Thursday, October 22, 2009

emily dickinson + anne carson

It only makes sense, while I immerse myself in Emily Dickinson, that so much of my other reading is influenced by that dashing writer. In fact, linking Anne Carson, a figure who seems to prefer a poetic life outside of the direct gaze, one a bit shy during Q&A, is not so difficult a task--on the surface, there are the functions of punctuation (bracket, dash), the notion of breath, the intense scrutiny and diversion of form. There are differences too: Emily Dickinson seemed to work in seclusion, save reading and letters, whereas Carson's work, especially most recently, really emphasizes the collaborative experience.

When asked about her Sappho fragments, Anne Carson quoted the last stanza of Emily Dickinson's 1209th poem:

The Fruit perverse to plucking,
But leaning to the Sight
With the ecstatic limit
Of unobtained Delight --

Carson said this speaks to what she was doing with the Sappho fragments.

A bit earlier, in discussing the fifteen pronoun sonnets, she spoke of influences: Gertrude Stein and "On Poetry and Grammar" as well as Keats letter "On Shakespeare." Additionally, she referenced Dickinson's 1696:

These are the days that Reindeer love
And pranks the Northern star --
This is the Sun's objective,
And Finland of the Year.

I'm still lingering in a biographical study of Emily Dickinson, but I plan to move out of that and into the exploration of poets and work Dickinson influenced--looking at Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson, the Adrienne Rich essay "Vesuvius at Home" and Lucie Brock-Broido's collection of poems called The Master Letters, among others.

Monday, October 19, 2009

congrats, u of mn!

My school has been ranked #14 by Poets and Writers in the MFA Rankings.

when anne carson comes to town

Anne Carson visited our campus via the Joseph Warren Beach Lecture series. The website blurb explains it best:

50 Year Anniversary of the Joseph Warren Beach Lectures in Literature
Sunday October 18, 2009 4:00 pm
Coffman Union Theater

Parking: See map. Plan your trip.
Admission: Free and open to the University of Minnesota community and the general public. No advanced tickets necessary.

Nothing seems more appropriate to celebrate the rich 50 year history of the Joseph Warren Beach Lectures in Literature than bringing Anne Carson to the the University of Minnesota campus. Since 1959, when the series was created to honor former English professor and chair Joseph Warren Beach, the endowment has allowed Twin Cities audiences to hear from some of the brightest luminaries in literature, from critics such as Lionel Trilling, Edward Said, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, to writers such as Mary McCarthy, Robert Pinsky, and Tony Kushner. True to both sides of this tradition, Carson is a poet and scholar, translator and essayist, Classicist and experimental artist, often within the same frame.

Recently, Carson has exhilarated East Coast audiences with live mash-ups of poetry, dance, and performance art, drawing fans such as Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. This fall Carson, along with two of Merce Cunningham’s dancers, ventures west to bring a couple of her best-known such collaborations to the Twin Cities. With dancers Rashaun Mitchell (who choreographed) and Marcie Munnerlyn accompanying, Carson will read portions of her translated Sappho text further fragmented through the use of three other readers. Of this piece, titled “Bracko,” the New York Times wrote: “Sappho’s lush, often cruel observations on love were mirrored but not mimed in Mr. Mitchell’s choreography,” leaving the critic wanting more “such complicated marriages of movement and text.”

Originally created for a Harvard conference, “Possessive Used as Drink (Me): A Lecture in the Form of 15 Sonnets” incorporates Carson reading, a projection of dancers with an audio track, and Mitchell and Munnerlyn. For Carson, noted Alex Dimitrov of Poets & Writers, “Poetry does not occur only on the page, nor the stage—it occurs as words flit through the mind and the body, as they engage with other bodies, dancing bodies, and the objects around them.”

Carson’s many publications include her latest translation An Oresteia: Agamemnon by Aiskhylos; Elektra by Sophokles; Orestes by Euripides (Faber & Faber, 2009). Her written works, too, are complicated marriages of poetry and criticism, translation and fiction. She has won the Lannan Literary Award, the Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship. A Canadian, Carson is currently Distinguished Poet-in-Residence at New York University.

The Joseph Warren Beach Endowment is honored to welcome Anne Carson to the University of Minnesota for the 50th anniversary of the Joseph Warren Beach Lectures in Literature.

For more information, visit the Joseph Warren Beach Lectures in Literature section of this site or call 612-625-3363.

Choreographer and dancer Mitchell said during the Q&A that he was compelled by the bracket, considering things like the ties that bind us, using the silver ropes to take it away from something violent, and creating brackets with rope to interact with.

Anne Carson explained that "each time it finds its rhythm" when speaking of this complicated collaboration--not only were the Sappho poems translated (relationship between ancient and contemporary poet) but those poems were then restructured with partner Bob Currie (who spoke of the multiple voices by saying, "We do a lot by chance," and as the form becomes more complex, you have to simplify the message--focusing on the combination existing on the stage), then there is relationship of poet with dance, and finally, Carson also brings in members of the university community (in this case, the former department chair of the English Literature program, Paula Rabinowitz and a first year MFA candidate, Sarah Fox).

Maria Damon (pictured in the second to last photo with Paula Rabinowitz and the woman we can thank for all these events running so beautifully, Terri Sutton) asked a question regarding the most interesting question asked at a Q&A, which allowed Carson to speak of the moment, which is so important to pieces such as these, and how "questions come out of the ligature of the room." Bob Currie cited an instance in the 1980s after seeing a ghost-themed piece of John Cage's, where, given blank stares from the audience, he offered to do another piece, at which point the hands went up, and Currie spoke of how a ten-year-old asked the question, "Mr. Cage, do ghosts ever get lonely?" to which Cage replied, "Your question is too beautiful to answer, and we'll end there."

This wasn't, of course, the end of their Q&A--a few more questions revealed that the first piece, "Possessive Used as Drink (Me): A Lecture in the Form of 15 Sonnets" came from a request for a lecture on pronouns for Harvard, the Sappho star map worked by including yellow blobs which turned out to be from cloud formations over NYC, the stars helped choose how to plan the language, and generally, there was inclusion of a DVD that ended with 183 brackets bursting onto the screen in place of stars.

We also learned Carson sometimes includes musicians--and she was asked if there was an intentionality of pitches in voices when missing that music--to which Carson spoke of including a sound sculptor and having an attunement with the emotion of a particular sonnet which also was reflected in pace and cadence--they could stretch language to match better with the dance if need be.

Meryl also has a post regarding tonight's reading; please do go check it out.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

when adam zagajewski comes to town

Transcribing my writing notebook.

Reading Another Beauty:

The birth of a writer: a young man raised in the Catholic faith experiences a dazzling revelation. While praying, he suddenly realizes that he doesn't necessarily have to repeat what's printed in the missal. He can invent his own prayer. He can make up his own words. (pg 18)

A writer who keeps a personal diary uses it to record what he knows. In his poems or stories he sets down what he doesn't know. (pg 28)
Moments of revelation are like boundary stories, separated by several hundred yards of no-man's-land. The poet experiences an epiphany in setting down the key line of his latest poem. But days, weeks, even months of shadow stretch between those moments of majestic clarity. And here the poet plays the historian's role, sharing not just his ecstatic humanity with his readers but his dull, dreary, doubting humanity as well. (pg. 29)
Reading Eternal Enemies, "from 'Rome, Open City'", pg 36:

poems are short tragedies, portable, like transistor radios...

poetry often vanishes, leaving on matchsticks

forgive my silence. forgive your silence.

Interview with Adam Zagajewski:

Colleen Coyne, editor-in-chief of dislocate, and I spent forty-five minutes in conversation in a strange corner of Lind, where we discussed:
- what draws him back to the page again and again (the huge courage to write, the new tragedies and ecstasies to report, the ways in which youth plays into writing drive, the fact that there is no outcome but writing, it has become one's inner life)
- books to return to over and over (how poetry is not something you just read once, which is part of the contract with the book, he doesn't believe so much in the "great narrative," hates deconstruction, believes life can be lived as a narrative and as an instant--life in short moments, short moments of ecstasy, claims he is a library rat, a hunter of ecstatic moments)
- young writers to read (reluctant to name names--his encouragement was our finding, discovering on our own--but he did speak of coming not out of poetic ideology [he dislikes strong poetic fashions--interestingly, there's a conversation in the comments of this post regarding fashion, canons, and popularity in poetry--feel free to join in!] and dislikes the poetic aesthetic but instead looks to writing from an individual moment)
- what work is coming up (a book called Invisible Hand, just finished a new book and there is a sad feeling of a chapter that closed, after a book there are several months of poetic silence, has another book in computer which is a book of essays that combines elements of diary / essay / memoir, that time of silence contains contradictory feelings, feels it is bad when a writer is too prolific, which he later spoke about as watering down what a writer had to say, he spent five or six years on Another Beauty, spent a great deal of time defining the final profile of the book)
- his writing process (poems more emotional, more irrational, poet who writes any essay has the same relationship with the truth)
- writing in Polish or English (intuitive--doesn't believe in analyzing translation and trusts his translator, who is mainly Claire Cavanaugh, does write essays in English and not poetry, looks to an inner life that comes before the language, inner riches, fascinated by transformation of language--mentioned the way German on the street may sound ugly but on the page it is beautiful--Rilke)
- poetry communities (the New Wave is in the distant past, vibrant communities are given when we are young, emerge from the silence of childhood / imaginary childhood, form groups with our peers--a kind of love, growing older, solitude)
- individual versus political group (globalization, Poland is only twenty years of freedom after the collapse of communism, mass culture and entertainment, individual as almost heroic, love the neighbors' souls, responsibility to praise what's mine, privilege what is un-individual)
- what work he's most proud of (rarely thinks of past books, always concentrating on new books, small moments of poems having meaning)
- "by definition, you never find the truth in poetry"

Above I suppose I am transcribing some notes, and if you are interested in some kind of translation, you'll have to check out issue six of dislocate, which will come out next spring!

AZ stopped by MDB's class, where the discussion continued:

- as a young poet, AZ was too shy to speak to Tadeusz Rozewicz when he lived in Gliwice
- admires poetry in translation--mentioned how some cite poetry as being a casualty of the Holocaust, how poetry can be too prosaic
- a translator is someone who "must master the delicate layers of the language"
- at readings, he feels as if he is reading his poems, even when he did not translate and has minimal role in deciding diction for translation
- always in love with his most recent poem--this is the one that will change everything
- referenced his introduction to the Edward Snow translations of Rilke (essay written originally in English)
- MDB asked about writing post-9/11 and his poem "Try to Praise the Mutilated World" (if you aren't a New Yorker subscriber, you can read this Poetry Foundation article or read the full poem)--did this raise his fame? and AZ spoke of how luckily, he does not know--it might be hard to live with his own fame
- MDB responded by stating how perhaps we can't / shouldn't know--not important because what should matter is the work
- AZ: need of response--don't need fame but a group of friends / readers, trust self
- when asked about his writing and revision process, AZ spoke of poems that are most convincing are usually written in three or four days--has to be "hot"--may have twenty some versions--when it's cold, it won't change the shape--vision makes it exist--dies after those days--because an object is not mine
- AZ spoke of his work in Chicago, where he teaches for the Committee on Social Thought (and is relieved not to be teaching workshop)--before, he taught in Houston for eighteen years (eighteen autumns)--and there commenced a debate on the value of the workshop, which was interesting, given my fly-on-the-wall-ness in that very workshop--"workshop should be a festive movement for poetry" (he misses working with young poets, something he brought up several times over the weekend)--a dream of designing a new writing program which would include philosophy and history courses, more reading and less workshops--MDB mentioned how Auden wanted to have an academy which would include a plot of land to grow vegetables
- poetry only exists if we are in a special state of mind--headaches, bad days transform poems into "black specks on the page"
- likes team teaching--gives another layer--relieves nervousness
- can teach a poem entirely within a class (as opposed to a longer prose piece that requires outside reading, etc.)--likes to do detective work--focus on meaning and not form
- another MFA asked about nostalgia, which AZ turned into speaking about past and for geography, how he likes Houston looking back, Paris was a cold home for him, as sentimental--the distance we have when looking back, "cannot imagine this room because we are in it right now"--not being a place means the absences create a presence
- and a fiction MFA brought up highlighting the mundane or grotesque--AZ responded--has enemies of his work--especially in Poland--"some that reject what I do, which is only natural"
- he is distrustful of high rhetoric that doesn't refer to anything concrete
- MDB asked how poetry is different now from where it was when you began? AZ: linked to political movement; now, after so many years, takes poetry more seriously
- "poetry such a great river"
- looks at self with great humility but then MDB asked about being the center of the universe when writing, which AZ responded by saying, "on a day of writing, of course I am the center of the universe"

Thoughts after dinner with AZ on Friday night: "Last night's dinner, MDB mentioned (in response to Muller winning the Nobel) that there should be no awards, how we never agree with who wins--AZ said we should still have those awards, but they should be given by the gods. AZ talked about the anniversary of the wall coming down and how these choices are generally politically motivated as opposed to literarily."

Lunch on Friday:

- "no normative aesthetic"--to force AZ to write one way under communism
- Trish Hampl brought up Milan Kundera and the news of his having informed on someone, which resulted in something like 25 years of labor--Kundera denied it and the news cycle did not continue--rumor is he wanted to join Academie Francaise and to become one of the forty "immortals"--designed for writing in French
- AZ discussed more on the Committee for Social Thought, where he teaches poetry and is given liberties--the program itself is a 7-8 year Ph.D program--he gets students from all over the university and mentioned missing young poets again--spoke of how teaching at Chicago causes him to be more anonymous and Houston allowed for getting to know people over time
- Brian Laidlaw (fellow second-year MFA) asked how to enter the world of poetry and not be a part of the echo chamber but have work that ripples out: AZ emphasized ignoring fashions, not worrying to much about readership--"in the beginning your voice is very brittle"--return to impulse that is yours--protect that candle--and two best pieces of advice would be to be patient and to believe in yourself--Milosz called AZ after he won the Nobel and asked him, "Tell me, have I ever written a good poem?"
- when you are reading your own work, you are reading it from within and not from the outside
- Trish pointed out: if you want this something enough, life will open up a way to do it
- BL responded that he had a lurking fear that it might somehow be taken away--with it being a full-time mental occupation and have it become secondary to something else, which commenced a discussion on invisible hierarchies

After, I had a manuscript conference with Adam Zagajewski, and while I won't copy notes from that experience here, I will say it was a positive experience--Zagajewski gave me a level of confidence in what I am doing, which is always, always waning--and I'll have to go back to those words when I'm closer to bottoming out.

Most of these images are from Adam Zagajewski's reading at the Twin Cities Book Festival, to which I drove the famous Polish poet (and only got a little lost). He had a few side remarks I noted:
- "I will try to make poetry live. Poetry is usually asleep at this hour--wakes up at three, takes a coffee."
- "I hear Rain Taxi is changing its name to Snow Taxi."
- And a poem I'll need to find, an Alzheimer's poem, which is called something like "Now That You've Lost Your Memory" and recounts hiking with his

You can read a much more brief and a bit more organized reaction to AZ's visit on dislocate's blog.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Thursday, October 15, 2009

question and answer: dickinson and form

Dickinson wrote and sent this poem ("A Route to Evanescence") to Thomas Higginson in 1880.

Dickinson's handwritten manuscript of her poem "Wild Nights – Wild Nights!"

After a summer with Ellen Bryant Voigt's formal questioning, I find I cannot approach a body of poet's work without scrutinizing syntax and lineation. Equally compelling is the consideration of technology--the ways in which Emily Dickinson distributed her poems among friends and family in letters, her fascicles (chapbooks, in some senses) bound by hand, her distinctive handwriting and its changes, and here I am, a century and a half later, blogging about her work, this strange technology, where words do not breathe on the page but on the screen and enter the worlds of who-knows--this private consideration in a public place. Because of that idiosyncratic handwriting, some who reprint her work attempt to alter the dash to best represent what it is doing in the poem; some say the various breeds of dashes in her work change meaning. It's also interesting to think of how the work is arranged, but I think this is a topic for another posting.

A few questions have arisen while areadin' and I sought answers in the realm of the internet:

1. Those dashes: what is going on?

As I read, I think of the breath. My own poetry exists (mostly) within the poetic block--I have (recently) been told those nouns are housed within a box. It's interesting to consider restriction playing up against an opening and which is more successful and when.

Kamilla Denman writes about the dash on Modern American Poetry. (Originally published in The Emily Dickinson Journal with the title "Emily Dickinson's Volcanic Punctuation") She says:

Unlike the exclamation mark, the dash that dominates the prolific period is a horizontal stroke, on the level of this world. It both reaches out and holds at bay. Its origins in ellipsis connect it semantically to planets and cycles (rather than linear time and sequential grammatical progression), as well as to silence and the unexpressed. But to dash is also "to strike with violence so as to break into fragments; to drive impetuously forth or out, cause to rush together; to affect or qualify with an element of a different strain thrown into it; to destroy, ruin, confound, bring to nothing, frustrate, spoil; to put down on paper, throw off, or sketch, with hasty and unpremeditated vigour; to draw a pen vigorously through writing so as to erase it; [is] used as a euphemism for 'damn,' or as a kind of verbal imprecation; [or is] one of the two signals (the other being the dot) which in various combinations make up the letters of the Morse alphabet." Dickinson uses the dash to fragment language and to cause unrelated words to rush together; she qualifies conventional language with her own different strains; and she confounds editorial attempts to reduce her "dashed off " jottings to a "final" version. Not only does she draw lines through her own drafts but also through the linguistic conventions of her society, and her challenges to God are euphemistic imprecations against conventional religion. Even the allusion to the Morse alphabet is not entirely irrelevant: through her unconventional use of punctuation, particularly the dash, Dickinson creates a poetry whose interpretation becomes a process of decoding the way each fragment signals meaning.

Dickinson's transition from a dominant use of the exclamation mark to a preference for the dash accompanied her shift from ejaculatory poems, which seem outcries aimed with considerable dramatic effect at God or others, to poems where the energies exist more in the relationships between words and between the poet and her words. In this intensely prolific period, Dickinson's excessive use of dashes has been interpreted variously as the result of great stress and intense emotion, as the indication of a mental breakdown, and as a mere idiosyncratic, female habit. Though these speculations are all subject to debate, it is clear that in the early 1860s Dickinson conducted her most intense exploration of language and used punctuation to disrupt conventional linguistic relations, whether in an attempt to express inexpressible psychological states or purely to vivify language.

And this, too--"Dashing Genius: Emily Dickinson and the Punctuation of Cognition," which opens:

Safely encased by the curve of bone, a palm-sized mass of wrinkled grey tissue throbs in the commotion of imagination. As tiny electrical currents spark, nerves burst into action along multiple pathways. Spider-shaped neurons pulse with messages throughout the cerebral cortex. Electric signals race down the axon of one nerve to the dendrite of the next, until even the most brilliant brain must pause for an infinitesimal moment, awaiting the leap -- the leap of embryonic, encoded ideas across the synapse, that tiny gap interspersed between membranes of adjoining neurons. Once past this cognitive divide, secreted neurochemicals wash through cellular landscapes and the brain registers human possibility.

Over one century ago in Amherst, Massachusetts, the particular brain of a gifted poet made precisely these synaptical connections, transforming reflections born from solitude into the actions of a pen on scraps of paper. And as Emily Dickinson scrawled her distinctive handwriting into the sloping curves of nonconventional verse, she chose to punctuate with the dash, perhaps in unconscious tribute to a gap and a leap within the mind.

The punctuation is equally difficult to decipher; what is now known as Dickinson’s characteristic "dash" is actually a richer variety of pen markings that have no typographical correspondents. Dashes are either long or short; sometimes vertical, as if to indicate musical phrasing, and often elongated periods, as if to indicate a slightly different kind of pause. Poem 327, "Before I got my eye put out," the original manuscript of which can be found online, ends with one of these markings:

So safer – guess – with just my soul
Upon the Window pane –
Where other Creatures put their eyes –
Incautious – of the Sun –

In keeping with her background in church hymns, some modern critics have even discussed the upwards or downwards movement of a dash, as if it might correspond to a "lifting" or "falling" phrase. Dickinson uses dashes musically, but also to create a sense of the indefinite, a different kind of pause, an interruption of thought, to set off a list, as a semi-colon, as parentheses, or to link two thoughts together—the shape of any individual dash might be seen as joining two thoughts together or pushing them apart. One of the most characteristic uses of the dash is at the end of a poem with a closed rhyme; the meter would shut, like a door, but the punctuation seems open. In these cases, it is likely meant to serve as an elongated end-stop. The dash was historically an informal mark, used in letters and diaries but not academic writing, and removing the dashes changes, even upon first glance, the visual liveliness and vigor of her verses. While Johnson’s system of transcribing all dash-like markings as a printed "n-dash," or short dash (as above), is imperfect, in early editions, these dashes were replaced by more regularized punctuation, such as commas and periods. Poem 320, "We play at Paste," was changed in punctuation, capitalization, and even stanza form.

We play at Paste –
Till qualified, for Pearl –
Then, drop the Paste –
And deem ourself a fool –

The Shapes – though – were similar –
And our new Hands
Learned Gem-Tactics –
Practicing Sands –

The above poem, when published for the first time, looked like this:

We play at paste,
Till qualified for pearl,
Then drop the paste,
And deem ourself a fool.
The shapes, though, were similar,
And our new hands
Learned gem-tactics
Practicing sands.

Not only does the poem leave a completely different visual impression on the page, but the pacing created by the punctuation is distorted as well, causing "The Shapes – though – were similar –" to be compressed into "The shapes, though, were similar." Finally, a traditional period ends the poem with more certainty than the original would suggest.

2. The capitalization. This comes through not only in her poems but in letters too.

In conference, I asked MDB, and he pointed to poetic tradition, but also urged me to dig a bit deeper, and this is what I found:

A typical manuscript for a poem might include several undated versions, with varying capitalization throughout, sometimes a "C" or an "S" that seems to be somewhere between lowercase and capital, and no degree of logic in the capitalization. While important subject words and the symbols that correspond to them are often capitalized, often (but not always) a metrically stressed word will be capitalized as well, even if it has little or no relevance in comparison to the rest of the words in the poem. Early editors removed all capitals but the first of the line, or tried to apply editorial logic to their usage. For example, poem 632 is now commonly punctuated as follows:

The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside –

The Brain is deeper than the sea –
For – hold them – Blue to Blue –
The one the other will absorb –
As Sponges – Buckets – do –

The Brain is just the weight of God –
For – Heft them – Pound for Pound –
And they will differ – if they do –
As Syllable from Sound –

The above capitalizations, which include such seemingly unimportant words as "Blue," "Sponges," and "Buckets," capitalizing "Sky" but not "sea," were regularized into the following traditional capitalization and punctuation by early editors:

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.

3. Oh those hymns.

Because Dickinson is using rhyme and and free verse (and ballad meter), the poems are easily set to music. I grew up hearing my father singing "Because I could not stop for death, death kindly stopped for meeee" to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." No, really:

Douglas Duncan: "Her metrical lapses, though sometimes astounding in a poet with such a naturally good ear, occurred most commonly in poems which for one reason or another were falling to piece in any case."

Drawing from primarily musical forms such as hymns and ballads, and modifying them with her own sense of rhythm and sound, a Dickinson poem is unusual in that it both slows down and speeds up, interrupts itself, holds its breath, and sometimes trails off. The reader is led through the poem by the shape of her stanza forms, typically quatrains, and her unusual emphasis of words, either through capitalization or line position. The meter varies quite a bit even from the stresses expected in a hymn or ballad. Hymn meter differs from traditional meter by counting syllables, not "feet." Unlike ballad meter, quatrains are typically closed, meaning that the first and third lines will rhyme as well as the second and fourth. Some common forms of hymn meter that Dickinson used are common meter (a line of eight syllables followed by a line of six syllables, repeating in quatrains of an 8/6/8/6 pattern), long meter (8/8/8/8), short meter (6/6/6/6), and common particular meter (8/8/6/8/8/6). However, unlike writers of traditional hymns, Dickinson took liberties with the meter. She also allowed herself to use enjambment more frequently than traditional hymn writers, breaking a line where there is no natural or syntactic pause. For example, in the second stanza of "I cannot live with you," she writes:

The Sexton keeps the Key to –
Putting up
Our Life – His Porcelain –
Like a Cup –

Dickinson breaks the first line after a preposition and before a direct object; in both places, one would not traditionally punctuate with a comma, semicolon, or dash, and there would be no pause.

4. What was on her bedside table? Guide to Emily Dickinson shares:

Dickinson’s subject matter is best understood in how it reflects but also departs from her background and education. It is unclear to biographers and critics exactly what books Dickinson had access to, beyond the books that she makes mention of, often cryptically, in her letters. Among the 100 or so classic works found in her family library (some of which may not have been in the library during her lifetime) and a few hundred more mundane works and popular novels that she discussed in letters, it is unlikely that she had read more than a handful of philosophers, poets, and novelists. Influenced most by the Bible, Shakespeare, and the seventeenth century metaphysicals (noted for their extravagant metaphors in linking disparate objects), she wrote poems on grief, love, death, loss, affection and longing. Her presumed reading in the natural sciences, also reconstructed from studying her family library, allowed her to bring precision and individuality to natural subjects, observing nature for itself, rather than as a testament to the glory of creation, and touching upon the less beautiful aspects of nature, such as weeds and clover. Her forms were various and included riddles, declarations, complaints, love songs, stories, arguments, prayers, and definitions.
When Elizabeth Barrett Browning died, she wrote: “Her—’last Poems’—ended—Silver—perished—with her Tongue—Not on Record—bubbled other, Flute—or Woman—so divine.”

Other bits I'm picking up, synthesizing, considering:
- Some have discovered many of the poems begin with a declarative followed by a metaphor.
- She's also recognized with use of humor, puns, irony, and satire. (Ah, how I love a punny joke.) Douglas Duncan: "lowers emotional temperature to make possible a poetry of wit"
- She's been linked with Emerson and the Transcendentalists, though there is some objection to that.
- I will often think of Dickinson when I hear the word "slant" in connection to poetry--her slant rhymes, her "a certain slant of light," her "tell the truth but tell it slant."

This, I know: even though tomorrow morning is to be the last Emily Dickinson meeting with MDB, I am clearly far from done with her. I'm reading My Wars are Laid Away in Books, a biography by Alfred Habegger, and I want to take a closer look at the ways in which other poets were influenced by Dickinson--there is an Annie Finch anthology on formal poetry to read, Adrienne Rich's essay "Vesuvius at Home" to read, an anthology called Visiting Emily: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Emily Dickinson, etc. No, not nearly the last of Emily Dickinson.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

on approaching dickinson

"It seems wiser to begin and perhaps end with a recognition of the things that make Dickinson stand out--her genius, her extremely tenacious affection, her avoidance of public life, her reluctance to publish. Whatever her final intentions for the nearly eighteen hundred poems she left behind, the fact that a great many were not communicated to friends warns us that we cannot assume, as we of course do with most writers, that she meant to be read and understood. What George Steiner has said of a poem by Paul Celan applies even more exactly to a large proportion of Dickinson's work: 'At certain levels, we are not meant to understand at all, and our interpretation, indeed our reading itself is an intrusion.'

The tacit recognition that our reading Dickinson is an intrusion has all along contributed to her appeal. One of the reasons readers at all levels respond to her with passionate enthusiasm is that, knowing something of her life and character, they approach her work with these in mind. Again and again, readers feel that, remote and difficult as she is, they are on the track of knowing her. They feel a heartbeat; they receive the words as primal and immediate, as coming straight from life. Sadly, this way of reading is generally a mistake, especially if we succumb to the illusion that we can zoom into her life and penetrate her secret being. One of Dickinson's paradoxes is that she both invites and deflects such intimacy. 'Not telling' was one of the things she did to perfection. How that came to be is a part of the story this book attempts to follow.

Coming to this project after having written about the James family, I was struck by an assumption pervading a great deal of the critical analysis of Emily Dickinson. With almost anyone else--Charles Dickens or George Eliot or Henry James or James Joyce or TS Eliot--it is taken for granted that the life has some sort of shape or curve, however complicated, and that if we know where on that curve a particular work is situated we will probably come to a better understanding of it. There is development over time, in other words, and this directional trend becomes a map by which readers steer. With Dickinson, however, it is often assumed there is no map, direction, or development--that her art was static or airless and that we don't need to now about her stages, sequences, contexts in order to catch on. Her critical expositors habitually move back and forth between her writings of the 1860s and those of the 1870s and 1880s, as if to rule out in advance that a given work had much to do with the point she had reached when she wrote it, and that the points connected. It is as if this writer were freakishly unable to learn from experience, and wrote without traction all her life...

It is true and indeed notorious that Dickinson wrote in the same few verse forms all her life, and that she always sounds like Dickinson, and that readers are easily lulled."

-- xii-xiii of the Introduction to My Wars are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson by Alfred Habegger

This parceled quote, this long stretch of text I typo-ed my way through, this something I tell my students not to do, not to rely so much on another voice (what do you have to contribute, anyway?) reflects, I think, the goals of this blog, which are to disorganizedly organize fleeting thoughts about the literary world, particularly focusing on the act of reading, though some writing-thoughts always trip along behind.

And Emily, she seems so right to be the poet with whom I begin this journey--the "Mother of American Poetry" as some like to say. It's precisely that, though: she is daunting. Her 1,775 poems, many a simple couplet or stanza, many not entirely fit for print but part of the curiosity (how would I feel if my writing notebook were laid completely bare for all to gawk at?) (what is a blog in relation to that, the writing notebook, the thinking place?)--are so much, and she is so widely read, so called upon in the American High School Classroom. There's always that fretting: am I reading correctly? What is it to read E.D. correctly?

And, of course, there is the idea of E.D. writing in that hermetic place, a near-vacuum.

Who are her influences, after all?

Here is what I have come up with, during an internet search:

influence of writers and ideas of the Romantic period like the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Brontë (author of the novel Wuthering Heights, 1847); her work shows Romantic ideals and desires mixed with struggles of religious belief and influence of New England Puritanism
- Dr. Fidel Fajardo-Acosta

(the ever-questionable curiosity) Wikipedia's entry:

Early influences and writing

When she was eighteen, Dickinson's family befriended a young attorney by the name of Benjamin Franklin Newton. According to a letter written by Dickinson after Newton's death, he had been "with my Father two years, before going to Worcester – in pursuing his studies, and was much in our family."[35] Although their relationship was probably not romantic, Newton was a formative influence and would become the second in a series of older men (after Humphrey) that Dickinson referred to, variously, as her tutor, preceptor or master.[36]

Newton likely introduced her to the writings of William Wordsworth, and his gift to her of Ralph Waldo Emerson's first book of collected poems had a liberating effect. She wrote later that he, "whose name my Father's Law Student taught me, has touched the secret Spring".[37] Newton held her in high regard, believing in and recognizing her as a poet. When he was dying of tuberculosis, he wrote to her, saying that he would like to live until she achieved the greatness he foresaw.[37] Biographers believe that Dickinson's statement of 1862—"When a little Girl, I had a friend, who taught me Immortality – but venturing too near, himself – he never returned"—refers to Newton.[38]

Dickinson was familiar not only with the Bible but also with contemporary popular literature.[39] She was probably influenced by Lydia Maria Child's Letters from New York, another gift from Newton[21] (after reading it, she enthused "This then is a book! And there are more of them!"[21]). Her brother smuggled a copy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Kavanagh into the house for her (because her father might disapprove)[40] and a friend lent her Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre in late 1849.[41] Jane Eyre's influence cannot be measured, but when Dickinson acquired her first and only dog, a Newfoundland, she named him "Carlo" after the character St. John Rivers' dog.[41] William Shakespeare was also a potent influence in her life. Referring to his plays, she wrote to one friend "Why clasp any hand but this?" and to another, "Why is any other book needed?"[42]

I read to create a foundation for myself and find I am looking back still further, just to see what foundations were laid for them. It's endless. It's endless, and I love it.

first dislocate reading

Tonight: (fiction MFA) Patrick Hueller, (poetry MFA and dear friend) Meryl DePasquale, (non-fiction MFA) Wilson Peden, along with U of MN professor and award-wining writer David Treuer.

Other figures in the pictures: Shantha Susman, dislocate Publicity Manger and that silly pair, Colleen Coyne (editor0in-chief) with Josh Morsell (managing editor), who run the show.

Coming soon: a post on Adam Zagajewski's visit and a post on my (hypothetical) Emily Dickinson anthology.

Of the == == == collective: Colleen + Meryl.

PS: If ever you wish to use photos I took, please email me or leave a comment for permission. (I have yet to say no, unless permission was not requested.) Thanks!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

autumn -- anticipating visiting writers


by Adam Zagajewski

Autumn is always too early.
The peonies are still blooming, bees
are still working out ideal states,
and the cold bayonets of autumn
suddenly glint in the fields and the wind

What is its origin? Why should it destroy
dreams, arbors, memories?
The alien enters the hushed woods,
anger advancing, insinuating plague;
woodsmoke, the raucous howls
of Tatars.

Autumn rips away leaves, names,
fruit, it covers the borders and paths,
extinguishes lamps and tapers; young
autumn, lips purpled, embraces
mortal creatures, stealing
their existence.

Sap flows, sacrificed blood,
wine, oil, wild rivers,
yellow rivers swollen with corpses,
the curse flowing on: mud, lava, avalanche,

Breathless autumn, racing, blue
knives glinting in her glance.
She scythes names like herbs with her keen
sickle, merciless in her blaze
and her breath. Anonymous letter, terror,
Red Army.

Wait for an Autumn Day

Wait for an autumn day, for a slightly
weary sun, for dusty air,
a pale day's weather.

Wait for the maple's rough, brown leaves,
etched like an old man's hands,
for chestnuts and acorns,

for an evening when you sit in the garden
with a notebook and the bonfire's smoke contains
the heady taste of ungettable wisdom.

Wait for afternoons shorter than an athlete's breath,
for a truce among the clouds,
for the silence of trees,

for the moment when you reach absolute peace
and accept the thought that what you've lost
is gone for good.

Wait for the moment when you might not
even miss those you loved
who are no more.

Wait for a bright, high day,
for an hour without doubt or pain.
Wait for an autumn day.

-- Adam Zagajewski

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

the complete poems of emily dickinson

From introduction:

"Emily Dickinson, then thirty-one years old, was writing a professional man of letters to inquire whether her verses 'breathed.'" (v)

I love that the introduction states, "... the early 1860's, when she fully developed her 'flood subjects' on the themes of living and dying." (viii) I've never heard that term before--flood subjects. I suppose mine, just now, are memory and much more so, the body (especially in aging).

"Dickinson uses dashes as a musical device, and though some may be elongated end stops, any 'correction' would be gratuitous." (x-xi)

In my independent study with poet Michael Dennis Browne, he has asked me to assemble an anthology of sorts of poems from the collected that speak to me in whatever way, perhaps ten or fifteen. It's difficult to narrow, and this is something I'm working on still--there are those whose language appeals, those that seem incredibly teachable or ready for discussion, those that call to me because I can relate in my own everyday life.

I'm halfway through and plan a big post with the poems that stood out to me in myriad ways, but I wanted to pause here, think about the feelings I've had as I've plugged away at this daunting tome.

At first, I was certainly not in love. I chose Dickinson because she seems the obvious first to fit my criteria, as discussed at the MFA retreat: American, female, foundational (canonical), inspirational to other poets, ready with a body of work, letters or diaries to read, biographies, a decent amount of critical study. Emily Dickinson, mama of American poetry. Oh, and the biggest criteria: I wanted to feel as if I ought to have done a close study of this poet's work already and hadn't--a gap in my education, so to speak. And there are many.

But I picked up steam and rhythm, moving past those earlier poems and into where Dickinson herself became more dynamic, more confident in her voice.

Initially, I ignorantly felt frustrated at her cycles in word choice and subject, until I remembered the obvious: this isn't a collection she selected, not a carefully ordered book (as we are studying in thesis seminar), but her everything and her everything in chronology. Of course images and terms will cycle through; they do the same in my own work, whether purposefully (as is the case in building character in the grandfather poems) or accidentally (oh, how I have a fondness for certain words: loam, clot, etc.).

Curious, I found this webpage, a lexicon of Dickinson's poetry. (This, to establish what Dickinson's dictionary might have looked like and also to serve an excellent reference for translators.) It doesn't answer the childish curiosity: which word (noun, perhaps, to not include those pesky articles and conjunctions and whatnot) appears most frequently? I blame The Road, in which one student in the lecture I TA'ed for was able to tell us the number of times "ash" appeared with his Kindle reference. I refuse to collaborate via Kindle, particularly with Dickinson, which I realize is slightly ironic, given the lack of notebook-reflection in these entries, but still--here I am, curious about diction frequency. Bees? Immortality? Birds? Death? I won't go through all 1775 poems. Not for this--I plan to read the collection (this printing) once, then delve into biographies, letters, reactions from other poets, and at the end of all my further study, I want to re-read, only another edition with slight variance, just to see how these poems have changed after exploring more in depth.

I do admit to a bit of cheating, watching the two Netflix videos on Dickinson whilst reading the first go-round, but I wanted a bit more meat to bring to my first meeting with MDB.

Monday, October 5, 2009

event: dislocate reading october 13

With my very not-so-much technological savvy, I did a trial-and-error poster for an upcoming dislocate event--our first reading of the 09-10 school year, which features one of my favorite fellow MFAers, Meryl DePasquale. So if you live in the area, you ought to come and check it out.

If, for nothing else, to admire my advertisement in person--since the photo is mine (from an Austin trip Ryan and I took this summer) and I even learned a little Photo Shop magic to get that darn logo on. This is coming from the girl who prefers the literal scissors-and-tape method of creating handouts. And overheads. No kidding.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

mfa road trip + retreat

Day 1 (Friday):

Day 2 (drizzly, drizzly Saturday):

Day 3 (Sunday):

Some may remember last year's retreat. Some may find that year a huge blur.

Some may find this year's a blur as well.

Because of current medication, I cannot drink, which means I become designated--I've been the designated boater, even. This weekend I was simply the designated-leaves-the-bonfire-first, which really meant I caught a whiff of the strangeness that can occur on these retreats--a splashing of five naked MFAs as they plunged into the freezing Lake Benedict, stories of too-much-alcohol and stump-tipping, late night fire songs, a sestina about Wahida and a Sasquatch, and the inevitable sickness that follows the passing of bourbon and rum.

Somehow, I did get a bit done--some writing at the picture window and some reading (Another Beauty by Adam Zagajewski, who is visiting our campus this coming week), but what else is one to do when the day is full of cold and drizzle? Certainly not the boating adventure we planned, nor a long hike, nor a sprawling on the lawn with writing notebook and pen. Not even last year's football game surfaced.

But still, this last of MDB's retreats was a good one. Good food and plenty of it--soups and chili and eggplant and so much more. Fires were made, despite the cold, the skies cast in gray. We were up north, at the lake, content, filling ourselves up on Minnesota culture.

Oh, and the antlers? Those were lining the roof and rafters of "Fort Benedict," the local gas station and bait shop, and I took those for you, Shawn.

Some good news upon my return: two poems, "Breaching" and "Axis" now have homes at an online literary journal called The 13th Warrior Review.