06 December 2004

A Transport Of Cordiality

      I've often thought that I should write something about Emily Dickinson on this blog, but except for occasionally reproducing one of her poems, I never actually bother to put together anything substantial. There's a reason for this. As much as I respect and admire her poetry, she's one of the few poets I frankly don't know what to do with. Sure, I could make some elemental points, and I could offer general remarks, but I always feel that in talking about Dickinson any conclusions one might make about her become intangible, oases that prove to be mirages: statements become misstatements, thoughts disprove themselves. Dickinson's one of the few poets that defeats criticism entirely, which is probably why there is so much criticism written about her-- most of it bent, it seems, on establishing her as the patron saint of literary feminism,. (Personally, I've always liked William Carlos Williams' description of her as "a real good guy." Something tells me Emily would have chuckled at that.) Dickinson is probably the only writer of the past two-hundred years to whom one might apply St. Augustine's famous description of God: her center is everywhere, her circumference nowhere. Say much more than that, and one seems to risk reducing her, or pigeon-holing her, and so the snaky language of criticism ends up eating its own tail. Her poetry speaks better for itself than any elucidation does or will. Her poetry-- and I cringe as I write this-- is so intensely alive that discussing her seems too vicarious by half.

      There's an old joke that you can read any Dickinson poem to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas," a joke revealing in a different way than one might think: the vitality of her poetry can send us to music, music that surely never was in mind when the poems were being written; but there is step to her poetry, activity, to say nothing of an agility of sound. And in that regard she is almost without peer. There's some talk in the literary community that Bob Dylan may be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, talk not to be taken as much more than idle chatter. It's an intriguing idea, because I'm inclined to think that Dylan may be the most Dickinsonian writer of our time, both lyricists of crackle and zest, both strangely vatic and even hermetic, and both, one hastens to add, highly idiomatic writers that redefined our ideas of poetic language as if to put peculiar spins on Wordsworth's call for "simple and unelaborated expressions." I'm probably beginning to sound like Harold Bloom, but (at least to me) the line of inheritance is clear, Emily in one sense the greater realization of what Wordsworth called for, and The Bob the closest synthesis yet of the poetic genes of America's pioneer poets, Dickinson and Whitman. (Unlike, say, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, both descendants of Walt. Even very un-Walty writers like Tom Eliot and Hart Crane have more in common with their father than with their mother. Indeed, writers seem to look at Dickinson the way Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes looked upon the mad Ophelia, with awkward and uneasy love.) Oddly enough, in terms of her sound, Emily seems to have more in common with Gerard Manley Hopkins than she does with anyone else, both creators of (very different) forms of sprung rhythm, her lyrics often jaunting about like playful children even as they speak of death, despair and irony. Like I said, there is step to her poetry, step that sometimes suggests gaiety, as if even the macabre and the moribund were maypoles around which she could dance. One begins to think she feels even for death what she once wrote she felt for "Nature's People," " a transport / Of cordiality." In a way, she may well be the most intellectually civilized of poets; she's almost certainly the most hospitable. She greets with grace what Sylvia Plath would later greet with aloofness, hesitation and sometimes disdain.

      Dickinson's of course not all warmth, though even some of her more penetrating poems have playful dimensions, a wryness bred in the bone. Consider this poem, sometimes called "The Master," even though Emily never titled any of her poems:

He fumbles at your spirit
      As players at the keys
Before they drop full music on;
      He stuns you by degrees,

Prepares your brittle substance
      For the ethereal blow,
By fainter hammers, further heard,
      Then nearer, then so slow

Your breath has time to straighten,
      Your brain to bubble cool,--
Deals one imperial thunderbolt
      That scalps your naked soul.
Some versions add two lines at the end: "When winds take Forests in their Paws-- / The Universe is still." Some are quick to remark upon the poem's violent turn, but in doing so one shouldn't lose sight of the comic aspects of it, the grotesque image of a thunderbolt that scalps suggesting that the arresting "he" may be some sort of conflation of Zeus (or Blake's Urizen, perhaps?) and Oscotarch the Head-Piercer from Huron mythology. But note the modifications in the poem: "ethereal blow," "fainter hammers," "bubble cool," "imperial thunderbolt," all dissociative phrases, all oddities of collocation. She stuns you by degrees-- if you let her. The poem is built on little subversions that run in imitation of the larger subversion of one's initial idea of awe (whether romantic or religious or creative), miniatures of the overarching idea. These are little signs of cheek, quite literally little turns of phrase that tell it slant. It's a form of wit-- and a form of play-- that few do very well. Her acuity with it is remarkable, and it keeps the poem from becoming heavy-handed or pretentious; in fact, it's one of her greatest qualities, that touches of humour glimmer in so many of her poems like specks of gold in hills of sand. It's a sign of genius.

      The problem is, when one starts to speak of Dickinson, one hesitates to stop. Every thought I've spelt out here could use further explanation, further elaboration and/or qualification, endless appendices of nuance. One never finishes. So, I'll force myself to stop here, even though I want to give Emily the last word, from one of her more famous poems, and which I invoke here simply because it's so good. Wiser minds learn that sometimes the best thing one can do with Emily is to stand aside and let her speak for herself, her starkest madness truly divinest sense:

Have you got a brook in your little heart,
Where bashful flowers blow,
And blushing birds go down to drink,
And shadows tremble so?

And nobody knows, so still it flows,
That any brook is there;
And yet your little draught of life
Is daily drunken there.

Then look out for the little brook in March,
When the rivers overflow,
And the snows come hurrying from the hills,
And the bridges often go.

And later, in August it may be,
When the meadows parching lie,
Beware, lest this little brook of life
Some burning noon go dry!

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