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Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson’s “The Loneliness One dare not sound”

I’m unsure whether it’s better to read Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems or to settle for a “selected” version of the poems. Truthfully, reading 1775 poems by any poet can be mind-numbing. After spending much of the week reading her collected poems, I’m only up to poem 826. Although I often “speed-read” books of poetry, stopping only to meditate on those that truly interest me, Dickinson’s poems are generally too dense to read this way. Speed reading makes you feel like you’re reading gibberish, which, of course, defeats the point of speed reading.

Despite having owned the Complete Poems since college and despite several previous attempts, I’ve never managed to sit down and read all 716 pages. As a result, I’ve largely known Dickinson through poems others have selected. For me, the greatest advantage of reading the entire works is that it allows me to see favorite poems in a new light, and doing so gives me a greater understanding and appreciation of those poems. Nearly half the poems I mentioned in my first entry were poems I’d never encountered before, and, although they were probably not as “good” as poems I had read before, they allowed me to gain a new perspective on more famous poems I admired.

Obviously one cannot assume that any poem is autobiographical, but at the very least the subject of an author’s poems would seem to reveal ideas that are important to the writer. If that assumption is true, than one of Dickinson’s themes is the idea of entrapment, of being bound by a system over which she has little control:

They shut me up in Prose —
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet —
Because they liked me “still” —

Still! Could themself have peeped —
And seen my Brain — go round —
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason — in the Pound —

Himself has but to will
And easy as a Star
Abolish his Captivity —
And laugh — No more have I “

Of course there’s no way of knowing if Emily ever suffered such a punishment, and one would certainly hope not. In fact, the poem may merely have been inspired by the old cliche that “a child should be seen not heard.” Be that as it may, it’s obvious Dickinson resented the very idea of “Captivity,” and in the end felt any attempts to silence her were in vain because, like the Bird, her Brain had learned to sing, had learned to abolish her “Captivity.”

The same idea of trying to escape from captivity is found in:

Could I but ride indefinite
As doth the Meadow Bee
And visit only where I liked
And No one visit me

And flirt all Day with Buttercups
And marry whom I may
And dwell a little everywhere
Or better, run away

With no Police to follow
Or chase Him if He do
Till He should jump Peninsulas
To get away from me —

I said “But just to be a Bee”
Upon a Raft of Air
And row in Nowhere all Day long
And anchor “off the Bar”

What Liberty! So Captives deem
Who tight in Dungeons are.

Anyone reading the complete works realizes that the “bee” and “butterfly” are important symbols in Dickinson’s poetry. And at least in this poem it’s clear that what she admires about the bee is its freedom. The bee can “flirt all Day,” “marry whom I may,” or “better, run away/ With no Police to follow.” If this poem were written by a child, it would perhaps seem insignificant. Since it was written by a 31 year old woman, though, it must say something about the way the writer felt about the condition of women in 1862.

Accompanying this sense of captivity, perhaps even surpassing it, is a deep sense of loneliness that pervades many of Dickinson’s most famous “love” poems, a loneliness and longing that makes them all the more poignant:

The Loneliness One dare not sound —
And would as soon surmise
As in its Grave go plumbing
To ascertain the size —

The Loneliness whose worst alarm
Is lest itself should see —
And perish from before itself
For just a scrutiny —

The Horror not to be surveyed —
But skirted in the Dark —
With Consciousness suspended —
And Being under Lock —

I fear me this — is Loneliness —
The Maker of the soul
Its Caverns and its Corridors
Illuminate — or seal —

This is the kind of loneliness that threatens to engulf oneself, a loneliness so pervasive that one is afraid to admit it, much less to explore its depths. Like a ghost, or “Horror,” it is best not to confront it directly because you cannot defeat it. It is so powerful that it is “The Maker of the soul,” indeed, the very essence of the narrator.

This kind of pervasive loneliness undermines our very self:

One need not be a Chamber — to be Haunted —
One need not be a House —
The Brain has Corridors — surpassing
Material Place —

Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior Confronting —
That Cooler Host.

Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a’chase —
Than Unarmed, one’s a’self encounter —
In lonesome Place —

Ourself behind ourself, concealed —
Should startle most —
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror’s least.

The Body — borrows a Revolver —
He bolts the Door —
O’erlooking a superior spectre —
Or More “

How ironical, in a modern sort of way, of course, that it is precisely the “self” that the poet Is confronting in her poetry. The power of the poem comes from confronting one’s self “In lonesome Place.” Who, though, should be more aware of the danger of confronting one’s true self than one who has spent her lifetime confronting her self in her poetry?

I was probably more surprised to discover how Dickinson seems to see death as an escape for life’s pain:

The Heart asks Pleasure — first —
And then — Excuse from Pain —
And then — those little Anodyness
That deaden suffering —

And then — to go to sleep —
And then — if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor
The privilege to die “

How much pain does one have to be in before one asks for “The privilege to die?” Certainly more pain than I’ve suffered so far. Before I read the Collected Poems, I would have thought that the powerful “Because I could not stop for Death” was typical of Dickinson’s attitude towards death. I was a little taken aback to discover that poems like this are just as common as poems where she willingly dies for beauty or truth and calmly accepts death as a natural part of life. On one hand, poems like this make me question her attitude towards death more than I would have done before. On the other hand, I wonder if the creative contemplation of death can somehow lead to a healthier view of life and death. No matter, seeing the more famous poems in light of these poems gives more depth to them and makes think about them more than you otherwise would have.

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Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson’s “I’m a Nobody! Who are you?”

I’ve just finished reading Emily Dickinson’s first 480 poems in Thomas Johnson’s The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson and, to say the least, I’m dragging. The sheer number of poems that I do like, no less than 39 so far, and I’d forgotten how many there were, is nothing short of amazing, but in order to find them I had to wade through poem after poem I didn’t like, poems that, at times, struck me as overly sentimental, or worse.

Somehow in reading Dickinson’s poems I can’t help but be reminded of a high school Latin teacher who wore black in mourning for a husband who had died thirty some years earlier, wrote comments in passionate-purple ink, and made us memorize poems in Latin written by Mary “Queen of Scots:”

O Domine Deus speravi in te.
O care mi Jesu nunc libere me!
In dura catena, in misera poena
Desidero te;
Languendo, gemendo et genu flectendo
Adoro, adoro, imploro ut liberes me!

Needless to say, this is not an entirely positive memory. The fact that the poor lady was a “published poet,” in the local newspaper as I remember, and wrote sentimental poems for the yearbook, would certainly have dissuaded me from majoring in poetry in college if memories of her class hadn’t been purged by a thorough reading of Thomas Hardy’s novels and poems my senior year.

Truthfully, it’s hard at times not to feel that Dickinson is suffering from a heightened sensitivity that at times borders on manic-depressive. Then, of course, I recall that my favorite modern poet, Roethke was a manic-depressive.
And, as Emily herself points out:

Much Madness is divinest Sense —
To a discerning Eye —
Much Sense — the starkest Madness —
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail —
Assent — and you are sane —
Demur — you’re straightway dangerous —
And handled with a Chain –

It’s easy to forget that Emily was a contemporary of Emerson and Thoreau, and though her father apparently censored her reading, it seems unlikely he could have kept her from reading or hearing the ideas of these two. Certainly this poem echoes Thoreau’s famous line about marching to the beat of your own drummer, though it shifts the emphasis to the poet’s perceptions.

As noted by critics, it’s easy to divide Dickinson’s poems into significant themes that resonate with me. I’m quite sympathetic to her view of nature, and her views on God are intriguing, too, as they almost seem to form a bridge between the Calvanistic views of her father and the Transcendental views of Emerson and Thoreau.

There was another theme, though, that caught my attention this time through that I haven’t seen discussed too widely. For me, this theme centers around poems like:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — Too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise — you know!

How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one’s name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!

Nobody, and damn proud of it, too. I ain’t no stinkin’ A-lister. You? This ambivalence towards fame seems an important theme in Dickinson’s poetry. On one hand, she seemed to accept that her poetry would never receive a wide audience, to the point of requesting that her poems be destroyed upon her death. On the other hand, of course, she did write them and preserve them in folios, which makes little sense if you don’t want someone to read them. This poem almost seems to suggest that there is something superior in not being famous, in being a “nobody.” Of course, her father was “somebody,” a state legislator, while Emily went out of her way to avoid people.

How then do we reconcile “I’m Nobody” with:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple host
Who took the flag today
Can tell the definition,
So clear, of victory

As he, defeated, dying,
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Break agonized and clear!

Hardly sounds like someone entirely happy with being just another “nobody.” Quite the opposite, m’lord.

I wonder if the frustration could somehow be related to:

Over the fence —
Strawberries — grow —
Over the fence —
I could climb — if I tried, I know —
Berries are nice!

But — if I stained my Apron —
God would certainly scold!
Oh, dear, — I guess if He were a Boy —
He’d — climb — if He could!

How does one feel when one’s father decides what books you are allowed to read? How does one express that anger? Does one identify Our Father Who Art in Heaven with one’s own father, who tries to decide what you will be allowed to believe?

Can we only judge ourselves by others’ reactions?

How many Flowers fail in Wood —
Or perish from the Hill —
Without the privilege to know
That they are Beautiful —

How many cast a nameless Pod
Upon the nearest Breeze —
Unconscious of the Scarlet Freight —
It bear to Other Eyes —

Did Emily feel she was beautiful but that others failed to notice? Or did the fact that she lived her life as a recluse make her question her own beauty?

We see this same sense of isolation, and resentment, in the more famous:

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me —
The simple News that Nature told —
With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see —
For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen —
Judge tenderly — of Me

If the World is important enough that you write a letter to it, wouldn’t you hope that the “World” would notice you? What is the “simple News that Nature told”With Tender Majesty? At the very least, Nature, unlike the World (of man?), must have delivered some sort of message to the poet.

It seems to me that on one level most poets are “introverts” seeking their own truths, but on another level they seek an audience to affirm their view of the world. Although the act of writing may be a means of self-discovery, that self-discovery is made possible because the author is revealing himself to an “other,” to his or her “audience.” This tension is an inevitable element of the creative process, an element that Dickinson explores in a depth that even Wallace Stevens might appreciate.

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Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry’s Poems, from 1980-1982

Berry’s Collected Poems ends with poems published in 1980 and 1982, and
I must admit a certain ambivalence towards Berry’s poems. Although at times I feel he is too didactic, and, even, a little condescending, towards we, his readers, I must admit I am sometimes struck not by what he says, but, rather, by the way he says it:

WE WHO PRAYED AND WEPT

We who prayed and wept
for liberty from kings
and the yoke of liberty
accept the tyranny of things
we do not need.
In plenitude too free,
we have become adept
beneath the yoke of greed.

Those who will not learn
in plenty to keep their place
must learn it by their need
when they have had their way
and the fields spurn their seed.
We have failed Thy grace.
Lord, I flinch and pray,
send Thy necessity.

Although this poem makes me feel a little bit like a schoolboy being lectured by his teacher, a feeling I’m not particularly fond of, by the way, it’s hard not be struck by the truth of it. As a nation we do seem to be willing to sacrifice hard-won freedoms for greater wealth, ironical when we consider we are probably already too wealthy for our own good. Must we lose our freedoms once again before we can truly appreciate them? Perhaps so. In a very real sense, the poem’s message lies at the heart of Berry’s poetry. Perhaps his message would seem stronger if I didn’t already belong to the choir.

While I find it difficult to ignore such poems, my real fondness is for simpler poems like:

FOR THE FUTURE

Planting trees early in spring,
we make a place for birds to sing
in time to come. How do we know?
They are singing here now.
There is no other guarantee
that singing will ever be.

Here Berry manages to convey his message directly through images, and even the last two lines, though they carry the message, seem like an integral part of the moment. Only those who choose to “harvest” trees rather than plant them would find fault with such a poem.

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Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry’s Poems, from 1970-1977

Although I tend to agree with the philosophy presented in Berry’s
Collected Poems
written between 1970 and 1977, I don’t particularly identify with them. The poems written in 1970 are entitled Farming: A Handbook, and the truth is that although I’ve always had a vegetable garden, I’ve never seen myself as a “farmer,” nor do I identify with the world in that way. Although I’ve increasingly felt that American agriculture is going the wrong way and that large companies threaten the very nature of agriculture, I am not a farmer, never have been, and have no desire to be one. I identify with nature as wilderness, not as farmland. In other words, I find it much easier to identify with Thoreau’s attitude toward nature than I do Berry’s. I’m a city boy who returns to nature to seek a deeper understanding of who I am, not a farmer who earns his existence by staying in touch with the soil.

Despite finding much that was amusing and insightful in Berry’s “Mad Farmer” poems, I didn’t identify with them on a deeper level. There were, though, some poems I did identify with. For instance, “A Standing Ground” reminded me that my new home doesn’t have any berries growing yet, and I have a hard time calling a house a home, unless it has berries growing in the yard:

A STANDING GROUND

Flee fro the prees and dwelle with sothfastnesse;
Suffyce unto thy thyng, though hit be smal…

However just and anxious I have been,
I will stop and step back
from the crowd of those who may agree
with what I say, and be apart.
There is no earthly promise of life or peace
but where the roots branch and weave
their patient silent passages in the dark;
uprooted, I have been furious without an aim.
I am not bound for any public place,
but for ground of my own
where I have planted vines and orchard trees,
and in the heat of the day climbed up
into the healing shadow of the woods.
Better than any argument is to rise at dawn
and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.

It’s hard to imagine a better way to start your day than to walk out into the backyard, pick a cup of fresh raspberries for your morning cereal, and sit down to a hardy, healthy breakfast.

I also strongly identify with the sense of place found in “The Current:”

THE CURRENT

Having once put his hand into the ground,
seeding there what he hopes will outlast him,
a man has made a marriage with his place,
and if he leaves it his flesh will ache to go back.
His hand has given up its birdlife in the air.
It has reached into the dark like a root
and begun to wake, quick and mortal, in timelessness.
a flickering sap coursing upward into his head
so that he sees the old tribespeople bend
in the sun, digging with sticks, the forest opening
to receive their hills of corn, squash, and beans,
their lodges and graves, and closing again.
He is made their descendant, what they left
in the earth rising into him like a seasonal juice.
And he sees the hearers of his own blood arriving,
the forest burrowing into the earth as they come,
their hands gathering the stones up into walls,
and relaxing, the stones crawling back into the ground
to lie still under the black wheels of machines.
The current flowing to him through the earth
flows past him, and he sees one descended from him,
a young man who has reached into the ground,
his hand held in the dark as by a hand.

Though I’m no farmer, I can certainly identify with this sense of place. I’ve always identified with the Puget Sound, even though I lived hundreds of miles away in Vancouver, WA. More than that, I found it quite difficult to move away from the two homes I’ve owned as an adult. After planting trees and digging gardens, I identify with those homes and hated to go back and find that the new owners had built a storage shed over the garden that I worked so hard to enrich with organic soil through composting or that they’d cut down a tree I planted thirty years ago. Though I’ve never know the continuity of a “family farm,” it seems to me a noble tradition, one that our nation abandons at our own peril.