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.


Meryl said...

This preponderance of poems reminds me of a snippit of a skit I heard on Praerie Home Companion. Bear w/ me here:

"Man and woman are waiting around in a courtroom. Woman wears a necklace made of feathers and has open on her lap Emily Dickinson's complete poems.

Man: I see you're reading Emily Dickinson. You like her?

Woman: Yes, I love her! I read one poem everyday and that poem is kind of like my horoscope for the day.

Man: You're kidding! I do that myself!

Woman: Really?

Man: Yes! In fact just today I read "hope is the thing with feathers" ... and here you are.

Woman. Oh, that IS funny. Just today I read "because I did not stop for death he kindly stopped for me" ... and here YOU are."

Tehee! I'm fast becoming a Minnesotan, yes? But seriously, that's a lot of poems and you're tenacious to be attacking them, esp. w/ other materials in addition, in such a short time frame. One poem per day would mean 4.86 years before you'd be done!

Jessie Carty said...

i remember thinking i hope my drafts are never found when I read one of the newer collected works of Elizabeth Bishop.

But I love this idea of going back to see where the influences are!