Don’t Forget the Poems

There was a quote from Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, describing the poems.  I wasn’t able to fit it into my review of the book.

A Dickinson poem can open out into any number of dramas to fill its compelling spaces.  As a woman unmodified by mating, a stranger to her time, speaking for those who are not members of the dominant group, Dickinson’s dashes push the language apart to open up the space where we live without language.

This act of daring takes off from a logical argument along the tightrope of the quatrain.  She flaunts her footsteps.  Her poetic line is a high-wire act:  a walker pretends to hesitate, stop, and sway; then, fleet of foot, skips to the end.

Gordon gives a thoughtful analysis of Dickinson’s poetry.  The foundation of her claim that Emily suffered from epilepsy is constructed on the clues she picks out of the poems, making it all the more convincing.  So if you love the poetry, and aren’t interested in the drama of the poet’s life, Lives Like Loaded Guns won’t disappoint.

Another source, one I highly recommend, is Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978.  It contains an essay, written by Rich in 1975 – Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson.  It was my introduction to the Emily described in both Lyndall Gordon’s and Jerome Charyn’s books.

Dickinson is the American poet whose work consisted in exploring states of psychic extremity.  For a long time, as we have seen, this fact was obscured by the kinds of selections made from her work by timid, if well-meaning, editors.  In fact, Dickinson was a great psychologist, and like every great psychologist, she began with the material she had at hand: herself.  She had to posses the courage to enter, through language, states which most people deny or veil with silence.

And then, of course, there are the poems.  I’ve been reading them since I was 13 years old and still find them bewildering.  But isn’t that the mark of genius?  Like the cliché onion, great poetry has layers that we can peel away; at different stages of our lives we discover different meanings.

There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself -
Finite infinity.

 

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 by Adrienne Rich
Publisher:  W.W. Norton & Company, New York (1995)
ISBN:  0 393 31285 2

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson
Publisher:  Little, Brown and Company, Boston (1960)
ISBN:  00355 13 01

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