Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Poet Who Seemed to Speak Directly to Her Every Reader

'Emily Dickinson’s legendary silence has produced a discordant chorus of speculation and mythmaking. As Alfred Habegger, her best biographer, has written, Dickinson’s “reclusiveness, originality of mind, and unwillingness to print her work [have] left just the sort of informational gaps that legend thrives on.” Readers and scholars alike have endlessly revised this legend, struck by the conviction that Dickinson speaks directly to them.'
--from a recent item in Book Forum. We think every good piece of writing in any genre has this same sublime and mysterious quality: the magic of one mind talking directly to another. We were startled to find that we've never before mentioned this uniquely wonderful poet. Here's hoping the immortal Emily will somehow forgive us.


At 1:50 PM, Blogger Geoff Schutt said...

John, off-topic, though you're on a great topic ... just wanted to give an update on "This Side of Paradise ...." Eleanor is back, and we're on Post No. 484 toward the grand finale end of Post No. 500 (not sure yet what happens then).

It's going to be a roller-coaster ride of sleep deprivation and creativity.

Thanks for all that you're doing here -- your words and postings continue to add to our culture.

Good tidings!

At 1:51 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Geoff, great to see you back here after an absence. Good luck with the march to #500. We'll be watching and rooting you along. Thanks as always for visiting.

At 5:22 PM, Blogger Diane Vogel Ferri said...

If only Emily had known of her fame and renown.

At 5:26 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

She really was basically unknown in her own lifetime. Of course, much of that was because she never sought to publish her work. If only she could have had her own blog! But seriously, I rather like how her fame happened: slowly, and for all the right reasons. Not due to any hype, but simply because her poems are wonderful, haunting and unforgettable. So just keep doing that, Diane, and one day we'll be discussing you in the same way. Here's hoping it's still while we have you around to enjoy.

At 11:44 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Emily published a few poems during her lifetime; around a dozen if I recall, which of course is less than one percent of what she wrote; this was early, though. She also corresponded extensively with a professor, and they did discuss poetry and politics and other matters.

There's a lot of mythology around Emily, some of it justified, a lot of it not completely aware of the truth of her life.

Which was the original point: In the absence of knowledge, people tend to create myths.

Speaking as a poet, I'm skeptical the myth of one mind talking directly to another. Of course that does happen. But I also know, very personally, where it so often does not. And the question must be asked, where and when? and how? One must be very careful not to read more into Emily, assuming that one is speaking mind to mind; for her poems are complex, and multi-layered, and not always discernible. When one is given an oracle, one reads into it what one needs to hear—is that mind talking to mind? or is it mind projecting onto the provided screen its own hidden truths, that the conscious mind cannot hear any other way? With regards to Emily, I take great consolation from her at times: but I really don't know if she meant what I thought she meant. There is always some uncertainty.

At 10:08 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Art, you're tapping into a subject that always presents an impossibly rich vein of discussion, the whole notion of how a reader interprets what he reads, and the bias we all naturally have to read it through the lens of our own experience, looking for things that are useful for us. That's an unconscious dynamic for most people. You're more aware of it than most, and you fairly (again, more than most) understand that what one interprets from a piece of writing is usually just that--their interpretation. And of course poetry tends to be more open to interpretation than prose.

This is a dynamic that no writer should ever forget. It's all encapsulated under the wisdom that a mentor of mine once reminded me of (which I've written about before): "never forget that the story you're telling a reader will illicit their own stories," which are sometimes in competition or otherwise at odds with your own. That's not a bad thing at all, but it does bear thinking about for every writer.

At 5:27 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

(First, thanks for taking my small disagreement in the spirit it was intended, and replying the same way.) :)

I think about this a lot. I've been through a few donniebrooks over poems of mine that taught me the lesson unequivocally, that I can't control what a reader brings to my poem, or sees in it, whether or not I knew it was there.

One group of friends think Poem X is brilliant, another group thinks it sucks; it's hard to know which faction to believe, for example in a workshop setting, so you end up believing none of them, and just going your own way. Which I think writers also need to do.

i've often said that I don't support writers being obscure merely for the sake of being obscure—in other words, no puzzle-poems, no deliberate obfuscation and coding, no mannerisms that forcefully divorce the reader from the writing; none of that interests me. But I'm not afraid of uncertainty or ambiguity or mystery in a poem—and Emily does all of those things a lot of the time.

In my own poems, I often discover upon re-reading later that I'd put in more than I knew about at the time. Lacunae or indeterminacies which I genuinely do want the reader to inhabit, and find something for themselves in. In haiku writing, they even talk about how the reader "completes" the poem by bringing their own (shared) experience to it. I like that. In haiku, and in some other minimalist kinds of art, part of the aesthetic is what you leave OUT. What you leave out can be very evocative to the reader. (Was this part of Hemingway's power at his best? One wonders.)

I like to leave open possibilities—not by being intentionally cryptic, but by layering. Layered meanings give a poem its rich resonance, and open doors for others to enter. It's a kind of willingness to let Mystery inhabit the poem.

I know I'm saying this very clumsily today, because when I read back through it sounds way more intentional than it ever is LOL and I just can't say it any better at the moment.

At 10:23 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Ambiguity is inevitably at the heart of any good piece of art, certainly including poetry. And speaking of the different lenses people bring to a piece of writing, that can include the familiar example of the very different experiences one might have in reading a book at the age of 25 and 55. The richness of your life experience is inevitably going to arm you better--or at least differently--in appreciating certain things.

At 9:32 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Age and the experience that comes with age absolutely makes a difference. There are some writers I believe you can't really appreciate until you're 40 or so. May Sarton, for example, is one of those.

Excellent point.

At 9:35 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

May Sarton--now there's an interesting name that hasn't come up yet, but should have. And I'm chuckling as I try to imagine how her writing would have seemed to me at 25. Anyway, we'll have to consider her at length sometime soon. Thanks for reminding me about that. Meanwhile, I'd love to know what her work means to you, Art.

At 1:22 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Way ahead of you. :)

MAy Sarton: An Appreciation

May Sarton at Nelson, NH

At 2:46 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Wow, extraordinary stuff, Art. I hope everyone will click through both of your links and enjoy the writing for its warmth and resonance.

You make so many good points that I can't begin to address them all. But I too first encountered her in my 20s, late 20s I think, and found her book about solitude so inspiring and affirming, even as I may have sensed that I couldn't really begin to grasp it in all its layers (which can only be acquired with age). I didn't think of her as a woman writer as much as a writer's writer.

In a culture that has become so casually anti-intellectual as to often send the signal that reading alone or just thinking for long stretches constitutes "hiding out" or retreating from society, she seemed to quietly and confidently point her readers in the opposite direction. She seemed to be giving you full permission to feed your hungry mind. That's a crucial gift to any young writer, and there were fewer people giving that permission at the time than one might have hoped for or expected. Which of course made her stand out that much more.

At 11:03 AM, Blogger LIVE TO EAT said...

You mention her now, John, that's all that matters - to me at least.

Emily's words have touched me throughout my life. I experience life when I read her words.

I have been re-reading a collection of Emily Dickinson poems. And as a token of gratitude for writing this post I want to share one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems with you and your readers.

AMPLE make this bed.
Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair.

Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise' yellow noise
Interrupt this ground.

by Emily Dickinson

Thanks for writing this post, John.

Michael Franco

At 1:49 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for pointing us to that lovely poem, Michael. Like most of her work, it calls out to be read several times, and resists easy interpretation (at least for me). What an incredible thing to still be touching readers' emotions 123 years after your death.

At 10:49 PM, Blogger LIVE TO EAT said...

Yes, John. And thanks to you she will continue to reach new audiences as well as spark renewed inspiration to existing fans.

This is a great post. Thank you again for sharing the richness of Emily Dickinson.

Michael Franco


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