Two chapters from Poetry as Survival.The following two pieces are excerpted from a book entitled Poetry as Survival, which will be published by the University of Georgia Press The University of Georgia Press or UGA Press is a publishing house and is a member of the Association of American University Presses.
Founded in 1938, the UGA Press is a division of the University of Georgia and is located on the campus in Athens, Georgia, USA. in 2002 as part of its Life of Poetry series. The first piece is the preface to the book; the second a chapter on Emily Dickinson.
The book presents a cultural and psychological context for what I call the "personal lyric." A central premise is that the personal lyric is omnipresent om·ni·pres·ent
Present everywhere simultaneously.
[Medieval Latin omnipres in human cultures because it serves an essential function: to assist in the survival of individuals as they undergo existential crises. The first third of the book presents a psychological model for that survival. The second third explores the linguistic and experiential dynamics of the personal lyric and how they assist in survival. The final third historicizes the survival project while examining the work of five poets (Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, and Wilfred Owen Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, MC (March 18 1893 – November 4 1918) was a British poet and soldier, regarded by many as the leading poet of the First World War. His shocking, realistic war poetry on the horrors of trench and gas warfare was heavily influenced by his friend ) in relation to trauma and the transformations poetry can effect. The first two-thirds of the book proposes that the writing and reading of personal lyrics restabilizes the self destabilized by some form of disorder, be it joyous or catastrophic. The final third considers the situation of poets whose very self has been threatened with annihilation annihilation
In physics, a reaction in which a particle and its antiparticle (see antimatter) collide and disappear. The annihilation releases energy equal to the original mass m multiplied by the square of the speed of light c, or E = m by trauma of one sort or another. Parad oxically, this annihilation of self presents the poet with a necessity and an opportunity: to create a new self in the body of the work. To use an image favored by both Keats and Whitman, the transformative poet must, like a spider, create a new web of meanings and relationships to replace the web shredded by trauma. Each lyric poem Noun 1. lyric poem - a short poem of songlike quality
poem, verse form - a composition written in metrical feet forming rhythmical lines
ode - a lyric poem with complex stanza forms by such a poet can be seen as a web the self spins from "his own inwards" and briefly inhabits (like the "airy Citadel" and "beautiful circuiting" Keats celebrates in his letter of February 19, 1818). The new self and the new meanings the poems disclose not only sustain the poet, but also discover visionary possibilities for readers--new ways of being and new human possibilities or values.
Preface: Everywhere and Always It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. --William Carlos Williams from "Asphodel, that Greeny Flower"
As a poet, I've always hated the fact that poetry often intimidates people. Many people I know feel that poetry is a test they can only pass if they are smart enough or sensitive enough, and most fear they will fail. Many refuse the test altogether--never read poetry--for fear of failure. Somehow something has gone wrong with poetry in our culture. We have lost touch with its value and purpose, and in doing so, we have lost contact with essential aspects of our own emotional and spiritual lives.
There is something special about poetry and about lyric poetry in particular, but it's not what most people think. It's not that poetry is written by very intelligent or very sensitive people and is appreciated only by others of equal intelligence and sensitivity. What's special is quite the opposite of this elitist e·lit·ism or é·lit·ism
1. The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources. notion of poetry. What's special is that lyric poetry is written down or composed in every culture on the planet at this moment, which means something like 1,000 different cultures and 3,000 different languages. All cultures on the globe have a conception of the personal lyric. What's more, members of all these cultures feel free to write it down or compose it aloud as song or chant, whether they are from tribes in the equatorial equatorial /equa·to·ri·al/ (e?kwah-tor´e-al)
1. pertaining to an equator.
2. occurring at the same distance from each extremity of an axis. rain forests or Inuit and Eskimo in the frozen Arctic; whether they live in Paris or Buenos Aires Buenos Aires (bwā`nəs ī`rēz, âr`ēz, Span. bwā`nōs ī`rās), city and federal district (1991 pop. or Beijing.
In addition to being omnipresent on the planet at this moment, lyric poetry appears to have been written and composed in every ancient or historical culture we have been able to investigate. For all we can tell, poetry may be almost as ancient as the use of language itself. Certainly, when civilizations first made use of written language, poetry was among the first things First Things is a monthly ecumenical journal concerned with the creation of a "religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society" (First Things website). chosen to be preserved by this new technology of permanence. The Homeric epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, transmitted orally for several centuries, were written down 2,700 years ago, shortly after the development of the Greek alphabet Greek alphabet
Writing system developed in Greece c. 1000 BC, the direct or indirect ancestor of all modern European alphabets. Derived from the North Semitic alphabet via that of the Phoenicians, it modified an all-consonant alphabet to represent vowels. , and the lyric poems of Archilochus and Sappho followed soon after. In China, the collection known in the West as The Book of Songs or The Book of Odes was also transmitted orally for several centuries before being written down almost 2,500 years ago. Many of these ancient Chinese List of ancient Chinese is a list of noteworthy people of ancient China. Different definitions of "ancient" China exist, but most agree that it is before the Tang dynasty. Related lists
A general listing of existing lists related to this topic. poems are lyrics that speak about things that still matter in our lives, like the love longing in this one spoken by a woman:
Blue, blue your collar, sad sad my heart: though I do not go to you, why don't you send word? Blue blue your beltstone, sad sad my thoughts: though I do not go to you, why don't you come? Restless, heedless, I walk the gate tower. One day not seeing you is three months long. --Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry, p. 30
Archaeologists in Egypt have discovered four collections of love poetry compiled during the New Kingdom period 3,300 years ago. Three of these "anthologies" are on papyrus fragments, the fourth was carved on the side of a stone vase. Here is a translation of one of these Egyptian poems, spoken by a male lover plotting to get his sweetheart's attention:
I shall lie down at home and pretend to be dying. Then the neighbors will all come in to gape at me, and, perhaps, she will come with them. When she comes, I won't need a doctor, she knows why I am ill.
How simple such a poem is and yet how emotionally complete and amusing--how easy it is for us to enter into the situation and the speaker's feelings. And yet it was written over three thousand years ago.
It seems important to say at the outset that the kind of poem I am discussing, what I call the "personal lyric," does not by any means constitute the bulk of the world's lyric poetry legacy. For complicated reasons, personal lyrics are often not preserved with as much care as other kinds of lyrics, especially those which express and reinforce the governing religious, political and social structures of a given society. Thus, although we encounter a powerful poet of the personal lyric at the very beginning of Greek literature Greek literature refers to those writings autochthonic to the areas of Greeks|Greek]influence, typically though not necessarily in one of the Greek dialects, throughout the whole period in which the Greeks|Greek-speaking peoples have existed. , namely Sappho, most of the Western lyric tradition up until the Romantics consists of what I call "social lyrics" and "sacred lyrics." In the pages that follow, I'll focus on the personal lyric and a variant on the personal lyric, the transformative lyric, hoping to describe how they function in the life of the individual poet and reader. It's my belief that this kind of poem has a crucial role to play in our psychological, imaginative and spiritual lives.
We often experience the world as confusing and chaotic, especially during crises. This confusion can be outside us, in the objective conditions of our social and political lives, or it can be inside us, in the swiftly-shifting world of emotions, thoughts, and memories. Even as we recognize the power of disorder in our experience, we are likely to become aware of a strong need we have to feel there is some order in the world that helps us feel safe and secure. Our day-to-day consciousness can be characterized as an endlessly-shifting, back-and-forth awareness of the power and presence of disorder in our lives and our desire or need for a sense of order. Most of us live most of our lives more or less comfortably with the daily interplay of these two awarenesses, but in certain existential crises, disorder threatens to overwhelm us entirely and in those cases, the very integrity of the self is threatened, and its desire or ability to persist is challenged. Among the most obvious and dramatic of these upheavals w e could include intense romantic passion or the sudden death of someone near and dear to us. And yet our instability is present to us almost daily in our unpredictable moods and the way memories haunt us and fantasies play themselves out at will on our inner mental screens. We are creatures whose volatile inner lives are both mysterious to us and beyond our control. How to respond to the strangeness and unpredictability of our own emotional being? One important answer to this question is the personal lyric, the "I" poem dramatizing inner and outer experience.
Human culture "invented" or evolved the personal lyric as a means of helping individuals survive the existential crises represented by extremities of subjectivity and also by such outer circumstances as poverty, suffering, pain, illness, violence, or loss of a loved one. This survival begins when we "translate" our crisis into language where we give it symbolic expression as an unfolding drama of self and the forces that assail as·sail
tr.v. as·sailed, as·sail·ing, as·sails
1. To attack with or as if with violent blows; assault.
2. To attack verbally, as with ridicule or censure. See Synonyms at attack.
3. it. This same poem also arrays the ordering powers our shaping imagination has brought to bear on these disorderings. Thus the poem we compose (or respond to as readers) still accurately mirrors the life crisis it dramatizes, still displays life's interplay of disorder and order. But in the act of making a poem at least two crucial things have taken place which are different than ordinary life. First, we have shifted the crisis to a bearable bear·a·ble
That can be endured: bearable pain; a bearable schedule.
bear distance from us: removed it to the symbolic but vivid world of language. Secondly, we have actively made and shaped this model of our situation r ather than passively endured it as lived experience.
And yet, the project of poem making I wish to describe, this active taking-hold of one's emotional life, begins with a passive receptivity which is best expressed by the final lines of the D. H. Lawrence poem that gives this book its title:
What is the knocking? What is the knocking at the door in the night? It is somebody wants to do us harm. No, no, it is the three strange angels. Admit them, admit them. --from "Song of a Man Who Has Come Through," 1914
The first three lines I've quoted dramatize dram·a·tize
v. dram·a·tized, dram·a·tiz·ing, dram·a·tiz·es
1. To adapt (a literary work) for dramatic presentation, as in a theater or on television or radio.
2. the terror we might feel when faced with the unknown and unexpected. The-final two lines respond not only with a cryptic reassurance about the identity of our visitors, but also with firm advice about how we must respond to them. We must overcome our fears and open our doors to them; we must admit their radiant, disturbing power into our psychic lives.
The survival value of personal lyric is for listeners/readers as well as writers. Broadly speaking Adv. 1. broadly speaking - without regard to specific details or exceptions; "he interprets the law broadly"
broadly, generally, loosely , its function is to help us express and regulate our emotional lives, which are confusing and sometimes opaque to us. This survival function of the personal lyric can be quite readily recognized when we consider that in our culture much of popular music consists of what I would consider personal lyric poetry. I am not saying that the lyrics of popular songs are as coherent or sophisticated in their patterning as poems written for the page--that's a different story, since much of a song's meaning is carried by rhythm and melody. I am saying that the particular songs that you love deeply help you to live just as surely as do the poems you cherish. Popular music (be it rock and roll, rhythm and blues rhythm and blues (R&B)
Any of several closely related musical styles developed by African American artists. The various styles were based on a mingling of European influences with jazz rhythms and tonal inflections, particularly syncopation and the flatted blues chords. , country, folk, rap, or whatever) has the power to express and regulate our emotions. Popular music of one kind or another is important to the subjective lives of most of us, but it is especially crucial during adolesc ence, when it can almost seem as if we exist from one passionately loved song to the next--as if adolescence were a series of leaps through swirling darkness in which we landed on the bright, shining stone of one song after another. I know I couldn't have made it through that part of my life without rock and roll--that is, without songs I loved intensely, songs that I felt expressed and channelled the powerful and inchoate Imperfect; partial; unfinished; begun, but not completed; as in a contract not executed by all the parties.
inchoate adj. or adv. referring to something which has begun but has not been completed, either an activity or some object which is feelings that churned inside me. I say "rock and roll" and I mean the whole field of popular song. My parents' generation survived on lyrics by Gershwin, Irving Berlin Noun 1. Irving Berlin - United States songwriter (born in Russia) who wrote more than 1500 songs and several musical comedies (1888-1989)
Israel Baline, Berlin , and Cole Porter Noun 1. Cole Porter - United States composer and lyricist of musical comedies (1891-1946)
Cole Albert Porter, Porter I couldn't have lived without certain songs of Dylan or the Beatles. My youngest daughter loves Lou Reed Lou Reed, born Lewis Allen Reed March 2, 1942, is an American rock singer-songwriter and guitarist.
Reed first found prominence as the guitarist and principal singer-songwriter of The Velvet Underground (1965-1973). and the British band Pulp. The music changes (radically) from generation to generation, but the survival function remains the same.
That the discovery of poetry can have enormous transformative power is something I know from my own experience. I grew up in the fifties in the countryside of upstate New York Upstate New York is the region of New York State north of the core of the New York metropolitan area. It has a population of 7,121,911 out of New York State's total 18,976,457. Were it an independent state, it would be ranked 13th by population. and had had a rifle of my own since the age of ten. When I was twelve years old I was responsible for a hunting accident in which my younger brother died. To say that I was horrified hor·ri·fy
tr.v. hor·ri·fied, hor·ri·fy·ing, hor·ri·fies
1. To cause to feel horror. See Synonyms at dismay.
2. To cause unpleasant surprise to; shock. and traumatized by the event is only to state the obvious. I've written elsewhere (in poems and a memoir) about my emotional responses to this experience; I won't rehearse them here. Two years after my brother's death, my mother died suddenly, at the young age of thirty-six, after a "routine" hospital procedure. In 1965, at the age of eighteen, I worked briefly as a volunteer in the South for the Civil Rights movement and was on the receiving end of both state-organized political violence (numerous police beatings with clubs) and vigilante vigilante n. someone who takes the law into his/her own hands by trying and/or punishing another person without any legal authority. In the 1800s groups of vigilantes dispensed "frontier justice" by holding trials of accused horse-thieves, rustlers and shooters, and rage (being abducted at gunpoint in rural Alabama and held in solitary confinement solitary confinement n. the placement of a prisoner in a Federal or state prison in a cell away from other prisoners, usually as a form of internal penal discipline, but occasionally to protect the convict from other prisoners or to prevent the prisoner from causing for eight days). These various exper iences gave me a terrifying ter·ri·fy
tr.v. ter·ri·fied, ter·ri·fy·ing, ter·ri·fies
1. To fill with terror; make deeply afraid. See Synonyms at frighten.
2. To menace or threaten; intimidate. sense of how fragile human life is, how easily and quickly people can vanish.
Since, in the hunting accident, I was the child holding the gun that killed my brother, I also acquired an enormous burden of guilt and anguish: a burden that threatened to overwhelm my adolescent ego with despair and worse. My parents were so devastated and upset by my brother's death that they were unable to offer me any consolation for my deed, or even to speak with me about it. At the time of my brother's death, a friend of the family counseled me that my brother's death was all part of God's plan, which was necessarily inscrutable in·scru·ta·ble
Difficult to fathom or understand; impenetrable. See Synonyms at mysterious.
[Middle English, from Old French, from Late Latin to us on earth. This notion of a divine order The Divine Order is a fictional religion on the science fiction series LEXX.
The Divine Order is a fictional religion, created by the last of the Insect Civilization, as a means of controlling the human population of the Light Universe, and ultimately use them to that had the power to subsume sub·sume
tr.v. sub·sumed, sub·sum·ing, sub·sumes
To classify, include, or incorporate in a more comprehensive category or under a general principle: such violent disorder didn't seem believable to me and failed to help me live through the traumatic crisis that had become my life.
Other people, including my parents, told me my brother's death was "an accident." They were right, of course, at one level. But what they did not seem to realize was that for me the word "accident" was the name of the horror that had happened, not a response to it--not an ordering, not a meaning. Who could live in a world composed of accidents so terrible as to leave your little brother, who was standing beside you one moment, the next moment a lifeless corpse at your feet? Unbearable word, this "accident." Unbearable world.
My twelve-year-old consciousness desperately needed meaning in order to survive what I had done. That day of my brother's death I did find, for myself and by myself, something in the Bible that spoke to my situation: the story of Cain and Abel Cain and Abel
In the Hebrew scriptures, the sons of Adam and Eve. According to Genesis, Cain, the firstborn, was a farmer, and his brother Abel was a shepherd. Cain was enraged when God preferred his brother's sacrifice of sheep to his own offering of grain, and he murdered , the one brother slaying the other in a field. This was not, on the face of it, a very consoling story to identify with, but it helped me survive the earliest part of the trauma, even if it meant that I came to secretly believe that I was Cain. At least Cain lived, I told myself; that Cain continued living after Abel's death was part of the story, part of the story's strange meaning.
At the time of my brother's death, no one proposed philosophical attitudes to me, but had they done so I doubt I would have gained any consolation or understanding from them. In my experience, the conceptualizations philosophy offers are not adequate to the sudden death of a loved one, nor the anguish in families that follows.
I lived for about four years after my brother's death without any hope at all. Nothing that I found in my culture sustained me. Even my relationship with the natural world, that had been so important to me earlier, was not enough to alter my grief, despair and guilt. Then, thanks to Mrs. Irving, the librarian in my small public school, I discovered poetry. I had previously had a vague desire to write, but nothing had brought me to lyric poetry or the writing of it. In the small "honors English" class that Mrs. Irving taught in my senior year, she had us write all kinds of things: stories, sketches, plays, haiku haiku (hī`k), an unrhymed Japanese poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which nature is linked to human nature. . I wrote a poem one day, and it changed my life. I had a sudden sense that the language in poetry was "magical," unlike language in fiction: that it could create or transform reality rather than simply describe it. That first poem I wrote was a simple, escapist fantasy, but it liberated the enormous energy of my despair and oppression as nothing before had ever done. I felt simultaneously revealed to m yself and freed of my self by the images and actions of the poem. I knew from that moment on that all I wanted to do was write poems. I knew that if I was to survive in this life, it would only be through the help of poetry. Mind you, I am not saying my early poems were good, or that I knew anything about the skill of crafting a poem--years of agonized ag·o·nize
v. ag·o·nized, ag·o·niz·ing, ag·o·niz·es
1. To suffer extreme pain or great anguish.
2. To make a great effort; struggle.
v.tr. apprenticeship were before me--but the experience of hope and pleasure was revelatory to me then and still underlies my understanding of an essential purpose and meaning of lyric poetry.
It's been my great good luck that what saved my life has, since that moment, become its main preoccupation and the source of my livelihood. I've taught the reading and writing of poetry for the past twenty-five years. Everything I've learned in that time reinforces my own experience that the personal lyric helps individual selves, both writers and readers, service the vicissitudes vicissitudes
changes in circumstance or fortune [Latin vicis change]
vicissitudes npl → vicisitudes fpl; peripecias fpl of experience and the complexities and anguish of subjectivity and trauma.
Much of my book is speculative and meant to be suggestive rather than definitive. Again and again, I have a sense that I am only pointing in certain directions and that other people will see more clearly and express more lucidly what is there waiting to be identified and described. On the other hand, I've done the best I could to interrogate (1) To search, sum or count records in a file. See query.
(2) To test the condition or status of a terminal or computer system. my intuitions and test them against the rich evidence of poems I know and love.
Chapter 13: Dickinson and the Brain's Haunted Corridors I suppose there are depths in every Conscious- ness, from which we cannot rescue ourselves-- to which none can go with us--.... --letter to Mrs. J. G. Holland, June 1878
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) could well be the ultimate poet of the personal lyric. No lyric poet has been her equal for the intensity and variety of subjective states dramatized. She has written great poems of grief, longing, wonder, loneliness, fear, love, madness, joy, anger, ecstasy, solitude, despair, desire. She has written wonderfully about the great mysteries of time, and death, and those imaginings imaginings
speculative thoughts about what might be the case or what might happen; fantasies: lurid imaginings that seem to cancel time and death: eternity and immortality.
It would be possible to write an 800-page biography of Emily Dickinson (such a book has been written). But if that biography confined itself to her activities in the world, it would be appallingly repetitious rep·e·ti·tious
Filled with repetition, especially needless or tedious repetition.
repe·ti and boring. In her sixty years of life, she seldom left her small Massachusetts village of Amherst, and, even within the narrow compass of Amherst she had a tendency to stay in her family's house. What's more, she preferred her own bedroom to any other area of the house and would often retire there when visitors arrived. Or she might lower a basket of gingerbread on a rope from her bedroom window to an assembled group of neighborhood children. Was she a timid and batty lady? A small town eccentric who, after a certain point, dressed almost entirely in white? Yes. And yes, the physical excursions she took were few and uninteresting, but her imaginative journeys were incessant and the inner realm she inhabited was vast. She had one of the greatest imaginations of American poetry--the equal of Whitman's, th ough very different in tone. And she was one of the most adventurous and courageous minds of her time (and ours). She was what William Blake might call a "Mental Traveller" and her excursions constituted the most elaborate exploration ever of Keats's "dark passages" of consciousness.
Much as I admire Keats's image of the shadowy corridors of consciousness, it fails to do justice to the boldness and wildness of Emily Dickinson's exploring. We need the sort of rugged, American image Whitman would urge, something equal to the originality and primitive power of Dickinson's venture. Something like those huge cave systems that writhe and dive for hundreds of miles beneath the American soil: Mammoth in Kentucky or Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico New Mexico, state in the SW United States. At its northwestern corner are the so-called Four Corners, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet at right angles; New Mexico is also bordered by Oklahoma (NE), Texas (E, S), and Mexico (S). . I'm thinking less of the huge, operatic op·er·at·ic
Of, related to, or typical of the opera: an operatic aria.
[From opera1. rooms hung with stalactites Stal`ac`ti´tes
n. 1. A stalactite. , than the narrow windings that might end in a wall or a duff or a small pool wheretiny, blind fish swim. And Emily Dickinson, our Recluse of the White Dress, crawls there in her other, chthonic chthon·ic also chtho·ni·an
adj. Greek Mythology
Of or relating to the underworld.
[From Greek khthonios, of the earth, from khth incarnation as America's Greatest Cave Explorer. While Emily Dickinson the proper Amherst damsel strolls about town and countryside observing flowers and sunsets with her dog Carlo, Emily Dickinson the intrepid Poet is deep underground, with her lantern helmet of intense rhythms and startling star·tle
v. star·tled, star·tling, star·tles
1. To cause to make a quick involuntary movement or start.
2. To alarm, frighten, or surprise suddenly. See Synonyms at frighten. metaphors probing the dark, mapping states of consciousness no one else has had the courage or skill to articulate.
I say a cave system and I mean the human brain:
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--... --from #670
We know she wrote at least 1775 lyric poems--a staggering number--because she preserved most of them in her spidery handwriting on small, hand-sewn packets she kept in a trunk. How to explain those 1775 poems? She wrote more great poems than any other American poet before or since. And only five of them were published in her lifetime. Even those five were recast re·cast
tr.v. re·cast, re·cast·ing, re·casts
1. To mold again: recast a bell.
2. , re-punctuated, printed without her permission. I know--she sent her poems to friends, enclosed copies of them in letters, or baskets of baked goods sent to a neighbor, and so on. But the truth remains that almost no one around her could appreciate the audacity au·dac·i·ty
n. pl. au·dac·i·ties
1. Fearless daring; intrepidity.
2. Bold or insolent heedlessness of restraints, as of those imposed by prudence, propriety, or convention.
3. and originality of her work. To say that her genius was recognized and understood is simply not accurate. Her solitude was impenetrable. It was the solitude of someone who hears, inside her, an utterly distinct music, who endures and bodies forth utterly distinct and bold imaginings. It's as if she played an invisible harp in her room--a harp only she could see or hear. And each string was a di fferent poem, a different lyric organized around a distinct, intense emotion. Each string was a poem and also a tightrope on which Emily Dickinson walked out and balanced over the Abyss. No safety net. Only the music in her ears, to which she danced, alone there on the wire.
If lyric poetry thrives on its intensity (as Keats claimed), then that intensity is often achieved through compression. Many of Dickinson's poems are imagistically and syntactically dense and hard to understand and they move and shift their images with a kind of lightning rapidity that takes getting used to. (1) I've been reading Dickinson's poems for years and I still feel that in the best of her poems there are always lines or images or turns of thought that I can't follow and yet this in no way diminishes' my sense that I have absorbed the energy and significance of the poem. For me, as a reader, the most important thing is to ignore her eccentric punctuation and read her poems aloud, listening for their tone of voice. Once I can hear the human voice of her emotion behind a particular poem, I feel as if I am inside the poem and its mystery or message is revealed to me. And once you hear her voice, it can be as direct and urgent as anything anyone ever said:
I cannot live with You-- It would be Life-- And Life is over there-- Behind the Shelf --from #640
(and she continues with a metaphor of the frustrated lovers being locked up in a cupboard like broken or old-fashioned china cups; except that it is a sexton sex·ton
An employee or officer of a church who is responsible for the care and upkeep of church property and sometimes for ringing bells and digging graves. , a gravedigger, who locks up the cupboard, and on the poem goes to even more strange yet lucid imaginings).
I measure every Grief I meet With narrow, probing, Eyes-- I wonder if It weighs like Mine-- Or has an Easier size. I wonder if They bore it long-- Or did it just begin-- I could not tell the Date of Mine-- It feels so old a pain-- I wonder if it hurts to live-- And if They have to try-- And whether--could They choose between-- It would not be--to die --from #561
What was her trauma? What hurt her into song? Though Emily Dickinson wrote thousands of letters to her friends and acquaintances, she had almost no one with whom she could discuss poetry writing. The one major exception was T. W. Higginson, a journalist and editor to whom she sent some poems in April 1862 and with whom she corresponded for years. In response to his first letter to her, inquiring how long she had been writing, she says the following:
You asked how old I was? I made no verse--but one or two--until this winter-Sir-- (2) I had a terror--since September--I could tell to none--and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground--because I am afraid--.... When a little Girl, I had a friend, who taught me Immortality--but venturing too near, himself-- he never returned ... --letter of April 25, 1862
So, we know that a loss or losses amounting to "terror" are one motive she claims for writing. We learn about her sense of isolation and how she has turned to nature for consolation:
You ask of my Companions Hills--Sir--and the Sundown--and a Dog--large as myself, that my Father bought me--They are better than Beings --because they know--but do not tell--and the noise in the Pool, at Noon--excels my Piano. --ibid.
We learn of her family, with whom she will spend her whole life, although she differs from them, especially in matters of religion:
I have a Brother and Sister--MyMother does not care for thought--and Father, too busy with his Briefs (3)--to notice what we do--He buys me many Books--but begs me not to read them--because he fears they joggle the Mind. They are religious --except me--and address an Eclipse, every morning--whom they call their "Father." --ibid.
Her father might have feared books would destabilize de·sta·bi·lize
tr.v. de·sta·bi·lized, de·sta·bi·liz·ing, de·sta·bi·liz·es
1. To upset the stability or smooth functioning of: Emily Dickinson but it might be closer to the truth to note that she was so sensitive to her emotional states that, in a sense, anything was capable of joggling Joggling (a portmanteau word) describes juggling while jogging. Jogglers say the rhythm of juggling with three objects corresponds perfectly with the action and pace of running, and call joggling a fun and effective full-body workout. her mind:
when far afterward--a sudden light on Orchards, or a new fashion in the wind troubled my atten- tion--I felt a palsy, here--the Verses just relieve-- --letter of June 7, 1862 to Higginson
That is, her consciousness, her "attention" could be troubled and disordered by a sensation in nature or by her own emotional states--by outer or inner disorder, by joy and wonder (mostly in nature) as much as by terror, pain, despair, and grief (her inner weather). And when these "palsies" struck, she turned to the writing of poems to regain her balance.
When Higginson, responding to some poems she sent him, urges her to write a more regular meter, she responds with some more poems and some pertinent remarks:
Are these more orderly? I thank you for the Truth-- I had no Monarch in my life, and cannot rule myself; and when I try to organize--my little Force explodes---and leaves me bare and charred-- I think you called me "Wayward." Will you help me improve? --letter of August 1862
What can we "trust" in Dickinson's letters to Higginson? She is complex: she needs the sophisticated literary response and encouragement she gets from Higginson, but she also knows her own genius and originality, or at the very least she is committed to that originality and does not alter her poems to fit his criticism (though she makes a great show of gratitude in her letters to him). I think we can trust this: her image of being unable to "rule" herself; her sense that when she tries to "organize" and order her language and her emotions, she "explodes." This image isn't of someone who cannot write ordered poems--we see that she writes them masterfully and incessantly. Instead, it is testimony from someone who realizes that she is unstable, who knows that her volatile consciousness can blow up in her face, leaving her "bare and charred." And it is precisely this volatility that she incorporates into her poems in order to triumph over it and, in the process, creates the complex and multifaceted self we know a s the Emily Dickinson of the poems.
How strange to be Emily Dickinson. She is so much smarter and livelier than anyone around her--an inevitable conclusion for anyone who has experienced the delight of reading her letters. And yet, she is a woman. What can she do with her intelligence and imagination? She can't become a lawyer or doctor or professor. She can't go into business. All that her small-town New England New England, name applied to the region comprising six states of the NE United States—Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. The region is thought to have been so named by Capt. world held out to her as possibilities were marriage and motherhood or spinsterhood Spinsterhood
jilted by her fiance, becomes an old maid. [Br. Lit.: The Forsyte Saga]
prim and proper schoolteacher, continually vexed by her students’ antics. . No wonder she thought she would burst. No wonder her poems explode.
With Emily Dickinson more than with any of my other heroes of imagination, I am concerned that by trying to pinpoint what specific trauma assailed her, I may be on the wrong track. Ultimately, it's pointless to attempt to locate the specific traumas that initiated the desolation and radical freedom that gave rise to the self-creation of her poems. All we could hope to do is guess. The worst situation of all would be the error of psychoanalytic criticism: to think that by locating and labeling the poet's trauma, we had found out his or her secrets. To think that way would be to look down the wrong end of the telescope at diminishment.
We need to go in the opposite direction: recognizing that the poet's trauma initiates the struggle of transformation that leads to the richly proliferating and glorious incarnations of the poems.
We can't know what hurt Emily Dickinson so, but we do know that something hurt her with enormous force, again and again:
It struck me--every Day-- The Lightning was as new As if the Cloud that instant slit And let the Fire through-- It burned me--in the Night-- It Blistered to My Dream-- It sickened fresh upon my sight-- With every Morn that came-- I thought that Storm--was brief-- The Maddest--quickest by-- But Nature lost the Date of This-- And left it in the Sky-- --#362
And we know that she responded bravely, that she "love(d) to buffet the sea!" She meant, of course, an inner sea: the sea of subjectivity, of the rise and fall, the ebb and flow the alternate ebb and flood of the tide; often used figuratively.
See also: Ebb and wild, wave-torn storms of the emotional life. Such storms, turned into words, might take the form of incantatory in·can·ta·tion
1. Ritual recitation of verbal charms or spells to produce a magic effect.
a. A formula used in ritual recitation; a verbal charm or spell.
b. raptures on an imagined, intimate ecstasy:
Wild Nights--Wild Nights! Were I with thee Wild Nights would be Our Luxury! Futile--the Winds-- To a Heart in port-- Done with the Compass-- Done with the Chart! Rowing in Eden-- Ah, the Sea! Might I but moor--Tonight-- In Thee! --#249 Or they might articulate despair and fear of madness: I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, And Mourners to and fro Kept treading--treading--till it seemed That Sense was breaking through-- And when they all were seated, A Service, like a Drum-- Kept beating--beating--till I thought My Mind was going numb-- And then I heard them lift a Box And creak across my Soul With those same Boots of Lead, again, Then Space--began to toll, As all the Heavens were a Bell, And Being, but an Ear, And I, and Silence, some strange Race Wrecked, solitary, here-- And then a Plank in Reason, broke, And I dropped down, and down-- And hit a World, at every plunge, And Finished knowing--then-- --#280 Dickinson can hymn desolation and agony: And then--Excuse from Pain-- And then--those little Anodynes That deaden suffering-- And then--to go to sleep-- And then--if it should be The will of its lnquisitor The privilege to die-- #536 And just as fervently, the defiant free will of cre- ativity examplified by the writing of poems: They shut me up in Prose-- As when a little Girl They put me in the Closet-- Because they like 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 Abnolish his Captivity-- And laugh--No more have I-- --#613 She can articulate a sense of cryptic wonder: I am afraid to own a Body-- I am afraid to own a Soul-- Profound--precarious Property-- --from #1090 Or brood on the loss of religious faith: Those--dying then, Knew where they went-- They went to God's Right Hand-- That Hand is amputated now And God cannot be found-- --from #1557 or the mystical humbling of the human heart: Not with a Club, the Heart is broken Nor with a Stone-- A Whip so small you could not see it I've known To lash the magic Creature ... --from #1304
With Emily Dickinson, it might seem as if we were talking about the poetry of survival--a restabilizing of self through poetic ordering. But subjectivity is so rampant and intense for Dickinson that the truest thing we might risk saying is that subjectivity itself could be said to constitute her trauma. Her emotional life was so excruciatingly volatile and her solitude so deep that simple conscious existence represented a potential shattering of self. And she responds to this curious threat with an equally powerful ordering self, a self created in and through the poems. When we think of the transformative lyric as a project in self-creation, it is worth noting that "I" is Emily's favorite opening word, beginning a full 142 of her poems (only "the" happens more frequently). Who knows the secret nature of the thin lady in white who sometimes opened the door at her father's house when the neighbors came calling? Much fruitless speculation has been expended on her thwarted romantic life--as if identifying this or that acquaintance as the love of her life might illuminate something.
Her true lovers were the three strange angels of Lawrence's poem and when they knocked, she flung wide the door and embraced them. She became Our Lady of the Strange Angels, the Amherst Virgin immaculately conceiving and bringing forth poem after astonishing a·ston·ish
tr.v. as·ton·ished, as·ton·ish·ing, as·ton·ish·es
To fill with sudden wonder or amazement. See Synonyms at surprise. poem. She took each emotion, each mental state on its own terms and wrestled it into the small space her poems take up.
And she challenges us to be her equal in courage:
Dare you see a Soul at the white heat?
(1.) In discussing her poems, I am for the most part not talking about the most frequently anthologized nature poems that are often sentimental or even coy. Dickinson has numerous great poems about the wonder and beauty of the natural world, but she is far more and far different than a poet of bumblebees, butterflies, and sunsets.
(2.) In fact, she has written over two hundred by the time of this letter.
(3.) Her father was a lawyer and her brother would become one also.
GREGORY ORR'S eighth book of poems, The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems Among the numerous literary works titled Selected Poems are the following: