Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Emily's Consolations

Have you really ever read Emily Dickinson? Really let her ecstasy and strangeness wash over you, and carry you away? Emily Dickinson is the spiritual mother of American poetry, just as Walt Whitman is the spiritual father. These two poets changed everything; they made way for what followed in American poetry, and their presence is still parental. Dickinson's lines and phrasings are so incredibly shocking, even now, that they seem more modern than the Moderns. Many people first encountered her in those early editions where all the punctuation and spelling was "corrected" (meaning made normative); it was only after the 1950s that we first read her as she wrote, with all the dashes and odd capitals and other unique idiosyncrasies, which only made her stranger and more shocking.

Most people read Dickinson and Whitman superficially. They acknowledge their influence, but they don't really read them. They don't turn to them the way they turn to scripture, for consolation. Some few have always done so, but not the majority. Of course, the majority is generally superficial about most things: please, Mr. Poet, don't ripple the surface of my pond, except in shallow ways that look pretty and subside quickly. But poetry can disturb; and ought to.

Sometime after 1860, Emily Dickinson endured a major crisis in life. Scholars are uncertain what the triggering event or situation was; most theories that have been offered are essentially guesswork. Whether the crisis was spiritual, emotional, psychological, romantic, physical, or some blend of all these, is also unclear. What Dickinson's crisis led to, however, was a huge outpouring: hundreds of poems written in 1862 through 1863; she probably wrote several a day, at white heat. Many of these poems are on the twinned themes of the Soul and of Death. Some completely original approaches to these subjects arrived; some quite mysterious. It was a great outpouring of poetry, a tsunami of inspiration. These were the last, bitter years of the Civil War; the dead were all around. At the same time, Whitman was also enduring crises that led to some of his greatest poems; and he had endured a similar, somewhat mysterious crisis during his journeys in Louisiana.

Were Dickinson and Whitman of similar ages when these crises individually occurred to them? It's an interesting question. One can look at the process symbolically, how the end result was that a hole was torn open in the American creative world that gave us for the first time a national artistic identity that was not cribbed or recycled from European art. Both crises opened up something new, new ways of speaking truth and poetic expression, that continue to resonate even now.

Were these mystical crises? Some have argued they were, based on the poems that resulted. I want to believe these arguments, but in truth it's guesswork or speculation. I want to feel connected to Dickinson and Whitman through the cousinship of loss, the kinship of desolation, the familyhood of extreme internal experience. This rough inner weather has been endured by many great souls. One thinks immediately of Rumi, of Teresa of Avila, of John of the Cross, of Dogen.

So I turn to Emily for consolation, not just for poetry. I find truth in the poems, seen even through the form and shape of her poetry, which is only "difficult" on the surface. I read Dickinson to feel less alone during my own process, and I read her with no part whatsoever of my [intellectual poetry-critic editor's mind] engaged. I read her for the truth of what she wrote, not because one must read her, because one feels obliged to as she was a great and influential poet. I open a page randomly in a collection of her poems and I read:

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond —
Invisible, as Music —
But positive, as Sound —
It beckons, and it baffles —
Philosophy — don't know —
And through a Riddle, at the last —
Sagacity, must go —
To guess it, puzzles scholars —
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown —
Faith slips — and laughs, and rallies —
Blushes, if any see —
Plucks at a twig of Evidence —
And asks a Vane, the way —
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit —
Strong Hallelujahs roll —
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul —

This World is not Conclusion. What an amazing thing to say. Many superficially interpret that as a sentimental reminder of the Christian idea of heavenly reward; a reading belied by the poem's own conclusion, which seems to dismiss such easy answers. The poem also means, this too shall pass, all is ephemeral. And there is a mystery beyond it all, a Species unknown. Think about this deeply: Narcotics cannot still the Tooth / That nibbles at the soul —. I find it meaningful that the poem ends on an unanswered question. We all know what the Tooth is that nibbles: doubt, worry, life's hardships, the anxieties of loss and existence. Dickinson characteristically does not end in affirmation or sentiment, but with an open question. No easy answers here.

And sometimes nothing human. At least, nothing that concerns itself with human sentiment and nostalgia. In this, one is reminded of another poet, who saw equally clearly that human concerns are not the only, or even the most important, matters to attend to. Neither Dickinson nor Robinson Jeffers placed the human drama at the center of all things; both poets reminded us that the world continues on, without us, impartial and indifferent.

Apparently with no surprise
to any happy Flower
The Frost beheads it at its play —
In accidental power —
The blonde Assassin passes on —
The Sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another Day
For an Approving God.

One thing you will always discover when you read mystics, whether or not they are poets, is this equivocal sense that everything matters and nothing matters. The simultaneity of connection and indifference; of engagement and detachment. It's as if they stepped back from the world, and still caring deeply about it they yet have a broader, more wide-ranging perspective. They become far less engaged with the daily drama, and for more aware of the larger mysteries behind the daily round. Their eyes unfocus with regard to who love whom, and become brilliantly clear about who, or what, moves behind the veil of illusion that makes up the world.

It remains possible to read Dickinson as a pretty poet, a poet of intriguing and often funny descriptions of the small things in life: her garden, the insects that fly in the open windows, the quiet rooms. It remains possible to get lost in Dickinson's formal innovations, her vivid and distinctive sense of meter and rhyme. It remains possible to read Dickinson as just another Great Poet, slot her into that category, shelve her in the stacks, and forget about her. After all, who cares about the old masters?

But, like a small mystery herself, Dickinson will seep through the cracks in your awareness. Individual vivid lines and phrases and images will keep rising to the surface of your mind, half-remembered but still lively. So many turns of phrase that she invented remain fresh and eternally young.

I see thee better — in the Dark —
I do not need a Light —
The Love of Thee — a Prism be —
Excelling Violet —

I see thee better for the Years
That hunch themselves between —
The Miner's lamp — sufficient be —
To nullify the MIne —

And in the Grave — I see Thee best —
Its little panels be
Aglow — All ruddy — with the Light
I held so high, for Thee —

What need of Day —
To Those whose Dark — hath so — surpassing Sun —
To deem it be — Continually —
At the Meridian?

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Blogger Judith Fitzgerald said...

Strong Hallelujahs!

Splendid. Exquisite. Sublime. This is such an extraordinary reading of both our forebearers, I cannot rip a flip (well, you know moi, a little; but, this should be on the Poetry Foundation 'site, IMO).

As for your leading question?

"Have you really ever read Emily Dickinson? Really let her ecstasy and strangeness wash over you, and carry you away?"

Yes, Art, in fact, I have — obsessively, compulsively, always comfortingly — in the same way I carry around OE and FGL (both in my head and heart). I may be Canadian; but, these are my roots and shoots; I can't help myself; I am stripped naked and humbled before such transcendent beauty.

Thank you for making and shaping this one; it's a keeper (and, I'm richer still for having participated in the obvious reverence and strangerous attraction you, too, experience). Astonishing, simply astonishing (in the original sense of that word), luminous, aglow . . .

6:37 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks very much. That's high praise!

As for reading Emily, I figured some had. Glad you have. You get the rhetorical point, obviously.

Maybe I should have said they were the spiritual parents of North American poets. :) I certainly think that's true enough.

It is interesting to me, though, how many lit critics are phobic about even discussing this aspect of their writing. It gets avoided far more often than it gets acknowledged.

8:00 PM  
Blogger Judith Fitzgerald said...

Yeah, that works for me; we're close enough to be kissin' kuzzins, ain't we? And, I think you're actually on the same latitude as I am? Here are the coordinates (for the town closest to me):

46.0667, -79.35

But, this is truly about Em. D. (and, yes I think spirituality enters the question in terms of healing which is why I gave her that nick, right?). Plus, you already know I never buy a house — er, not that I've bought that many — unless it has lilac bushes growing on the property (thanks completely to WW).

I had an argurant with someone @ the Poetry Foundation over Whitman and, you know what? After a fruitless stretch, I just gave up trying to explain where my sparring partner had missed the boat (or, should I say, "Ferry?"); I doubt poetry would be what it is, now, for me, without the primary influence of either; they're all over my work; and, I'm always re-reading them, the true test, as you know. A great poet's work grows with you as you grow with it. I'm not a huge fan of Pound; but, I feel likewise about David Jones and Eliot. So, you'd be doing half the continent a favo(u)r if you did change that to North American. (Boy, I have way too much energy in the morning glorious, eh?)

Anyway, best way for you to see how much Em. D. means to me? When you have a moment, have a peek-see @ this exegesis written by A. F. Moritz on what I consider to be my first real book, the first one where I didn't feel myself to be an apprentice in the workshop of spatialisation, as I call it.

I love this piece on River, Art; Moritz really understands the work and explains it with such splash and panache. There are snippets on it on the ol' self-promo blurborono page I've hot-linked.

I have only two copies of it left; but, it was a finalist for the Trillium Award; and, I just promised one of those copies to a deserving someone else (or, I'd promise it to you). If you ever see a used copy of it, pick it up; and, then? Send it to me (and, send me some of your stuff, too; that's an order from across the border!) so I can inscribe it to you (and, we'll work out the logistics if that does happen):


(I'll include some other original treats for you, though, to make it worth your whild-child side.)

Another reason why I would like you to see River?


Guess who snapped that pic on the cover? (There's a repro of it on my 'site's Bibliology page, FYI. And, guess what camera said broad used? Yep, a disposable Kodak; no kidding! Shot the snap from the thirteenth (argh, garlic, Rosary Cross) of the Maple-Apartment balcony in '93. Notice the little Canadian flag on the freighter in the Detroyit River? Coolness :).

Yacka-yacka-yikes! I defend my novel on the grounds that it's rare to find a friend who knows and feels so much about those writers and their "issues" as I do; and, I couldn't believe how similar our tastes, proclivities, or preferences are. What a lovely surprise (and, so few peeps know OE, also).

Em. D. and your post, though? IMO, you strip her down to expose the truth at the core of her work, the incredible sureness in terms of existence in this (and any other) world, the belief in her gift (despite her self-consciousness or, perhaps, because of it in the sense that most people are not conscious even though they're wide-awake breathing).

What I particularly loved in what you wrote? "I want to feel connected to Dickinson and Whitman through the cousinship of loss, to kinship of desolation, the familyhood of extreme internal experience. This rough inner weather has been endured by many great souls." I want to say, simply, AMEN, Kuzzin :). So, AMEN, Kuzzin; and, thank you for all you are and allow moi to blah-blah-blah spew on your blog, too. Jf/ox

7:12 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Wow, lots to respond to.

I'm between the 42nd and 43rd parallel. I spend a lot of time up around 45 or 46, in the northern Midwest, whenever I can. Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, I'm a Great Lakes native.

Changing it to North America, sure, no problem. There is something homegrown to the USA about these two poets, though, in that I'm not sure they could have come to fruition anywhere else. Maybe, maybe not. Canadian culture, for all its considerable merits, retained a more European approach to some things, and a more Native approach, than did the US. It's a slightly different blend of seed cultures. It's hard to define. I dunno, this is all intuition and hard to defend.

The poets we love and re-read all the time have an impact on us that endures. It might not be a literal writerly influence (although one is tempted towards the occasional hommage), sometimes it's the viewpoint or worldview or attitude in the poems that influences one. I'm not a big fan of Pound, either, although the early Imagism group as a whole made some enduring things. My group of beloved poets would have to include Lorca, Rilke, and Elytis. I am drawn to poets who both go within, into the Shadow, and who write from ecstasy and exaltation. The two movements are linked.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Judith Fitzgerald said...

Welp, that seals it, let alone explains it. I was born in Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital which is right on Lake Ontario (or was, when I was born in 1952; it's all up-built now, un/natch).

I've been thinking about what you've written since I first read it; and, you are right; in a profound way, we can never claim Em. D. and WW the way an American can. It has to do with interior and exterior landscapes, I think. I can identify? relate? isolate elements? with Em. more easily than with WW; because, as you know, his landmarks were so very specific (yet, of course, they opened out into the universal, especially his longer pieces).

I s'pose, in some way, although you may find spiritual and poetic sustenance in Al Purdy or Emily Carr, say, you cannot experience their work the way I do (as a Canadian). The cultural and geographical and yes, even, meteorological outlines can only be assimilated internally, by living in this country. We know the game of hockey in two different ways; and, we have the historical knowledge; but, it differs for both of us because of where and who we are; however, I do think there's enough overlap that we meet at the matrix (or, the axis, mebbe) where interior/internal meets exterior/external. And, we see the glorious heavens the same way despite our coordinates, don't we?

It is about light (which is necessary for shadow and vice versa). That's absolutely basic and essential. What obtrudes?

Clouds. Cloudy daze. The universal cloudy maze; we can't find our way "home" even though we know we're already here.

Yes, how can we not love the writers we do? That's the question you don't have to answer, too. We're greedy, hungry, and indescribably grateful for the feast from both the west and the east. Is all. Is enough. And, sure, there's always more; but, that just keeps us returning to the central-weathering store :).

You have a gift; you must honour it. With or without the "U"; and, you know this with as much certainty as you know who; why the fuck else would we do what we so willingly and grudgingly and whiningly and rapturously do?

9:44 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I agree with you. You said it very well, thank you. That's exactly what I was getting at.

I don't want anyone to think, however, that I am in favor of nationalism OR of provincialism. I have argued the opposite case so many times that I've become known in certain circles for being strongly anti-parochial. And I would be the very last to claim that imagination doesn't matter.

I don't want to gloss over the commonalities, because I think they're essential, and they are what make poets like Dickinson and Whitman speak to us all, and to us today, still: the shared experiences of being human, those things that universally tie us together. (And remember, the past is a foreign country, full of strange and baffling ways, too.)

And great writers can and do get us to understand what we haven't personally experienced. I can smell the sweat and blood whenever I read Melville's Moby Dick. I have never been to Duino or Muzot, but Rilke last great poems written there speak out from those places to what is human in all of us. One of the past century's better poets, Judith Wright, remains shockingly unknown outside her native Australia, but like the others one reason she excels is because she is not regional-only.

And at the same time, I probably don't feel Wright in my bones the way someone from Oz might. One reason I travel, and visit poet's places whenever I can on my travels, is to get a feel for their places, their settings, to develop some empathy and imagery that helps me appreciate their viewpoints. Someday I would like to visit Borges' Buenos Aires, to visit George Mackay Brown's Orkney islands, to make a pilgrimage to Rumi's grave in Kona. Etc. I've been several times to Robinson Jeffers' places around Big Sur, including his home, which is now a preserved museum site. You get the idea. One wants to see and feel what they saw and felt.

At the same time, there ARE regional differences. I am very aware that I am a Midwesterner at heart, with inclinations towards being a full Westerner; I feel very little connection to places like Georgia or Louisiana, and I barely understand what drives people in those places. Heck, Canada is bigger than the USA, even, and Newfies and Vancouverites have the oceans in common and not much else, it seems like. Sp, regionalism is a stamp on our blood, and it really does mean something. But imagination can still trump it, in the empathetic and careful reader.

Of course this is all very tangled up and paradoxical. But I mean that in a good way, too. The more nuanced and complicated it gets, the more like real life it probably is. Nothing is so clear and so artificial as an ideological thoughtform.

9:36 AM  
Blogger Rachel Fox said...

The Brits read her too!

It's weird, maybe, but I find her dashes and forms completely...right. In fact it's everyone else's ways of writing their poetry down that seem odd to me! When I get stupid magazine editors wanting to 'correct' my punctuation in poetry I want to ROAR...'How stupid are you?'

I'll go and sit down quietly now. And read some Auntie Em.

3:26 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Rachel. Auntie Em is indeed universal.

That's that unconventionality of hers that many still find strange and shocking. I find I'm used to it, now, too. I do fill like Dickinson did give me permission to sometimes end with something other than a period, it's true—

8:46 AM  
Blogger Rachel Fox said...

I find those 'many' strange and shocking...she seems just right! But then I don't use full stops/periods in poetry at all. To me they seem out of place there.

9:42 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Interesting though. I think you just articulated something essential.

There are far too many poets, still, who think that poetry has to follow the rules of prose grammar. I think it should break it whenever necessary. Sometimes full stops are what comes forward to be written; but when they're not, they shouldn't be imposed.

Speaking of stupid editors, there are plenty of those who wouldn't grasp an unconventional syntax or grammar usage in a poem if it bit them on the ass. They seem to think that all poems must contain complete, formally structured sentences.

Perhaps that's why so much poetry these days reads like maudlin prose broken into arbitrary lines. People do imitate what they read in the journals, after all.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Rachel Fox said...

I find it continually confusing and frustrating that some poets, editors etc. do indeed "think that poetry has to follow the rules of prose grammar". To me one of the best things about poetry is its freedom from prose rules (amongst other things) and I just can't understand why some people hate this idea. I always want to say 'have you not read any poetry? Have you not seen Dickinson or cummings or anyone else who makes their poetry in an alternative way?' And yet it is often the most well-read individuals who come out with these restrictions - it's very strange. The only conclusion I can come to is that it's OK to do it once you're part of the canon or dead but if you're still alive or 'unknown' then it's not and you should just behave yourself. Craziness. And just plain stoopid.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Couldn't agree more.

It's also self-defeating.

But then, a lot of these people are formal grammarians who have invested energy in learning grammar, and demand the same of others. Another group that carries this torch is the neo-formalist poets, who basically think that Modernism shouldn't have happened; or deny that it did.

It's amazing how often I've been attacked on this very issue, in critique situations, and I have to ask the same questions you do. I have often replied, simply and clearly, "Poetry is not prose. It doesn't have to follow the rules of prose." And leave it at that. Because some of these folks you can't argue with: they're zealots, and they know they're right, and they're not open to discussion.

10:58 PM  
Blogger Judith Fitzgerald said...

Short answer: Those who write prose aren't in possession of a poetic licence; thus, they view punctuation as a serviceable part of their work; poets, de facto nutzos (or so I'm told), can do whatever they damned well wish to do with punctuation because, as I see it, it becomes a part of a poem; it doesn't support its sense; it transports its sensibility. IOW, punctuation clarifies prose; but, it verifies poetry.

11:14 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Indeed, it's apples and oranges, and based on a fundamental misunderstanding of needs and necessities.

12:16 AM  

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