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The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson

Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson - Emily Dickinson

Preamble (to be skipped)

I've been reading some poetry reviews by readers who are evidently lovers of prose, not poetry. Here are some ramblings motivated by those reviews.

Poetic prose is very admirable; prosodic poetry is not. It is very, very, very difficult to write a good love poem, because there are so many ways to fall into cliché and so few ways to startle, to reveal something unexpected - so difficult that most love poems are failures as poems, as it appears to me. (They may be successes in some other sense.) In my view, politics and poetry almost never mix well; political poems strike me almost always as rhetoric, not as poetry.

I highly esteem brevity and distillation; I enjoy hints and gestures at complexes of meaning beyond the words actually employed; I appreciate dense, shifting clouds of meaning trying to adumbrate the non-simplicity inherent in so many aspects of life; but I also enjoy sharp, clear takes on that which is (relatively) simple; I don't care much for pretty filigree, because I prefer to see the language shuddering under the strain of the load it is bearing; I love the unexpected phrase/view/standpoint about the most quotidian and the most abstruse, but nouvelle for the sake of new gets old fast; I do not reflexively shout "obscurity, pretension, obfuscation" because I didn't understand the first time through. But that's just me... On with the review.


I have not yet read one of the biographies of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), but I know how, disappointed by a few interactions with publishers, she made no further attempts; how she wrote nearly two thousand poems, discovered upon her death; how she rarely left the family house after she returned from college and, not long thereafter, never left her room. But I don't know the why of it.

Whatever the reasons may be, what is clear is that the primary topics of these many poems are pain, fear, love, death and immortality. The pain that so occupied her is not physical pain, but the mental and emotional pain caused to a possibly over-sensitive, timid person both by other people and by herself.

Her poems are typically short - few lines, short lines - and, to my mind, her best poems are intense, rugged, jagged in rhythm, with rhymes which appear to be accidental or so approximate that "near rhyme" just doesn't capture it. Granted, there are poems which strike me as exemplars of 19th century American "right thinking." I am allergic to "right thinking" of any stripe, but particularly the 19th century American variety gives me a rash.(*) So it's likely that those poems don't get a fair shake from me. You might like them better than I.

Here are some of the poems I thought were remarkable, for one reason or another.

I had no time to hate, because
The grave would hinder me,
And life was not so ample I
Could finish enmity.

Nor had I time to love; but since
Some industry must be,
The little toil of love, I thought,
Was large enough for me.

Here is another mark of that toil of love. Note the sprung rhythm and missed rhymes in the first and last stanzas, while the middle three are almost regular in both rhyme and rhythm. In the mid-nineteenth century the poem would be judged a clumsy failure. But, to me, it is a fascinating little machine; and the content - she is speaking from experience here...

One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.

Far safer, of a midnight meeting
External ghost,
Than an interior confronting
That whiter host.

Far safer through an Abbey gallop,
the stones achase,
Than, moonless, one's own self encounter
In lonesome place.

Ourself, behind ourself concealed,
Should startle most;
Assassin, hid in our apartment,
Be horror's least.

The prudent carries a revolver,
He bolts the door,
O'erlooking a superior spectre
More near.

So many little surprises; so much to occupy the active mind! It also hints at the "why" alluded to above. Her struggles also led her to poems like this one:

The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering;

And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die.

Two of my favroite poets, Paul Celan (1920-1970) and Georg Trakl (1887-1914), wrote darker poems, but Celan witnessed the Second World War and the German extermination camps (Celan survived, but his parents did not) and ultimately drowned himself in the Seine; and Trakl was a drug addict at 15, probably schizophrenic, and finally a medic in the front lines, broken in the first year of the First World War, dead of a cocaine overdose at 27. What agonies drew this poem out of Dickinson?

I've had this book in my shelves for 17 years; I wish I had read it earlier.

(*) So what of the 21st century Americans trying to resurrect 19th century American "right thinking"? Better not go there...