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

Transcendentalism: The Luminous Allusion of Emerson’s School

August 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

Consider this complicated image of transcendentalism, courtesy of Google Books.

There is somewhat in this image–“somewhat” (by the way) is an Emersonian phrasing for some thing, some part–that reiterates and anticipates our focus in this course on “transcendentalism” in the work of a major American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his influence on (his relation to, his “education” of) numerous writers or “students” who read and follow him, including Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William James, W.E.B. DuBois, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ralph Ellison, Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver, and others. What is transcendentalism?

The cover of the book, a brief anthology of selected work from Emerson and Thoreau, suggests one primary association. Transcendentalism has something to do with nature–with writers interested in nature, a love for nature.  This interest will indeed be found in Emerson and the writers and artists that follow him. But the tree become head, or the head becoming a tree, offers something other than a familiar image of nature (familiar neither to tree nor to man); it’s interesting, but also somewhat unsettling. It makes me think of Emerson’s reference (in his second essay on “Nature”) to Nature as an incarnation or precipitation of mind.

The divine circulations never rest nor linger. Nature is the incarnation of a thought, and turns to a thought again, as ice becomes water and gas. The world is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is forever escaping again into the state of free thought. Hence the virtue and pungency of the influence on the mind, of natural objects, whether inorganic or organized. Man imprisoned, man crystallized, man vegetative, speaks to man impersonated. That power which does not respect quantity, which makes the whole and the particle its equal channel, delegates its smile to the morning, and distills its essence into every drop of rain. Every moment instructs, and every object: for wisdom is infused into every form. It has been poured into us as blood; it convulsed us as pain; it slid into us as pleasure; it enveloped us in dull, melancholy days, or in days of cheerful labor; we did not guess its essence, until after a long time. [Emerson, “Nature”]

That imagery and idealism was caricatured in Emerson’s time, but also embraced. Transcendentalism is a cultural context for these writers (ideas and thinking from the mid-nineteenth century in America, particularly in the northeast where all three live and work); so it is one lens we can use. [and for more background on this lens, I refer you to Martin Bickman’s helpful overview of Transcendentalism]. But transcendentalism is also famously hard to characterize or fix into any final form or definition. That will also serve us as somewhat of a lens through which to read Emerson,  since I will argue that Emerson conceives of a literature and a writing/reading experience that is luminous and allusive. This is the language from “American Scholar” we will encounter in our first assignment:

One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world. We then see, what is always true, that, as the seer’s hour of vision is short and rare among heavy days and months, so is its record, perchance, the least part of his volume. The discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakespeare, only that least part,–only the authentic utterances of the oracle;– all the rest he rejects, were it never so many times Plato’s and Shakespeare’s.

This sense of allusive (and elusive?) luminousness suggests both a problem and a potential for reading and grasping and learning from Emerson. That’s our primary goal–to learn from Emerson such that we, liberal arts scholars of the very sort Emerson often addressed in his lectures, may put his ideas to work in our scholarship; our secondary goal is to consider how others’ reading and learning from Emerson has shaped their work and more broadly, the current of American culture. (A tertiary goal, for me, as a scholar doing work on Emerson and his rhetoric of liberal education, is to engage you with some of these educational ideals shared between Emerson and the liberal arts tradition and see what I can learn from you in the process). Those writers and readers and learners have long pointed out the challenge of learning from an Emerson who is concerned precisely with how we learn, worried about the ways we are schooled. One well-known version of this recognition is given by Walt Whitman, who characterized “Emersonianism” in a piece titled luminously “Emerson’s Books (The Shadows of Them)”:

The best part of Emeronianism is, it breeds the giant that destroys itself. Who wants to be any man’s mere follower? lurks behind every page. No teacher ever taught, that has so provided for his pupil’s setting up independently–no truer evolutionist. (Whitman: Poetry and Prose [Library of America] 1055)

And, always, there is Emerson himself to reckon with. “I have been writing and speaking what were once called novelties, for twenty five or thirty years,” Emerson writes in an 1859 journal, “and have not now one disciple”: “Why? Not that what I said was not true; not that it has not found intelligent receivers but because it did not go from any wish in me to bring men to me, but to themselves. I delight in driving them from me…. This is my boast that I have no school and no follower” (JMN 14: 258).

Our primary critical guide throughout the course, the Emerson scholar Lawrence Buell, characterizes this challenge in this way: “Emerson as Anti-Mentor.”

To begin a seminar in this way is a matter of provocation. This is an Emersonian place to begin.

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