Wednesday, March 12, 2008

How to Read Dickinson's Poetry

I'm guest-teaching for a colleague tomorrow, discussing imagery and symbolism (in literature) with the class and analyzing, with them, Dickinson's poem 591 (which used to be 465), "I heard a fly buzz [...]. " Whenever I have doubts about my chosen main way of earning money (teaching literature and writing), I think of being able to analyze a Dickinson poem, and suddenly it all makes sense again. I have a friend who teaches Constitutional law, and he probably has at least one topic that similarly reaffirms his choice of professions.

--Not that Dickinson is easy to teach. In fact, she's unnecessarily hard to teach, chiefly because of the baggage the culture, the critics, the anthologies, and some other teachers have heaped on her poetry and our image of her. To use an old-fashioned phrase, people get "hung up" on all sorts of nonsense that simply isn't there, in the poetry. Often, when I go into a classroom, I'm facing all the things Dickinson isn't, the preconceived notions, so I try to get around those.

So my "rules" for reading Dickinson's work are as follows:

1. Her poems are to some degree like crossword puzzles or soduku. There is always a solution to the confusion. There is, in fact, never any (lasting) confusion.

2. To the extent her poetry is mystical, philosophical, or spiritual, it is so grudgingly; that is, her work is always firmly attached to the earth, sometimes directly to earthy imagery. One key, then, is to find what that more concrete thing is to which the spirituality (assuming the spirituality really is there) is tethered. Or: Always prefer the simpler explanation to the "confusion." And: Never leap to the spirituality or "mysticism." Because she's never in a hurry to get there, and she never stays there long.

3. Take out the dashes. Put in your own punctuation. Get comfortable with the poem. Take out your punctuation. Put the dashes back in. Or: don't make a big deal of the dashes. She didn't punctuate because she didn't publish. All the pauses, etc., were in her head. The dashes are a combination of universal place-holders and a writing-quirk. She wasn't trying to be difficult. She just didn't imagine the poems would go to print. Same thing goes for the capitalization. Just a quirky habit. Ignore it.

4. She never makes mistakes. She just makes quick moves. (See #1--there is no confusion.)

5. If she hadn't been a poet, she would have been a scientist. She observes everything very carefully. She's an empiricist. (See # 2.) (Just look at her descriptions of bees, snakes, and birds.)

When, for example, in 591, she writes, "And then the Windows failed," she means the windows of the house failed to work because she (the speaker of the poem) died. Or: dead people don't see through windows, even if, in literature, they're still allowed to speak poems. Emily will go only so far with poetic license. She won't go so far as to suggest dead people can see through windows. She's practical. When, at the end of the poem, she writes, "I could not see to see," she means that, owing to death, her brain has ceased to function, she is no longer processing sensory data, and therefore does not have the capacity ("could not see") to see.

Dickinson remains the smartest, drollest, most original, and yet still most earthy poet I know. It's hard to think of one important thing the Modernists did, for example, that she didn't anticipate. Things you find in Pound, Williams, Auden, Yeats, Lawrence, Cullen, Moore, cummings, Eliot, Woolf--they're there in her work. The outlook is Modern. It is feminist. It is anti-establishment. It is anxious (in the sense Auden meant the term). It is imagistic (Williams, Pound). It is new. "No ideas but in things" (Williams). The phrasing and especially the rhyming and improvisation with meter are Modern. She's still hip. Known as a recluse, she lived in the world--the tactile, stinky, pungent, messy world of the house, the garden, and the woods. When the "I" dies in 591, "the King" is witnessed (no confusion there--but plenty of room for debate), but note that he is preceded and followed by this: a common housefly, which is blue--meaning a "blue-bottle fly," meaning a fly the color of glass left in the sun for a long time (see number 2 above).

I like Housman almost as much as Dickinson, but his range is much more limited. There's more true joy in her work than his. I like her rich simplicity as much as I like that of Langston Hughes's, but she is even quicker, less predictable, and a little more tricky. L. and E. share a great sense of whimsy--but usually with an edge; they're not just playful. Williams's imagery is often as vivid, but her point of view is more original. You never know what Yeats or Pound might drag in (like a cat) to a poem, but she can be just as surprising. Eliot has gravitas, gotta give him that, but pound for pound (ezra for ezra), her poems can go 15 rounds with his. In her own way, she's as sexy and exuberant as Neruda (with adjustments made for lingering Puritanism), as defiant as Jeffers.

Eliot and Pound threw more allusions by volume into their poems, but she is as allusive--just more efficient, and less insecure. They seem to need to show off. She doesn't.

She's not "the Belle of Amherst." She was just one hell of a hardworking, focused, precise poet. --With the gift of, not so much talent (though she sure had that), but of believing, unwaveringly, in her talent. She justs didn't know (cf. "see to see"); she knew she knew--how to write.
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