Tuesday, February 26, 2008

In Praise of Emily Dickinson

(Before I get going, here, I have to point out my brother's latest post, which is just flat out genius -- of course, he's related to me-of-the-145-IQ. Go read it. I wish I'd had a copy when I was taking English lit.)

Back when I was in high school, and just about the only poetry I didn’t proclaim to be boring and unintelligible was the angst-ridden drivel written and shared by my classmates and me (God bless high school English and creative writing teachers. What they have to endure!), I was introduced to Emily Dickinson. In fairness, I also loved Haiku and limericks, when we studied them, but Emily Dickinson was the only “boring old poet” to whom I was actually drawn. Her nature poems, at that time, seemed really to ring a bell with me. I paid attention in class when we read her poems and even tried to emulate her with a silly poem I composed called “The Butterfly.”

I had dinner with Dorr and Hobs just before I moved down here to Pennsylvania, and they were talking about teaching Emily Dickinson, which made me realize not only that I was jealous of their students, but also that I hadn’t picked her up and read her in years, probably not since the year Bob and I were married and moved in together. Oddly, a couple of weeks ago, Bob pulled down one of her collections from our shelves and was rhapsodizing about how brilliant she was, as he began reading some of his favorite poems to me. I’ve been meaning to read more poetry collections this year, so decided to put Poems by Emily Dickinson: First and Second Series on my list of books to read for February.

In doing so, I’ve been rhapsodizing over her even more with Bob. He and I have decided she is truly one of the best poets ever to have written (yes, ever. I know there are those who will argue with me, so please, feel free). We, seriously, both swoon over this one, with which, I am sure, you are all familiar, but I will put it down anyway, just for the excuse to experience typing it (and so to envy the brilliance of the woman who was able to compose it):

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
‘T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur, -- you’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

(Mabel Loomis Todd and T.W. Higginson., eds., Emily Dickinson Poems: First and Second Series, New York: The World Publishing Co., 1948, p. 40.)

Please tell me of any more perfect poem written in the English language, especially for women writing during the era in which she was writing, because I want to read it. I just don’t think it’s possible to be more perfect than that, but Dickinson seems to have been capable of repeating perfection. Just when you’re sighing, thinking you couldn’t possibly read any other poem worth reading more than this one, she gives you another that leaves you breathless.

I remember when I read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury being most blown away by his utter genius in being able to transform MacBeth’s soliloquy into a brilliant Southern gothic novel. I’ll never forget reading the soliloquy over about five times after finishing the book and just marveling at each line as it was applied to the novel. (Yes, I am weirdly obsessive that way.) I never thought of the possibility of doing that with other works of literature, but as I reread Emily Dickinson this go-around, I found myself thinking how ripe so many of her poems are for fictional translations, especially her love poems. Try this one:

In Vain

I cannot live with you,
It would be life,
And life is over there
Behind the shelf

The sexton keeps the key to,
Putting up
Our life, his porcelain,
Like a cup

Discarded of the housewife,
Quaint or broken;
A newer Sevres pleases,
Old ones crack.

I could not die with you,
For one must wait
To shut the other’s gaze down, --
You could not.

And I, could I stand by
And see you freeze,
Without my right of frost,
Death’s privilege?

Nor could I rise with you,
Because your face
Would put out Jesus’,
That new grace

Glow plain and foreign
On my homesick eye,
Except that you, than he
Shone closer by.

They’d judge us—how?
For you served Heaven, you know,
Or sought to;
I could not,

Because you saturated sight,
And I had no more eyes
For sordid excellence
As Paradise.

And were you lost, I would be,
Though my name
Rang loudest
On the heavenly fame.

And were you saved,
And I condemned to be
Where you were not,
That self were hell to me.

So we must keep apart,
You there, I here,
With just the door ajar
That oceans are,
And prayer,
And that pale sustenance,

(pp. 60-61)

Let’s just forget all the sigh-worthy lines in that poem for the moment. Can’t you so envision the novels that could come from that? Woman in love with a priest (or man in love with a nun)? Gay man in love with a man who turns away to become a minister, or who is suddenly “born again?” Young atheist in love with a seminary student? The possibilities are endless…

Then, there’s this one:

The Wife

She rose to his requirement, dropped
The playthings of her life
To take the honorable work
Of woman and of wife.

If aught she missed in her new day
Of amplitude, or awe,
Or first prospective, or the gold
In using wore away,

It lay unmentioned, as the sea
Develops pearl and weed,
But only to himself is known
The fathoms they abide.

(p. 66)

More endless possibilities, no? I’ve recently learned that the sort of fiction I’m describing, I think, is called “fan fiction.” Any of you fabulous, imaginative writers I know out there fans of Emily Dickinson who would care to write it for me? I’d love to read it.


Stefanie said...

I am in total agreement with you theat Dickinson is one of the best poets ever. You need to get yourself a copy of the complete poems. A big, thick glorious book. sorry though, I won't be the one to write those novels for you.

Anonymous said...

"Wild Nights" would make an awesome story. "Ah, the Sea!/ Might I but moor--Tonight--/ In thee!" I'm quoting from memory, but that's close, I think. I see it as a wild romance set on the sea, sort of a Patrick O'Brian does Wuthering Heights thing.

My favorite thing to do with my classes when I'm teaching her poetry is to discuss her use of common meter and then point out that it's the same meter as the Gilligan's Island theme song. Then I sing "Faith is a fine invention" to that immortal tune.

Dorothy W. said...

You make me want to read Dickinson again! Especially since I'm not familiar with a lot of her lesser-known poems. I remember memorizing the madness poem when I was quite young, perhaps even in high school -- it IS an awesome poem.

Amateur Reader said...

Rereading a passage many times is not weirdly obsessive - it's a step on the way to memorization. People used to memorize poetry all the time. They should do it more. I should do it more.

Cam said...

This is a wonderful post. I was just thinking about Dickinson yesterday when I was stalled in traffic, trying to recall from memory some of her poems. I should reread some of her poems, though I think I should wait awhile until I can rid my brain of Hobgoblin's accurate but annoying point re: Gilligan's Island song. Just try reciting "Because I could not stop for death/he kindly stopped for me/the carriage held but just ourselves/and immortality" without thinking about that earworm!

Also thanks for providing the links to Ian's comic book of English Lit. That was wonderful!

litlove said...

Wonderful post! I'd write more but I'm off to read some Dickenson now....

Emily Barton said...

Stef, well, I think we might actually have her complete poems somewhere around here, but I've been having trouble laying my hands on specific books since we moved. Meanwhile, I did the next best thing and went off to the library to get a big, thick biography.

All right, Hobs, you're making me even more jealous of your students (I think you and Ian need to team teach a class). Oh, and write the Patrick O'Brian does Wuthering Heights book. I'm waiting...

Dorr, that's what I call pay back for all the things you've made me want to re-read :-)!

AR, yes, I should do it more, too.

Cam, I know, Hobs has doomed us all, hasn't he?

Litlove, oooh, can't wait to hear what you think.

Lisa said...

Very late to your discussion, but I just saw this today - you need to get a copy of the Thomas H. Johnson edited poems, in I think the mid-1960s, or any collections that came out after that. Before that the punctuation, stanzas and capitalization were standardized - and all the teeth taken out of the poems - by her relatives. It's to her credit that even with all the genteel semicolons strewn about she still manages to communicate more edge than just about any other poet since.

But I promise if you read the Johnson versions, the way she intended them to be read, you will have an even more profound reading experiencce.