An Emily Dickinson poem, No.443, has the cloistered poet speaking elliptically, mysteriously about her duty to her small labors and benign daily obligations in the wake of a personal catastrophe; her resolve to stick to her routine with an even greater conviction is an extraordinary will to power. Rather than surrender to grief and a long, tedious death knell, she confirms her existence by tending to the world that is left to her. It’s less than she is chained to her routine that she is liberated by them, elevated even. It’s a way to be engaged with things not related to matters of personal misfortune; through the tasks, small and inconsequential as they seem, are a boon to her. There are sound echoes of Samuel Beckett in this arresting poem, the similarities between a shared theme that we are creatures of habit, routine and appetite, that the motions we go through are the irreducible fact of our human condition.
A Beckett reader from years back was called I Can’t Go On, I Go On, and bitter-sweetly so, as it is a phrase that summarizes the dry, splintered core of the Irish writer’s worldview. Without the compelling vision, let us say delusion of an overriding ideology, whether religion, political, economic, aesthetic, life is really little else but an eternal return to repetitive functionality. Even in disillusion, Beckett’s characters do not transcend, they do not change, they go back to what disgusts them and lose themselves in reveries of a past that seems to be only something they’ve read; the redundant tasking is the only anchor in the present time. Dickinson, though, was aware of the sheer repetition of her daily tasks and took them to be the things that make this life purposeful and with a shred of meaning, small and banal her small chores might be. It is the doing of the tasks, the chores, the run of things it takes to keep her household in order, that creates purpose — the well-worn existentialist notion that one accepts the consequences of one’s action through a form of creative commitment to the results — and it is in those moments, giving oneself over to a string of small matters that require daily attention, that she is engaged and for a moment outside herself, in service to something greater than herself.
The time ‘twill be till six o’clockI have so much to do —And yet — Existence — some way back —Stopped — struck — my ticking — through —We cannot put Ourself awayAs a completed ManOr Woman — When the Errand’s doneWe came to Flesh — upon —There may be — Miles on Miles of Nought —Of Action — sicker far —To simulate — is stinging work —To cover what we areFrom Science — and from Surgery —Too Telescopic EyesTo bear on us unshaded —For their — sake — not for Ours —
It is at that moment when matters are concluded for the day that our psychic bearing ebbs and we are returned again to the trembling , merely mortal flesh that trembles from the ceaseless self-awareness that one is alone and not the recipient of glory or attending serenity from on high; the mind chatters to itself, contemplating the stark uselessness of things; the more we find out about ourselves from the sciences, the lesser we seem in the grand scheme of an unknown god’s cosmos. Dickinson, the philosopher of the closed space, the metaphysician of precision, refuses to think of herself as lesser in comparison with the vast and unnervingly incomprehensible existence that lay far outside the walls of her Amherst home — this life of hers, these things in that life, were no less consequential as the rage for big ideas and larger, more complex constructions; her life was a matter of fact, of record, and it was for her to tend her minuscule bit of the world and finds with her dutiful attendance elements that link her with the larger chain of American endeavor, a culture and economy that’s locked itself in the present tense, defining itself with the tasks they undertake, the ones they finish, the new ones they begin. There is the question if Dickinson is speaking of herself alone or instead turns the person into a general worldview, as in the way she skillfully switches from the first person to plural in her narration. I think that Dickinson’s subject is herself alone and that the I and we of her poems — when both occur — are interchangeable; it’s not an uncommon trait that those who prefer their own counsel and company would refer to themselves in the third person. Caesar did it with powerful effect in his De Bello Gallico, Henry Adams revived the technique in his Education of Henry Adams, and Norman Mailer exploited the style wonderfully until he wore it out in an intriguing series of autobiographical testaments. It’s a wonderful device, as it allows one the distance to address speak of themselves with more intimacy and less modesty than a first-person narration might. It can also be a convenient way to ease the reader into a writer’s point of view by treating oneself as if he or she were a fictional character; it eases the sting of obnoxiousness, provided there’s an attractive style. Dickinson, though, wasn’t concerned with an audience and seemed, in my reading, to switch to a Victorian plural to dig a little deeper, prod her memory a little harder. It was a technique with which she could crystalize her contradictory responses to her still universe. Nothing went unnoticed, everything was framed in the narrative distance, amazing things from the minute domain were revealed.
Where Beckett offers us a body of literature that informs us that the condition of humankind is a prison house of rote tasks performed without variation by a species that’s been harassed and hazed to a devitalized race of doddering amnesiacs, Dickinson is of heartier stock, a chronically depressed Irish cynic contrasted against a Yankee that will not lay down and die and which embraces Life however insignificant it might seem. Some junior high school existentialism creeps into this cursory discussion: The central issue comes down to the essential existential paradox, from either the spiritual or atheistic; one is ever not free, regardless of circumstances or forces that one finds themselves subject to. There is always a choice that can be made in even confined and restricted circumstance that cannot be taken away. Sartre, from whom I first gleaned the idea, exaggerated in his emphasis in his attempt to undercut determinist currents thought to rule human behavior — religion, economics, biology — and insist that man is ethically bound to make his creative choices and accept responsibility for the results and consequences. He sounds a bit like the lunk-headed Ayn Rand represented this simply, and there are far subtler aspects of his thought as you know, but the point here might be that Dickinson saw her closed in circumstances in the aftermath of her catastrophe but instead as the time to reconsider and reclaim a life that is hers and which has only the meaning and purpose she brings to it. It was her way, I read, of refusing to languish on a past she might be chained to, and to free her, as well, from the anxiety of a shadow future. She frees herself by giving herself over to her present circumstances, attentive, aware, alive, small as that life might be. Small, yes, but her life, uniquely Emily Dickinson’s.
Emily Dickinson was cryptic for reasons known only to herself, I’m afraid, but I'm of the mind that she intended her compact lyrics to be interpreted any number of ways. Irony, contradiction, revelation; her poems move along general the general theme that one’s thinking, Dickinson’s, evolves with time, gently or brutally, and that the time to be a witness is finite.
Nuances and whispered implications abound in her work and, beyond a loosely gathered bit of conventional wisdom about ED’s general themes and concerns; there is plenty in her work to warrant continued, fascinating and inconclusive opinions about where the center of the poem, it's motivating core and precise details lie. But what is also fascinating and important to speculate is what’s not included in the poem; what is outside the text is a worthy subject of investigation/speculation. I've heard it remarked more than once over a few decades that Dickinson appears to be talking to the air around here, oblivious to whether there are others around her who might hear her address intangible thing about equations that can't be quantified with locked-down certainty.
It is an element that makes ED contemporary to this day, as a body of work that still resonates with a modern readership discovering a wit, an insight, a corresponding feeling in her splendidly fragmented manner. My information is nothing else but my own reading gauged against my own experience, both as citizen and poet. What I’ve said I have found in the text, really. Literary commentary is not science, and it is pointless to insist on anything like “back to the data”. Historical context for poems is fine for perspective, but language is a living thing, not stagnate, as you know, and ED’s word choices. I am convinced that there are meanings in great poems that those most great poets were entirely unaware; poetry is an intuitive process however much a crafted discipline comes into play.
There is the superficial element, the glitter, the dazzle, the alluring set of phrases that seem to say one thing, and then there are things that combined suggest and point toward matters perhaps the author might not have known of, let alone the reader. That is the joy of criticism, a rage of interpretative opinions based on the text. I fairly much reject definitive, “authoritative” interpretations of works of art. I do, though, welcome contrary views and insights.
That's a major reason why I finally surrendered to the singular genius of this poet as a poet of ideas; where the descriptions of manufactured melancholy and text book irony wore out with the idioms they rode in in, Dickinson , like Shakespeare , to a large degree, remains contemporary with a language that is unique, in a form that eschews what formal instruction demands and which services a poetry that remains relevant to the modern age, what ever decade a reader is sitting in, reading a poem off the page or device; the mystery of existence is intact and vital. Dickinson still provides the reason to say aha, she still creates the chill of recognition.
Society for me my miserySince Gift of Thee—”
Dickinson, as I understand her, was not a fan of humanity, and preferred her thoughts and her privately considered things to the clamor and debate of the many that would battle over the right to name the world and its contents as they think it should be. She kept her own consul and had no patience for what others thought or thought of her. Being public was a burden beyond what her personality desired; in this couplet, which I suspect is a couplet, she considers the state of being noted, notable, famous for any reason a misery that she ought not to suffer. Being known beyond Amherst was an undeserved gift to the world, as a reputation that accompanies fame presents the world with a readymade narrative of someone’s life and presented her with the problem of having to live up to a plot line that she felt had nothing to do with her. Being comprehended or understood by the masses was a useless option for her.
While Dickinson wanted to everyone to mind their own set of affairs while she tended her own piece of the earth, Pound, again, wanted to have language be capable of getting an image exactly, as would a photograph; the thinking is that he wanted to get beyond the metaphysical conceits that an older poetics contained. On the face of it this seems admirable, but what he wanted to do was to have the world see the world as he saw it, precisely, without romantic resonance and the nuanced variations that come with the habit (and the political tumult as well). He wanted to settle matters quickly and have folks move into a new, dynamic direction. Essentially, I believe his basic goal with his project of boiling down the language was an effort to turn whole populations into cattle.
Emily Dickinson, the mistress of compressed reflection, advances her belief in the probable darkness that follows death when she write on the subject of the immortality of poetry. As with much of her work through her harbored life, there was a preoccupation with the concept that sheer nothingness awaited each of us. There was no "passing over", there was no seat next to God despite sermons and summons to behave righteously, there was no ethereal vantage point to see what writings were still read, which had been scrapped, which we rediscovered. Death was not a "state" one lapsed into as if it might be something one might come out of again; it was entirely non-being, bereft of potential. The fate of a poet's work, in popular regard and currency, were to be unknown once the lights went out. She doubtless refers to her own work with these lines:
The Poets light but Lamps—Themselves—go out—The Wicks they stimulate—If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns—Each age a LensDisseminating theirCircumference—
She seems to assert that the poem survives , if it is vital, and with that the meaning of the poem changes with each generation that it passes through. Author intentionality is relevant only when the poet is still alive and is around to make further arguments, write more poems to expand or contract their original thesis. Afterward, what the author intended to say, what they originally meant, becomes merely historical, and the poem assumes a life independent of it's author's particulars. The poem, because it is vital, is adapted and absorbed by each succeeding "lens" "circumference" it passes through; vital poems and vital literature in general are a means for which the intellectual and cultural givens of age can confirm or critique the legitimacy of their habits of mind.
The text of the poem, or the author's thinking and intentions, cease being the end-all and be-all of interpretation, since the work's passage through generations of readers and discourse presents a contemporary audience with something layered and laden with meanings and associations that are not easily dispensed with.
The dialogues of a vital work have become as much a part of the poem as the actual words on the poet's tablet, freshly writ. This makes Dickinson quite contemporary in her thinking, since it reveals an awareness that there is no metaphysical certainty that will lock her work's definitive and final meaning into place, for all time. Rather, she was aware that, seemingly, that so long as a poem continues to be read, it continues to be changed, revised, altered. She would have been an interesting person to discuss reader-reception theory with. I don't mean to say that what trying to grok what Dickinson is driving is impossible or useless; I think I overstated that part of my rant. Rather, I think it's impossible to read the poem in situ, by itself, sans outside references, which is how New Critics would have us take up the text. Generations of discussion and interpretation have become inextricable from a vital poem and, though one may well re-establish a poets original set of concerns and the gestalt from which their poetics originated, that is not a place modern readers can profitably dwell for long. Our readings must engage decades of previous readings that have become inseparable from the vital work.
The goal is comprehension, in terms of making a poem mean something to readers beyond the poet's imagining, and that means creating new contexts and criteria for relevance. That is something I positive Dickinson, always one aware of the nearness of death, had on her mind. Or something akin to it. I don't think Dickinson anticipated immortality, but it seems likely that she wondered how her poems would be interpreted beyond her life. She seems to have been of the mind that the poems ,'though fixed, as such, in the same scale of words, wouldn't be quite the same poems she'd written. Absent her voice to correct an erring view, she was aware that the poems would come to mean different things to commencing generations
don't see ED as romantic either, but rather as someone who was doing the best they could do with a personality and temperament she couldn't help but have. Her reclusive life was her choice, and in that decision she was fulfilled, with her books and her writings. It's unfair to characterize it as "wasted" if she didn't strive for anything beyond her home in Amherst. It may well be that she was incapable of adding to the social good beyond her writing; not being a social creature, reticent to meet others and loath to travel , she wasn't inclined to engage others with ideas, projects or causes. There was nothing there to waste. Some folks are just like that, I'm afraid, shut ins with their hobbies and obsessions, doing the best they can do with the solitude they crave. The judgement of history is that Emily Dickinson has done substantially better than most who don't often venture into the light, whether sunshine or moon glow. Since her poetry is the direct and desired result of the reclusive life she chose, it really is impossible to contemplate how her extraordinarily odd and often brilliant verse without considering, speculating and opining what that life was like. She is Emily Dickinson, who left the world a bounty of work that's been mainstreamed more than any other American poet and, as such, she has no right to privacy. I am of the school that says that a poet on her level of recognition needs to have everything about their life and work scrutinized so we can a better idea of what that greatness is. This includes her sex life, or lack of it: it has a bearing on the tone and style of her work.
There is an ongoing project among a current generation of critics and poets to make the ever baffling , provocative and incontestably brilliant poet Emily Dickinson a less problematic figure in the American literary terrain. Famous for her reclusive lifestyle and extremely selective preferences as to who she had personal contact and communication with, some effort has been made to make her a more human, more public figure. The publication of the handwritten "envelope poems" is the latest in the trend to bring her into the sunshine. I welcome the addition of more , previously unknown verse to her body of work, but the insistence on publishing them with careful rendered photos of the actual pieces of paper to be evidence of a growing fetishism; it seems less an effort to bring more insight into the words than it is , say, for an obsessed reader to imagine a real person who might have written these things in states of meditative reflection. That makes the book more stunt than an essential unveiling of unknown poems. I wish there was a book merely with the poems printed, without the clutter. Here the result, for this reader, is that the more I find out about her, the less is revealed.
Emily Dickinson was cryptic for reasons known only to herself, I’m afraid, but I am of the mind that she intended her compact lyrics to be interpreted any number of ways. Irony, contradiction, revelation; her poems move along general the general theme that one’s thinking, Dickinson’s, evolves with time, gently or brutally, and that the time to be a witness is finite. Nuances and whispered implications abound in her work and, beyond a loosely gathered bit of conventional wisdom about ED’s general themes and concerns; there is plenty in her work to warrant continued, fascinating and inconclusive opinions about where the center of the poem, its motivating core and precise particulars lie. But what is also fascinating and important to speculate is what’s not included in the poem; what is outside the text is a worthy subject of investigation/speculation.
It is an element that makes ED contemporary to this day, as a body of work that still resonates with a modern readership discovering a wit, an insight, a corresponding feeling in her splendidly fragmented manner. My information is nothing else but my own reading gauged against my own experience, both as citizen and poet. What I’ve said I have found in the text, really. Literary commentary, of course, is not science and it is particularly pointless to insist on anything like “back to the data”. Historical context for poems is fine for perspective, but language is a living thing, not stagnate, as you know, and ED’s word choices. I am convinced that there are meanings in great poems that those most great poets were entirely unaware; poetry is an intuitive process however much a crafted discipline comes into play. There is the superficial element, the glitter, the dazzle, the alluring set of phrases that seem to say one thing, and then there are things that combined suggest and point toward matters perhaps the author might not have been aware of, let alone the reader. That is the joy of criticism, a rage of interpretative opinions based on the text. I fairly much reject definitive, “authoritative” interpretations of works of art.