1 year ago
Monday, February 7, 2011
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
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."