Tuesday, 9 December 2008

About Emily

In case you were wondering...the title of my last post came from this poem by Emily Dickinson:

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond -
Invisible, as Music -
But positive, as Sound -
It beckons, and it baffles -
Philosophy - don't know -
And through a Riddle, at the last -
Sagacity, must go -
To guess it, puzzles scholars -
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown -
Faith slips - and laughs, and rallies -
Blushes, if any see -
Plucks at a twig of Evidence -
And asks a Vane, the way -
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit -
Strong Hallelujahs roll -
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul -

Her poems don't have titles as such but most of you will know Emily Dickinson's name even if you haven't read much by her. She is one of those writers who gets more and more well-known the longer she is dead (she lived 1830-1886...in fact she was born on 10 December so it's kind of her birthday around now). Resident of Massachusetts, USA, pretty much a recluse in her lifetime and advised against publishing her verse (!), I find it interesting how much her reputation as a poet is flourishing as time goes by. I seem to hear her name more and more (there is an English folk singer called Pete Morton who has a song 'I'm in love with Emily Dickinson' for a start) and I can't help thinking that this is only the beginning. Maybe it's because quite a lot of us love the image of the secret poet, living her batty life, not being appreciated (perish the thought!). Maybe it's that quite a lot of us feel we don't have that many women poets from the past to crow about and have grabbed her with both hands! Maybe it's just that the poems are such unusual blends of faith and realism and oddity and beauty. Who knows...but it's interesting, don't you think? Even more interesting is the fact that it was only in 1955 that her poems were finally published with her own, distinctive punctuation and so allowed to really work as they should (and her dashes are much bigger than the ones I've managed to get on here). For obvious reasons this is one reason why I find myself becoming more and more of a Dickinson reader and admirer – for me there is absolutely no reason why poetry should be punctuated like prose (do that if you want to but please don't expect everyone else to...it's so restrictive, so unadventurous, so...prosaic!). Indeed I can never understand why anyone would want to tell any other poet how to write at all. Get on with your own work, I say, and stop talking at the back...or see me later in detention...

I have a funny little book called 'The Enthusiast Field Guide to Poetry' and it's got some lovely little bits and pieces in it. It never says who the author/s of the book are (anyone know?) but on page 126 are these words:

“Dickinson punctuated the way she wanted to. She met with rejection because she insisted on her own terms. The dashes – they're deliberate. They make the poem halting and hesitant. They articulate the difficulty Dickinson had in saying what she meant.
And she had difficulty saying what she meant because, as she saw it, meaning is difficult.”

Now that sounds quite reasonable, wouldn't you say? Certainly sounds reasonable to me...

I have a little book of Dickinson's poems that I keep in the pile of books by my bed (somewhere near the top just lately). It's called a 'A Choice of Emily Dickinson's Verse – Selected with an introduction by Ted Hughes' (first published in 1968 and bought second hand for about a quid, full of inky annotations in the margins). Like all my favourite poets Dickinson has started to feel like a friend or a relative and in this case she is most definitely eccentric Auntie Em (and remember – eccentric in this house is a compliment...it has to be!). I'm not a huge Ted Hughes fan (because I can see the accomplishment but his poems don't do anything for me really...not yet anyway) but his introduction to this book of Dickinson is simply charming. There's something about the more macho male poets...no matter how good and respected and honoured they are...I almost like them better when they are blowing other poet's trumpets. I have a book of Robert Burns with an introduction by Don Paterson, for example, which is equally irresistible. I like Paterson's poetry (and will be reading more, I'm sure) but his...what could you call it...prickliness disappears when he's just busy appreciating Burns, not caring what anyone thinks about him and his, no doubt, marvellous oeuvre. Worrying about our own oeuvre...there's something we could all do a lot less of...

I think I may have quoted the Hughes introduction from this book before but here are a few snippets to mull over...

“she was first of all true to herself and her wits”

“her poems record not only her ecstatic devotion, but her sharp, sceptical independence, her doubt, and what repeatedly opens under her ecstasy – her despair”

“the precision of her feeling for language”

“the strengths and ingenuities of her poetic style”

“everywhere there is the teeming carnival of world-life”

“death obsessed her, as the one act that could take her the one necessary step beyond her vision”

“with the hymn and the riddle, those two small domestic implements, she grasped the 'centre' and the 'circumference' of things – to use two of her favourite expressions – as surely as human imagination ever has”

It's a great little book full of madness and mystery and I love it. “My business is to love,” said Emily, some time back when she was alive, “my business is to sing”.

Happy Emily Dickinson's Birthday for tomorrow, everyone!



swiss said...

i liked the comments about dickinson's punctuation. if people don't get it - read it out loud and it makes perfect sense. i can't go on about it because it does my head in.

Rachel Fox said...

So it's the people not getting it that do your head in (not the punctuation itself)? Just to be clear!
And now someone will tell us if we used our punctuation properly everything would always be clear.
As mud.

Dominic Rivron said...

An excuse to paste my (current) favourite ED poem! Fantastic poet isn't she? The Ted Hughes is an interesting selection.

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—
Untouched by Morning—
And untouched by Noon—
Lie the meek members of the Resurrection—
Rafter of Satin—and Roof of Stone!

Grand go the Years—in the Crescent—above them—
Worlds scoop their Arcs—
And Firmaments—row—
Diadems—drop—and Doges—surrender—
soundless as dots—on a Disc of Snow—

Kat Mortensen (aka Lady-slave) said...

My first introduction to Dickinson came as a quite a little girl, when I discovered her in a book called "New Horizons" - a collection of poetry from Canada, the UK and the USA. The poem was called "Snake" and even at that age, I was struck by the way she manipulated the syntax in her verses. I love even the first lines of that poem:
A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him, -did you not?
His notice sudden is.

That last line really hits me.

If I could articulate all my moments of self-doubt to you Rachel, I would never leave this box. I often feel a fraud in the midst of this cohort.


Rachel Fox said...

Yes Dominic...I love some of her word combinations...'soundless as dots'...I don't know what it is but I like it!

I like the way Hughes just says at the end of the intro 'I chose the pieces I liked best at time of choosing'. What else would you do...choose the ones you hate?

And Kat...all the best people feel like frauds (at least some of the time). It's the ones who think they're god's gift that you have to watch out for...

swiss said...

yes, if we used our punctuation properly everything would be the same for ever and ever and ever. there seems to be some sort of presumption that poets put their lines together almost at random, that the way the poem looks isn't a consideration.

or that thing you get with editor types when they coyly suggest maybe a wee comma just at the end of the line? like what, the reader's too stupid to notice there's nothing there but space. it's about the words, not the punctuation.

and don't even start me on the need to use capital letters. is it an ee cummings thing? no, no, no it isn't....

begone soapbox!

Rachel Fox said...

Nothing wrong with a soapbox now and again, Swiss!

I think some people probably do write random-line poems now and again (especially, but not always, when they are new to writing poetry) but I don't think that has to be a bad thing. There is NO law that says EVERYONE has to go to a poetry workshop and be MADE into one type of poet (but if you listen to some people you would think there was). If we all thought that way poetry would be a very dull world...just think of all the poets who would have failed their end-of-workshop exam (Dickinson for one...but there are lots more).

And editors...some are great, some are less so...some suit one poet, some suit another. A lot of them are more involved in some kind of fashion business than I think they realise. It reminds me of clubs quite a lot...you know, the promoter who can get away with anything because everyone wants to DJ/get on the guestlist. It's not all like that...but there are definitely hints of it.

Dominic Rivron said...

"Soundless as dots". It puzzled me too. But then when rain hits snow it sometimes leaves little holes. I take the phrase to mean as soundless -and ephemeral- as rain falling on snow. As for "disc", I'm not sure. It suggests a world, a planet. Or perhaps a little patch of snow left behind as the snow thaws in the rain?

Rachel Fox said...

It is a lovely last line, Dominic....images and sounds together.

Dave King said...

Somehow I missed the intro, began to read the poem thinking it was one of yours. Half way through I was (I confess) before I recognised it. Up to that point I was about to propose you as the next poet laureate... come to think of it, not such a bad idea! How do you feel about it?

shug said...

Aye Rachel for Laureate, I would like to wholeheartedly add my endorsement to her campaign. I shall write to Elizabeth 1 of Scotland at once, urging she turn her attention to this matter.

(Hope you'll share the crate of malmsey...)

Rachel Fox said...

Now Dave...always read the instructions (or introductions...). Have you forgotten the basics!

As for the laureate...I think any poems I wrote about the royals would largely fit in the slot marked 'treason'. I did write a poem about Queen E actually...it's on my website in the 'poems - other people' section and it's called 'Questions for a queen'. Benjamin Zephaniah (who it mentions) put it on his website too which was nice of him.


The Solitary Walker said...

Very nice post, Rachel.

Interesting - that appreciation (or not as is often the case!) of one poet for another. I believe Amis (not that I'd call him a poet) on Dylan Thomas and Larkin on many of his contemporaries and DHL on more or less everybody - were disparaging to say the least!

So it's nice (if rather less interesting!) when you read of Hughes admiring Heaney, and Heaney admiring Hughes etc.

I like Ted Hughes myself - but can appreciate why the masculine dead-pig muscularity might put some off.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes...being disparaging about other writers (or slagging them off as it's also known)...a lot of it goes on and it can get fairly tiresome. There are lots of writers whose work I don't like much but often it is just not subject matter I'm much interested in, or a way of using language that appeals to me, or an outlook on life that I want to think about at that time. I am always open to the idea that I may change my tastes/ideas as time goes on. Sorlil may yet have me reading Plath with my bedtime cocoa...Things change, people change, it's healthy.

I have read bits of Ted Hughes but just not felt the urge to go back and read more as yet. When I did some GCSE tutoring a while back I had to work through a Hughes poem with a 15 year old lad from Dewsbury and having to go through it and talk about it with him made me appreciate it more somehow. I still might read some more Hughes some time. I think I would have liked to hear him read...I think I once read a piece by Simon Armitage where he talked about the affect hearing and seeing Hughes had on him when he was younger.

The Solitary Walker said...

Indeed - Ch - ch- ch- anges, as I wrote on my blog today.

Plath better to read with absinthe, I think..! A genius - but could be toxic...

If you haven't read it already, do read the Elaine Feinstein biog of Hughes & Plath for an unbiased account of their relationship...

The Solitary Walker said...

Sorry - getting way away from Em..!

Rachel Fox said...

OK - you try and convince me...in what way was she (Plath) a genius? In your opinion, obviously. Her poems have just the wrong affect on me...they make me laugh. Maybe I am just very sick. It's possible.

My Mum has every book on the Plath/Hughes business (and I really mean every one). She isn't interested in poetry particularly but she likes lit.biog.s and I suppose there is our family similarity thing. (Maybe you are new and haven't read my sad family saga...it's all back in the archives somewhere). I haven't read any of the Plath biog books - though I did read 'The Bell Jar' and, perversely, I loved that.


shug said...

I love lit biogs myself- I always read the last chapter first and see if the death is tragic enough to meet my exacting standards. I think Robert Lowell dying in a taxi is my favourite.

Kingsley Amis was a tremendous snob about Dylan Thomas but he did actually admire him as a poet. So did larkin- who treated the roaring boy antics of Thomas with disdain but recognised him as one of modern poetry's greatest.

Liz said...

Rachel, thanks for the reminder about Emily Dickinson - studied her at school while full of teenage angst - loved her then, amazingly enough, - think it was how she mixed and matched love and death and especially her making of death a suitor... she was so different from other syllabus poets...have not really read her since but will do so now ...and yeah it's amazing how popular she's become...isn’t she a sort of gay icon in America? And Billy Collins poem ‘Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes’ http://www.sover.net/~nichael/nlc-poetry/bc1.html seems like a sort of dressing down (no pun intended) or something I can quite put my finger on, just yet…! Will keep dwelling on it, no doubt! ….; )

Rachel Fox said...

Shug - please write a post explaining why Thomas is so highly regarded. I am open to the idea that he is a great poet but I can't say I've felt it in my heart or bones as yet. Call me a poetry pleb but I like the 'don't go gently' one but I haven't managed to break through with any of the others yet. I haven't read about his life or watched the recent film or anything. I am more or less a DT free zone.

And Liz - I love that Collins poem. I think I read it once a while back but I had forgotten about it (so many poems, so little time...). I know you could read it that he's saying she just needed a good..well, you know...but it's a love poem to the poetry I think. I love those lines "how there were sudden dashes/ whenever we spoke." I like "realize" in the last verse too. Thanks for the link to that. I think we are back on top book group form!

I hope to be a gay icon too one day. They get a special VIP room in the afterlife you know.


Sorlil said...

"I always read the last chapter first and see if the death is tragic enough to meet my exacting standards" - lol shug, that's what I do. Which is why I was particularly pleased with Ronald Hayman's 'The death and life of Sylvia Plath' which deals with her death in the first chapter.

As for Plath with cocoa, ok there are plenty toxic poems but also lots of lovely and even some fun poems. A friend of Plath's said she laughed heartily when Plath recited her infamous 'Daddy' poem to her!

Rachel Fox said...

Yes...the Daddy one is probably my least favourite. Can't think why...

I was reading a poem of hers (Plath's) last night and wondering what was not working for me in it. I came to the conclusion that, at times, I find her poems a bit kitchen sink (as in 'everything in but...' not as in 'miserable 1960s drama'...that was her ending!). I want to pare them down a bit, but that's just my taste, I suppose. I find myself thinking things like 'less is more, darling' but that's getting a bit Trinny and Susannah do poetry (not that I've ever watched them for longer than 5 seconds...that was enough). But I am softening...I am! When people I like love something I am always keen to understand why they love it and see if I can learn something in the whole learning-to-see-what-it-is process!

McGuire said...

I have a small collection of Dickinson. She reads quite fresh and alwayys coins a turn of phrase that seems like the truth.

I really should take time to consider more of the female poets. Any suggestions?

Rachel Fox said...

Well, McGuire...I think your sentence on ED is very astute. Go to the top of the class!

As for other women poets...I will be writing about this a bit next time but for now you could read my post on 'poets I have read' (28 March 08) or the post from 7 Sept 08 where we all chip in about poets we would recommend to a young reader. None of these are specifically about women poets but there will be some in there!

And thanks for asking. I knew there was a reason we let men live.


The Solitary Walker said...

Though indeed they can be quite baroque at times, I can't agree Plath's poems need paring down! I think she tries to hone carefully her extravangance.

Looking through 'The Colossus' and 'Crossing the Water' last night I was forcibly struck by her influences (or perhaps it's just because I've now read more poetry since first reading her in my late teens) - there's all sorts of echoes in there, from Elizabeth Bishop to Dylan Thomas to Ted Hughes himself. But I do think she creates something indisputedly her own.

Re 'genius' - yes, that word should not be bandied about lightly, and I almost regret using it - it's virtually impossible to define, and we could argue about it for ages. Perhaps it should only be reserved for Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy (and Girls Aloud, it goes without saying) etc - the true, universally recognised, prolific greats. But I do think there is something uniquely brilliant, brittle-yet-hard, scintillatingly disturbing, almost unearthly about her.

Rachel Fox said...

Ah yes...baroque...that might be what I don't like about them! But I'm trying...(yes, I know...).

I would love for more women poets to get the 'genius' label, I really would. It frustrates me in a way that she is one of the only women poets who does every get it!

And I do wonder how much of her appeal is her image...I can't help myself. If you read a Plath poem but didn't have the Plath image in your head (tragic, beautiful, etc. etc.) would you still like it as much? It's almost impossible to know now. That's kind of what I was talking about with ED too...how much is it the image (eccentric, isolated, hidden etc) and how much is it the poems? I know we should be above such matters when it comes to poetry...but are we? Are we really?


Rachel Fox said...

Did I say 'every' - I meant 'ever'.

The Solitary Walker said...

Just to connect up for a moment with McGuire's request - there are so many women poets that are fantastic (genius, or otherwise, let's leave that cul-de-sac!), I just can't believe he's asking. Off the top of my head - and just glancing at my bookshelves - these come to mind, all of whom I like very much: Anna Akhmatova, U.A.Fanthorpe, Elizabeth Jennings, Ruth Padel, Emily Bronte, Anne Stevenson, Denise Levertov (much prefer her to peacock Plath, anyway, she appeals to the 'mystical in me' - damn, that sounds so pretentious!), oh... & lots more.

Hate that boring debate about women/men writers... I think there are writers full stop.

The Solitary Walker said...

Rereading McGuire's comment, it's a little ambiguous as to whther he's being ironic or not. That's always the problem with blog comments. Let alone phone texts! They are the worst for misunderstandings. Or perhaps I'm being uber-sensitive too..?

Rachel Fox said...

I didn't take it as ironic...just a young man realising that he's been reading mainly male poets and thinking he should widen his range. It's easily done. Some female readers do the same thing in reverse. I think sometimes we all have to be reminded to read more different kinds of writers, to listen to different music etc.

But then also I met McGuire at the Edinburgh thing and he was lovely (a guy in his 20s, he'll hate that...I make him sound like a coach trip...).
He was though.


The Weaver of Grass said...

I think she is a real poet's poet Rachel. I once drove through her birthplace but can't for the life of me remember where it was - in New England I think.

The Solitary Walker said...

Well said. Willingness to reconsider and to change. Blow away prejudice. Open to new experience. All that stuff. Yes.

Sorlil said...

Funnily enough it was through her short stories that I came to Plath's poetry, I did a school exam essay on her 'Superman and Paula Brown's new Snowsuit' and it really touched a chord with me. I really knew little about her when I started reading her poetry, what struck me was the energy in her poems. Like a work of Picasso in poetry.

Rachel Fox said...

Well, I'm all for energy!

McGuire said...

No irony. My shelves are dominated by Men. I want to counter that trend. Liz Lochhead is someone I should have read YEARS ago. And rachel.

Cheers rachel, you were a bright personality on stage and off. Something very encouraging about you.

Rachel Fox said...

See - I said he was lovely. I am a frighteningly good judge of character. Really.