Monday, February 7, 2011

Magpie 52

That prompt, that house -- alone, silent, tucked away...
It reminded me of a visit I paid years ago to a house tucked away in a town in western Massachusetts.
Back in 1862 it had been the home of a fascinating 31-year-old woman, a recluse, shy, unknown to the world, but who was to become one of the great American poets. .
She wrote a great many poems, very few of which were published in her lifetime and none of which were published as she wrote them.
They were special.
Her poetry was too, well, different – strange, idiosyncratic, at times almost chaotic.
And the life she lived was almost as strange.

Her name, as you may well by now have guessed, was Emily Dickinson, and she spent years in that house without setting her foot outside her front door, and many more years during which her walks were strictly limited to her father's grounds.
In April 1862, a man named Thomas Higginson, a critic and editor, published an article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in which he advised budding young writers. Dickinson sent a letter to him, enclosing four poems and asking, "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?"
He was interested. His reply included gentle "surgery" (that is, criticism) of Dickinson's raw, odd verse, questions about her personal and literary background, and a request for more poems.
To the average reader, Dickinson’s work seemed then, and indeed to many seems today, to be merely the writing of an amateur, someone who has a lot to say but who doesn’t understand the rules of poetry.
She used dashes a lot, along with strange capitalization and bizarre subject matter. A famous example of her work:

“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!”

In one of her early letters to Higginson, she wrote of herself: "I am small, like the wren, and my hair is bold, and my eyes like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves."
“Eyes like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves...” Higginson realized he was dealing with an authentic Poet.
Fact is, Emily Dickinson was simply indifferent to conventional poetic rules, but she had a rigorous literary standard of her own and often altered a word many times to suit her difficult, demanding ear.
Look at these well-known lines of hers:

"Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
And Immortality.”

If you want to get technical, what she most often employs is the ballad stanza, a traditional form. She uses “tetrameter” for the first and third lines – four beats to the line – and “trimeter” for the second and fourth – three beats to the line.
In other words, she knew the rules of poetry, she just didn’t care all that much about them. She wanted to write in her own raw, idiosyncratic way and she wasn’t going to change.
It’s ironic that, after her death, many of her works – she left almost 2,000 poems – were published, and she would undoubtedly have been upset to see that they had all been “corrected” by editors, the syntax rearranged and everything rewritten in the conventional poetic style and approved grammar of that era.
It wasn’t till 1955 that one Thomas Johnson published Dickinson's poems for the first time in their original formats, thus displaying the creative genius and peculiarity of her poetry.
Emily Dickinson is now taught in college classes throughout the land as a powerful figure in American culture. Twentieth-century critic Harold Bloom placed her alongside Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost and T S Eliot as a major American poet.
Some familiar Dickinson lines:
"Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul - and sings the tunes without the words."
"A wounded deer leaps the highest."
"Fame is a fickle food upon a shifting plate."
"I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven."
"If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."


Shari Sunday said...

Entertaining and informative as always. I know someone who is very introveted and isolated but smart and talented as well. I used to get annoyed with her until I learned more about Emily Dickinson. Emily helped me appreciate and understand my friend.

thingy said...

I sort of feel like she is my sister from another time.

I loved this. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Ah, this is so very interesting and I think that I am a newfound fan of Emily Dickinson! Love the line about the wounded deer, but so much of what you shared of her work is honestly so AWESOME! That is such a shame that they changed her work. The standards of others - sometimes they get on my nerves. lol. Anyway great post! I really enjoyed reading it! :o)

Stafford Ray said...

Thank you Thomas Johnson and thank you Berownie yet again for such interesting and delightful background.

Christine said...

Teach me more. I struggle with poetry because I don't think I could be one because of the rules etc. Thank you for giving me the burning curiosity to find Emily and read her. I was thinking of using her Hope is the thing with feathers... on my blog but I wasn't sure if I was worthy of using her words.

hedgewitch said...

Very interesting post. I've always wondered what was wrong with my memory because the Dickinson poems I read now are so different(and so much better) than what I remember reading when I was young. I had no idea they'd been ruthlessly edited by her early publishers. As always, I learn something whenever I drop by here.

Margaret Bednar said...

How timely. I picked up a book of her collected poems at a used book store for $4.00. I will crack it open tonight and start reading. Thank you.

ds said...

Oh, lucky you to have made the pilgrimage to Amherst! I do love "I'm Nobody..." Her description of herself in that letter to Higginson is wonderful. Thank you for sharing it, and for reminding us that there is so much more to Dickinson than first meets the eye!

Elizabeth said...

Thank you, Berowne. Although I'm familiar with, and enjoy very much,many of Dickinson's words, I knew little of her background. x

(Queenmothermamaw) Peggy said...

Hi Berowne, So nice to visit again. I appreciate this post so much as I did not know this about Emily D. In fact I only know of her. I have never studied poetry in depth but love to make a stab at it not knowing the rules either. You are a wealth of info when it comes to literature. I have not been well and getting around to all the blogs I admire is not as easy as it once was. Blessings.

Rashmi said...

Wonderful.So lucky I feel to click your link so that I could read this article.By reading you I feel attracted to Emily Dickinson.
I dont have much knowledge on the poets sorry to say..
But feel that I should read her collections...
Thank you very much for sharing this wonderful writeup.

Bee's Blog said...

I love coming here -p I always learn something.

Thank you for this fascinating piece of literary history which as a Brit I did not know - even though English Literature was one of my subjects!

lightverse said...

Once again, your words entertain and educate me, I love the way you see a tree or a house, and it become something with life, with wings - and you tell the story to endless fascination!

Tess Kincaid said...

It's fun to think we both thought of it as a poet's house.

Kristen Haskell said...

I love your method of teaching, you are such a great story teller. I must rush right out and read more Dickinson asap because now I have a deeper appreciation thanks to you.

Trellissimo said...

Idiosynchratic I like! And Emily Dickinson...

Berowne said...

Tess K.: "It's fun to think we both thought of it as a poet's house."
Ah, but you wrote your post -- a bit of raw, pulsating jealousy here -- in beautiful poetry. :-)

Berowne said...

What a wonderful lineup of encouraging comments:
Shari S.: "Entertaining and informative as always." thingy: "I loved this." Gil in M O W: "Ah, this is so interesting." hedgewitch: "Very interesting post." Rashmi: "Wonderful."
My thanks to all.

cosmos cami said...

Excellent and interesting.
Thanks for taking the time to post all this.

Berowne said...

cosmos cami: "Thanks for taking the time to post all this."
My pleasure. :-)

Jinksy said...

I feel a great affinity for this lady...

Lyn said...

She had very subtle courage too, asking if her verse was alive.
You are a scholar and a poet..really like that!!

Lucy Westenra said...

Most illuminating! All too many poets dispense with all the "rules" of poetry before they've even bothered to learn them. And doesn't it just show!

Berowne said...

I have to agree with you, Lucy W. :-)

Donna B said...

I wish I would have had you as a teacher...then I would have learned all the rules of poetry...
The only thing I remember is "iambic pentameter", not so much what it was, but I liked saying it. Something about counting sylables...

This was fascinating. My favorite ED poem was:

"Apparently with no surprise,
To any happy flower,
The frost beheads it at its play,
In accidental power.
The blond assassin passes on.
The sun proceeds unmoved,
To measure off another day,
For an approving God. "

I had to select a poem to recite and I was mesmerized by it.

Berowne said...

Just for fun I add a bit from Woody Allen's book, "Without Feathers."
"How wrong Emily Dickinson was! Hope is not 'the thing with feathers.' The thing with feathers has turned out to be my nephew. I must take him to a specialist in Zurich."

Doctor FTSE said...

Intesesting, Mr.B! Wannabee poets should write/read IP's till they're sick to death of them. By which time they will (might) have learned something about rhythm. Then read Dylan Thomas till they're sick of him but have hopefully absorbed something of assonance in the process.
BTW . . has anyone ever asked you where your pseudonym is taken from?
(Barring coincidence! Your vast knowledge of WS is the clue, I think?)

Berowne said...

Dr.FTSE: "Has anyone ever asked you where your pseudonym is taken from?"
No, but you're on the right track. :-)

Mad Kane said...

Thanks! I enjoyed your post and also learned a lot from it.

Gerry/Strummed Words said...

I have just recently begun to appreciate Emily's poetry.

Rinkly Rimes said...

How very interesting! I must read more of her work. I often wonder about the 'rules' of poetry. As it comes out it was meant to be. Yet I like the diswcipline of poems such as sonnets too.

Everyday Goddess said...

Really great to know a bit more about her. She is a fascinating woman!

Do you think if she lived in today's world, she would have been a blogger?

Berowne said...

E. Goddess: "Do you think if she lived in today's world, she would have been a blogger?"
Definitely. There are probably quite a number of Emily Dickinsons in the bloggosphere today.

Lydia said...

What a splendid instruction and great insight into the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Bells rang for me when I read this line: "It wasn’t till 1955 that one Thomas Johnson published Dickinson's poems for the first time in their original formats, thus displaying the creative genius and peculiarity of her poetry." Thank you for actually saying her poetry had peculiarity. It is what I have thought and appreciated about it but never pinned the word.

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