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:

Whitman’s poetic grammar: attending to process

October 13, 2015 § 1 Comment

“Poem of the Singers, and of The Words Of Poems” 1856 Leaves of Grass

With the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman sends to Emerson a poetry that would seem to be a direct response to his call (in “The Poet”) for a “metre-making argument.” Such is a poetry that moves beyond the conventional forms and metres of poety: a poetry that finds its source in the very forms of America (a poem in our eyes). In his letter back to Emerson, included in the 1856 edition (standing in for the preface, perhaps) Whitman addresses this notion that his poetry, or America’s poetry, is to be “commensurate” with the people he goes among in the city:

These are to be attended to; I am myself more drawn here than to those authors, publishers, importations, reprints, and so forth. [639]

So creating a poetry that attends to the people is one way to describe the “argument” of Leaves of Grass: the poetry derives from the people and finds its audience there as well.

What becomes Section 15 of “Song of Myself” (page 23, beginning with “The pure contralto sings”) provides a good example of this sort of attending. This is the place where the poem turns headlong into its first catalog of people and occupations (as though Whitman is walking with us through the city), attending to them in each line, and in the end, deriving or “weaving” the lines of this very “song of myself” from them, with them. This section is a good example of the significance of metonymy in Whitman. It speaks to the argument that Ed Folsom makes in “Transcendental Poetics”: that Whitman would seem to take Emerson’s notion of the poet’s use of metaphor and emblem and extend it more toward metonymy, “generat[ing] an ecological set of connections that renders as metonym what we previously thought of as metaphor: We are not like these things in nature; we are these things, given time and space enough” [270]. And we could extend this to the insight Professor Folsom offers on the Whitman documentary–that Whitman discovers his poetics in walking the city, seeing various people and realizing his relation to them: that could be me; I could be you.

So metonymy is a more specific poetic characteristic of Whitman–a key figure in his poetics, his poetic grammar, so to speak. Think back to the ways we have encountered Emerson’s own interest in metonymy (as he names it in “Poetry and Imagination”); and then consider Whitman as though he is putting this theory of organic or democratic or pragmatic poetics (as I argued in my post on Emerson’s poetics of convertibility) into the practice of his lines. This may make Whitman more or less Emersonian, depending on the lines you have in mind. What other examples of Whitman’s metonymy would you focus on as significant?

I hear it in this moment from “Poem of the Singers, and of the Words of Poems.” Whitman recalls Emerson’s argument from “The Poet” that all people are poets in their interest in song, but the poet has a “finer ear” for receiving and making something of the primal songs. Whitman recalls this, then fulfills it in the lines that emerge, the poem he creates out of the various names for poets and their poems. Notice how his use of repetition, the repeated term “singer” attached to each of the words, itself makes a poetry, a continual rhyme. He makes a poem out of the words of poems. This, too, is metonymy.

The singers are welcomed, understood, appear
often enough—but rare has the day been,
likewise the spot, of the birth of the maker
of poems,
Not every century, or every five centuries, has
contained such a day, for all its names.


The singers of successive hours of centuries may
have ostensible names, but the name of each
of them is one of the singers,
The name of each is, a heart-singer, eye-singer,
hymn-singer, law-singer, ear-singer, head-
singer, sweet-singer, wise-singer, droll-
singer, thrift-singer, sea-singer, wit-singer,
echo-singer, parlor-singer, love-singer, pas-
sion-singer, mystic-singer, weeping-singer,
fable-singer, item-singer, or something else.


All this time, and at all times, wait the words of
poems; [1856, p. 263]

The vision of attending to the people, and generating a poetry for them, and of them, or from them, is thus richly metonymic. To echo Emerson from “Experience,” I (and this book, these lines) am a fragment and these are a fragment of me. That line evokes another element of Whitman’s poetic grammar, one explored by Angus Fletcher in A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination. Fletcher identifies as a key aspect of Whitman’s poetics the grammatical characteristic of middle voice. In short, this is a voice between active and passive–one English doesn’t really have. Fletcher hears it in Whitman’s characteristic use of intransitive verbs and reflexive phrases, in phrasings that “remain perpetually intransitive, like the vast majority of his middle-voicing verbs, his verbs of sensation, perception, and cognition.”  Fletcher goes on to extend this interest in “middle-voicing verbs,” to Whitman’s use of the present participle: “the phrase of the pure verb, the verb before it is locked down into predication” (109). Fletcher also identifies metonymy as crucial to the poetics Whitman invents (with some help from Emerson) for American poetry. This mixture of metonymy and middle voice creates something Fletcher names the “environment-poem” in which the focus of the poetry shifts from conventional categories of substance or product to process.

For in any environment substance is only known and functions only as (and in) process–precisely the subject matter of the new science of Complexity Theory, with its concern for emergent adaptations. The reader is asked to join in the formal experience of evolving with the environment created by the ever-expanding book. [173]

So: metonymy, middle voice, anaphora, present participles…. What other elements of Whitman’s poetic grammar do we notice in this evolving environment of Leaves of Grass?

Emersonian Poetics

October 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

In his chapter on “Emersonian Poetics,” Buell advances a fascinating claim: that Emerson’s poetry, which has long been viewed as weaker than his essays, which have long been viewed as the place where Emerson’s poetic sensibility shines–that the poems in some way are meant to fail. Buell argues from an understanding of what he calls an “aesthetics of unfinished business” and an “aesthetics of incompletion” that is part of a “Romantic Fragment Aesthetics” (109).

Does this make sense: given Emerson’s philosophy (as we have seen it in his essays, such as “Experience” and “Circles”)? given Emerson’s aesthetic philosophy proposed in “The Poet”? given his actual poetry? What of the implication, therefore, that Emerson has to fail as a poet in order to be a good Emersonian poet?

For some further thinking on this interesting problem/potential of Emerson’s poetics, we can turn to Joel Porte’s argument from “The Problem of Emerson” (included in our Norton edition). Porte contends that Emerson doesn’t fail as a writer, but that he has never, until more recently, been fully and appropriately read by critics as a writer, in terms of his writing.

The Emerson we now see, I am convinced, has always existed; indeed it is the same Emerson whom William James was moved to praise as an artist. This Emerson’s interest and appeal reside in the imaginative materials and structures of his writing–in his tropes and topoi, his metaphor and verbal wit, in the remarkable consistencies of his conceiving mind and executing hand. [684]

Here is an insight from Dan Chiasson’s recent New Yorker essay on Emerson’s poetics, and the difference between the essays and the poems:

Emerson’s essays are like wonder handbooks: they tell you where to find it, how to use it, what to do when it fails you. “Nature,” “The Poet,” “Self-Reliance,” “Circles,” “Experience”: you can use these essays to become enchanted; many dejected secular people have gone to them regularly to see the world in renewed and refreshed terms of beauty. They outfit you for a walk in the woods or an ordinary morning. They are modular: you can remember bits of one, bits of another, mess up the order, mix and match. Their authority comes not from the Church or the ministry but from the power of their prose. Emerson must have realized that half of the people in church were there to hear language electrified by the preacher; his essays are, as Harold Bloom put it, “interior oratory,” free-range sermons that make their own occasions.

Chiasson argues a thesis that compares to what Buell will pose in his chapter “Emersonian Poetics”: the argument of poems overwhelms the form. This makes the poetry fail to some extent in the poem, but succeed to a related extent in the failure–given the poetic theory of forms Emerson proposes. But Chiasson takes the argument a step further in suggesting the ways that Emerson’s poetics matter for his two most important, though different, “disciples” (Whitman and Dickinson). Here is his provocative conclusion: “If Emerson’s poems had been just a little better than they were, we might not have American literature as we know it. Our greatest writers, seeing their own visions usurped, might have been content to remain his readers.”

Talk about complication and conflict–very useful as the basis for our next writing project. Would you argue at this point, therefore, that Mary Oliver’s “Snow Geese” is a better or more faithful Emersonian poem than the poetry Emerson produced? Or 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.

Is it too much to see this problem reiterated in the contemporary poetics of conceptual poetry, in the work of someone like Kenneth Goldsmith? I note, at least, the echoes back to “Quotation and Originality.”

Emerson’s Poet: The Convertible

October 4, 2015 § 3 Comments

No, Emerson’s convertible is not a car–though given Emerson’s interest in “the highway” (a phrase he will use in “Experience”) and in the ways the Emersonian spirit is taken up by artists of the road (Whitman, Kerouac, Springsteen), it is not too much of a stretch. Emerson’s “convertible” has come up often in his writing; this key word appears in “Poetry and Imagination,” for example:

Your condition, your employment, is the fable of you. The world is thoroughly anthropomorphized, as if it had passed through the body and mind of man…. We are advertised that there is nothing to which man is not related; that every thing is convertible into every other. [Norton edition, 302]

Emerson goes on to refer to this convertibility as “this metonymy.” I thus identify in Emerson’s interest in the convertibility and conditions of life that poetry highlights, or should, four related characteristics or (to use his term) “conditions” of Emerson’s poetics.

Art is the path of the creator to his work. The paths, or methods, are ideal and enternal, though few men ever see them, not the artist himself for years, or for a lifetime, unless he come into the conditions. [“The Poet,” 196]

I would argue that these four conditions of Emerson’s vision of writing and the writer are crucial to American literature but also in need of remembering. We don’t think of these much when we think of the words: poet, poetry, writer, literature. Convertibility means that poetry (like the Poet) is…

  1. democratic: the focus is on the “daily” (and its transubstantiation) and the social, the common and even the low; sounds most like Whitman in these references. He views Shakespeare’s genius along these lines as well.
  2. pragmatic: the focus is on “use” and the uses of poetry and nature; think William Carlos Williams (no ideas but in things); think William James; think of the end of “Experience”: the transformation of genius into practical power.
  3. metonymic: the focus is on relation and contiguity (the proximities) as well as contingency (accident, surprise); what lies near; the near explains the far–and the fact that language is the means or medium of this convertibility, as well as one of its best examples. I referred to metonymy initially in our reading of Emerson’s Nature (his understanding of relation, of parts related to an unseen whole. For further thinking on the poetics of metonymy and its difference from metaphor, read this post from my blog on The Essay.
  4. organic: the focus is on living forms. “Rightly, poetry is organic. We cannot know things by words and writing, but only by taking a central position in the universe and living it its forms. We sink to rise” [309]

Think how this last point and principle–sinking to rise–reiterates the previous three. Convertibility thus relates the local to the global, the near to the far. And it unsettles (to use the word from “Circles) or de-centers the individual at the very same time that it relates her or him to something larger–but something other. Think of this line from “The Transcendentalist” where Emerson has in mind the “manifold” symbolic nature of the world–and think of the poetic implications for this concept, the sort of writing that such a vision of relational thought would create.

His thought,–that is the Universe. His experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself, centre alike of him and of them, and necessitating him to regard all things as having a subjective or relative existence, relative to that aforesaid Unknown Centre of him. [95]

As a way to grasp the poetics (the writing) of this passage, not just its concept, is it too much to see and hear in Emerson’s first sentence, the transition marked by the dash, Whitman’s ellipses or Dickinson’s dashes? We will have to wait and see. This is suggests that as we turn a corner in the course to focus on Emersonian Poetics, on his interest in the Poet, and his influence in American poetry, particularly by way of poets such as Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Frost, are into new territory? Or are we continuing to think about Emerson’s philosophy of intellect, of the scholar, of experience?

Here is a recent reading of Emerson’s essay “The Poet” by the contemporary essayist Sven Birkerts. This suggests that there is a familiar problem that we encounter in Emerson’s conception of poetry and the poet’s stance, or argument. One word for that familiar problem: soul.

[The image is from Robert Frank’s The Americans, the book by the photographer I would offer as an Emersonian artist/poet; I think of photography in metonymic terms–the way it represents the “conditions” of its subject]

Emerson and the American Ego

September 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

We enter this week headlong into the territory most familiar to people who might have read a bit of Emerson: Emerson’s SELF, lead by the essay “Self-Reliance.” It has become, ironically, perhaps the most conventional of his essays–the one always referred to as evidence of what a literary critic called “The Imperial Self.” A more recent version of this convention, this critique of Emersonian egotism came in 2003, in the celebrations around his 200th birthday. An editorial in the New York Times blamed Emerson for the American tradition of self-absorption, the excessive egotism that leads to greed on Wall Street and go-it-alone foreign policy. Another version of this critique, less aggressive but still distrustful of Emerson, came from John Updike in the New Yorker. A more recent and more positive view of the Emersonian self and its lessons for us today can be found in this Op-Ed by the literary critic Harold Bloom “Out of Panic, Self-Reliance.” And this piece in the Chronicle, “Giving Emerson the Boot,” I think is especially flagrant in its understanding of the egoistic Emerson. And one more from 2011: “The Foul Reign of Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’.”  No subtlety here.

I said irony regarding these conventional views of the Emersonian self: the irony, of course, given that Emerson writes (in these very essays, certainly in “Self-Reliance”) about resisting convention and conformity of thinking. So what do you think? If the convention is Emersonian imperial ego, is this all that we find in this essay–or is there a resisting vision, a contrast, if not a contradiction, that we can read?

One way into this, I will suggest, is to consider more directly what Emerson himself writes and thinks regarding contradiction (and also convention). I think there is more to say than what, traditionally, people have said for Emerson. Emerson, as we have begun to discuss, is interested in a more complex understanding of our language, of or our nature, of our self and its relations. Emerson, I propose, seeks to complicate the conventions that would include the very readings, and what he will call in the essay, the “misunderstanding,” of the essay, and its key term.

Here is an entire issue of the journal In Character devoted to the idea and the word “self-reliance.” On the side of complication, one could also note the way “Self-Reliance” figured into President Obama’s 2009 Inaugural.

And to thicken the irony: here is a commercial I recall from my senior year of high school. Believe it or not, Emerson is quoted from numerous lines in “Self-Reliance” to help sell Reebok shoes. Reebok’s let you be you. Be yourself; look like everyone else.  At first view, yes, this seems to get Emerson terribly wrong. But is some of this irony in the essay itself, in Emerson’s own thinking? Perhaps, since as we learn if we read the essay carefully, the self-reliant self is never an individual, is always reliant on something else.

What’s next: using Whitman to sell Levi’s jeans?

Keywords (and contradictions)

Some of the familiar keywords of “Self-Reliance” and its concerns with the influence of society:original, individual, conformity, consistency, imitation. But our further reading this week (into “History” and “Quotation and Originality”) can help complicate and counter that familiar reading. Other terms we see emphasize not an “individual” exclusively, the self-absorbed ego that is the concern of the various op-eds disparaging Emerson, but a self that is part and particle of something larger. A self who is, by definition, not just himself or herself. These terms include “correlative” (and “correspondency”) in “History” [119], variations on the Emersonian philosophy of relation. And in “Quotation and Originality,” there is the final term of the essay: “recomposition.” There is, we learn, no original composition, no original self, since nature is the correlative of Mind. And perhaps we should already know this from “Self-Reliance,” since the essay argues for self that relies on something greater, called in one phrasing, “immense intelligence.”

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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