I’ve been having trouble sleeping again. Emily Dickinson has been keeping me company. I wrote a post recently mulling over her poems about “Finite Infinity.” (Click here to read that post).
The book I’ve been reading, published by Alfred A. Knopf, is from the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series. Poems I quote below come from the first section of the Dickinson Poems book: The Poet’s Art.
The poems that have stuck in my mind now deal with words — the struggle of putting images into words, of finding the exact words to describe a feeling or emotion, of how to convey “Truth” in words, and the all-too-common problem of writer’s block (having no words at all!).
I was not an English Major in college, but I do love words and poetry. I enjoy thinking about the ideas and meanings, and I enjoy thinking about how the poetry is related to my life and experiences.
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Here she seems to be saying “Sure, tell the truth, but do it carefully.” Tell it slant. Beat around the bush a bit. Ease into it. Then Emily zaps us with her last two lines: Truth’s “superb surprise” must be told gently — “dazzle gradually” — or we will all be blinded by it.
To see the Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie –
True Poems flee –
I get this feeling whenever I see a gorgeous sunset, an amazing natural vista, or get overwhelmed by anything beautiful. I wish I could paint. I wish I could capture the view in a photograph. I wish I could describe it with words. I think Emily is saying that poetry, even the best of it, can not truly capture the essence of what it one may be attempting to describe. True Poems flee and are impossible to contain in words and books.
I would not paint — a picture —
I’d rather be the One
Its bright impossibility
To dwell — delicious — on —
And wonder how the fingers feel
Whose rare — celestial — stir
Evokes so sweet a Torment —
Such sumptuous — Despair —
I would not talk, like Cornets —
I’d rather be the One
Raised softly to the Ceilings —
And out, and easy on —
Through Villages of Ether —
Myself endued Balloon
By but a lip of Metal —
The pier to my Pontoon —
Nor would I be a Poet —
It’s finer — own the Ear —
Enamored — impotent — content —
The License to revere,
A privilege so awful
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun myself
With Bolts of Melody!
I think the irony of Emily wishing not to be a Poet is wonderful! She relates a hint of her struggles with the words “impotent” and “privilege so awful.” Is she wishing to be a musician in the last two lines — “Had I the Art to stun myself With Bolts of Melody!” –? She certainly has the talent to stun us with her words.
She dealt her pretty words like Blades –
How glittering they shone—
And every One unbared a Nerve
Or wantoned with a Bone –
She never deemed – she hurt –
That – is not Steel’s Affair –
A vulgar grimace in the Flesh –
How ill the Creatures bear –
To Ache is human – not polite —
The Film upon the eye
Mortality’s old Custom –
Just locking up – to Die.
This reminds me of the saying: Sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words will never hurt me. I’ve always felt this is UNTRUE! Words DO hurt. They can sometimes hurt for decades. Emily is well aware of the power of words, and this poem makes that abundantly clear.
The Poets light but Lamps —
Themselves — go out —
The Wicks they stimulate —
If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns —
Each Age a Lens
In this poem, I hear Emily saying that a Poet’s job is to light the lamp, say what is in their heart, do the best they can. Then if they have done their job well — the light (of their words, their poems) will continue to illuminate like the sun, for ages and ages, growing and spreading as time goes by. Each generation will refocus and reinterpret the words through their own filter (lens), but if the words are True — they will continue to be True.
A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
This poem (13) relates to the one above (10) quite well. Again, Emily is aware of and reminding us of the power of words. They are not dead, but alive and continue to live long after they are created (spoken or written).
A Word dropped careless on a Page
May stimulate an eye
When folded in perpetual seam
That wrinkled Maker lie
Infection in the sentence breeds
We may inhale Despair
At distances of Centuries
From the Malaria —
Here again, Emily’s topic is the power of words. In this case she warns of the danger of careless words. I don’t think it is an accident that she uses the analogy of an infectious and deadly disease like Malaria to emphasize her point. Words can fester and the after effects (to inhale despair) can rage for centuries. The image is exceptionally vivid, and her message is heard.
Could mortal lip divine
The undeveloped Freight
Of a delivered syllable
‘Twould crumble with the weight.
These few lines convey so much! Emily keeps driving home this point of the power, the heaviness of words. I think she must have struggled extensively with which words to say and which to left unsaid. Did each word feel like a boulder? A boulder she had to push uphill? We can only imagine.
To tell the Beauty would decrease
To state the Spell demean —
There is a syllable-less Sea
Of which it is the sign —
My will endeavors for its word
And fails, but entertains
A Rapture as of Legacies —
Of introspective Mines —
My summary: There are no words! If I could find the words to describe the Beauty, I am afraid the Beauty will lessen. If I were in a place like a calm sea where no words exist, I would still be looking for the right words and still be failing. But I have the Joy of remembering and thinking about the Beauty forever.
Your thoughts don’t have words every day
They come a single time
Like signal esoteric sips
Of the communion Wine
Which while you taste so native seems
So easy so to be
You cannot comprehend its price
Nor its infrequency
My favorite line in this one is the first: “Your thoughts don’t have words every day.” This is SO true! Some days I can’t write anything. I am empty. I have nothing to say. She goes on to infer that words come to us as Grace comes to us through Communion. Both are priceless and (at times) not a common occurence.
I dwell in Possibility —
A fairer House than Prose —
More numerous of Windows —
Superior–for Doors —
Of Chambers as the Cedars —
Impregnable of Eye —
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky —
Of Visitors — the fairest —
For Occupation– This —
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise —
Again the first line grabs me: “I dwell in Possiblity–” As a poet she sees her world differently than most other people. Her job is to spread her narrow Hands wide to gather Paradise. I’m so glad she did! I’m thankful for the glimpses of Truth, of Life, of Infinity, of Paradise that I’m able to glean from her words.
- A change in Wandering Wednesday. (failingathaiku.wordpress.com)
- Emily Dickinson’s “Envelope Poems” (tribrach.wordpress.com)