Tuesday, April 8, 2014

National Poetry Month—Mere Happenstance with Emily

This 1859 daguerreotype is now thought by most scholars to show Emily, left as a 29 year old woman in the company of her close friend Kate Scott Turner.  A far cry from the only previously documented photo of a frail 17 year old just recovering from a serious illness.  This Emily has strength and resolve.  Oh, and that hair is a fiery red.

Yesterday we were all over Walt Whitman.  I mentioned in passing that if Walt was the God father of modern American poetry, Emily Dickinson was the God mother.  At first glance that may seem a startling proposition.  Other than the fact that the two of them were plying their crafts contemporaneously, the poets and their poems seemed to have little in common.
Whitman was wildly expansive and reveled in the vibrant world swirling about him.  Dickinson was a famous recluse, retreating into the bosom of her family home and eventually seldom venturing outside even to tend her beloved gardens.  He was robust, she was fragile.  Walt was endlessly self-promotional, beating the drums for his work and practically thrusting it into the hands of readers.  Emily shared her lines, if at all, only with family and a handful of friends and mentors, hiding much of it away in drawers unseen by any one until her death.  Whitman was a Niagara of effusive observation and commentary.  Emily was frugal with her imagery, squeezing the last drop of meaning from every carefully laid down word.  Walt was open about almost every aspect of his life—even his homosexuality.  Emily veiled her life behind allusion.
Yet each in their own way was utterly honest, and utterly unconcerned about convention, tradition, or expected form.  Each was an American original and could have grown from no other soil.  Two odd sides of the same coin.  
Whitman begat Edwin Markham, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsey, e. e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Felenghetti, down to a mope in a cowboy hat. 
Dickinson let to Amy Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, May Sarton, Sylvia Plath, Adrien Rich, Marge Piercy, Mary Oliver.  As diverse as they are they all, even those who open their veins in self-revelation or revel in sexuality, owe Emily the courage of breaking free, breaking convention, breaking barriers.
Depending on how you count, Emily left over 400 poems.  Some of them repeated versions.  None was very long.  Any could just fit on whatever scrap of paper or even envelope flap she had at hand.  Others, starting with her sister, her brother’s mistress to whom she never spoke except through a closed door, and the Unitarian minister who was a mentor, assembled and edited those scraps and scrap books.  In the process the expurgated some things that shocked them, tried to force her free spirit into more conventional forms, messed with her beloved dashes.  Later scholars would try to restore original intent.  There is still argument as to what is truly cannon.
None of the poems had titles.  For convenience they are often re-printed with the first line standing as a title.  Often they are referred to by the numbers assigned to them in the first editions.  A dozen or so are widely circulated and anthologized.  But you can dip almost anywhere into that pool and pull up a little, finely crafted gem.  In fact, I’m going to try just that today.
Join me, I’m going fishing.

A Cloud withdrew from the Sky

A Cloud withdrew from the Sky
Superior Glory be
But that Cloud and its Auxiliaries
Are forever lost to me

Had I but further scanned
Had I secured the Glow
In an Hermetic Memory
It had availed me now.

Never to pass the Angel
With a glance and a Bow
Till I am firm in Heaven
Is my intention now.

—Emily Dickinson

Abraham to Kill Him

Abraham to kill him
Was distinctly told—
Isaac was an Urchin—
Abraham was old—

Not a hesitation—
Abraham complied—
Flattered by Obeisance
Tyranny demurred—

Isaac—to his children
Lived to tell the tale—
Moral—with a mastiff
Manners may prevail. 
—Emily Dickinson

Apparently with no Surprise

Apparently with no surprise,
To any happy flower,
The frost beheads it at its play,
In accidental power.
The blond assassin passes on.
The sun proceeds unmoved,
To measure off another day,
For an approving God. 
—Emily Dickinson

Between My Country—and the Others

Between My Country—and the Others—
There is a Sea—
But Flowers—negotiate between us—
As Ministry. 
—Emily Dickinson

I often passed the village

I often passed the village
When going home from school—
And wondered what they did there—
And why it was so still—

I did not know the year then—
In which my call would come—
Earlier, by the Dial,
Than the rest have gone.

It’s stiller than the sundown.
It’s cooler than the dawn—
The Daisies dare to come here—
And birds can flutter down—

So when you are tired—
Or perplexed—or cold—
Trust the loving promise
Underneath the mould,
Cry “it’s I,” “take Dollie,”
And I will enfold! 
—Emily Dickinson

The Himmaleh was known to stoop

The Himmaleh was known to stoop
Unto the Daisy low—
Transported with Compassion
That such a Doll should grow
Where Tent by Tent—Her Universe
—Emily Dickinson

Wild Nights—Wild Nights!

Wild Nights—Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile—the Winds—
To a Heart in port—
Done with the Compass—
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden—
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor—Tonight—
In Thee! 

—Emily Dickinson

This little selection was, as promised, totally random.  No attempt to pick the “best” or illustrate a theme.  Mere happenstance.  If you are yourself a poet, I defy you to try this with your own work, including the stuff hidden in the bottom drawer.  I did.  I didn’t cut this mustard….

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