she is resisting, in her more fluid form, the print implications of perfection–of being finished, of having a final form.

Some further reading on the Dickinson-Higginson connection:

Higginson’s 1862 article “Letter to a Young Contributor”, the one that Dickinson reads and responds to with her April 15 letter: are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

page from the article where he emphasizes  perfection before printing.

Higginson on Dickinson’s letters to him (published after her death)

Scan of Dickinson’s first letter to Higginson.

Site that looks at Dickinson and Higginson, with excerpts from two leters.

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