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?