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:


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.

The Poet Whom Emerson Describes

September 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Toward the end of “The Poet,” Emerson writes, famously: “I look in vain fro the poet whom I describe.” Famous, in large part, because it sounds like he is describing the kind of poetry we will get, in the next decade, with Whitman and Leaves of Grass. Many have imagined Whitman reading these lines and answering the call. When we get to Whitman, we will certainly get back to Emerson’s conception of the poet and see if it does indeed make sense to think of Whitman’s poetry as Emersonian.

But I also want to open a larger door on this question and suggest that we continue to think about the kind of poet/poetry–and more broadly, poetics–that Emerson describes: and to ask where we do or don’t find this in American culture today, or in more recent years. In terms of finding Emerson’s poet in the form of poetry, one American poet from late 20th century that is often thought of as Emersonian is A.R. Ammons. You can see from this description from the Poetry Foundation that he is viewed as Emerson’s “progeny.” Here is an example, his poem “Poetics”:

I look for the way
things will turn
out spiralling from a center,
the shape
things will take to come forth in

so that the birch tree white
touched black at branches
will stand out
totally its apparent self:

I look for the forms
things want to come as

from what black wells of possibility,
how a thing will

not the shape on paper — though
that, too — but the
uninterfering means on paper:

not so much looking for the shape
as being available
to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours.

Where else might we look for Emerson’s poet–outside of poetry, or at least, outside of places we traditionally think of as poetry?  We will see that Emerson reiterates, particularly in “Poetry and Imagination,” that poetry is found in the low and common and familiar, in the street–and thus, he argues, people say they hate poetry and are in fact, in their everyday lives, poetic. In that sense, do we have in more recent years, or at any point in the last 100 years, an Emersonian poet of the everyday? Whom would you suggest?

If we follow Emerson’s thinking (the kind we see in the “Shakspeare” essay, for example, from Representative Men), this latter-day Emersonian poet would show more than a line of “influence” from Emerson. He or she (or it, given that I suppose it could be some sort of intelligent machine, these days) would at some level be more Emerson than Emerson, by showing/revealing the “Emerson” we share with him.

The editors of the Norton edition of Emerson’s Prose suggest (in footnote to “The Poet,” p. 192) that Emily Dickinson’s “inebriate of air” is inspired by Emerson’s discussion of the “intellect inebriated,” the poet who gets drunk on nature and genius, drinking God’s wine. See what you think; here is Dickinson (in a 1924 edited version of the poem):

I TASTE a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!
Inebriate of air am I, 5
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.
When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove’s door, 10
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!
Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler 15
Leaning against the sun!

In our discussion of “Circles,” I began to list some keywords from the essay that I read as markers of Emerson’s philosophy of writing; that is to say, ideas and language that speak to Emerson’s ideas, but also are related implicitly to his writing: transition, series, circulation, proximity, surprise, experiment, enthusiasm, thinking, abandonment. Look for variations on these in “The Poet,” particularly around a keyword in that essay: metamorphosis. There is also this line from “Circles” that relates to writing in its focus on Emerson’s primary means of thinking the world and its metamorphic relations, words: The simplest words,–we do not know what they mean, except when we love and aspire. Difficult to fully comprehend what that means, but I would suggest it may be an Emersonian definition of what poets are doing with words. It makes me think, for sure, of Whitman and Dickinson. So in your reading of Emerson’s “Poet” and his poetics this week (and later with Whitman and Dickinson), look for love and aspiration in relation to words.

One final point. Whitman attends a lecture version of Emerson’s “The Poet” in New York City in 1842, and reports on it for a newspaper. The lecture has some differences from the published essay.

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