Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Emily Dickinson III

     Poetry is an artistic portrayal of language. It originally evolved from the rhythm of the voice, rooted from the oral tradition, into a written text with its “extraordinary [....] selection of words it uses and in its metrical rhythms.” (Muller,Williams, 2003, p.48)  In a sense, poetry has the power to provoke feelings that move hearts, win minds and inspire people into action.  With this in mind, Emily Dickinson wittily defines poetry as such:  “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry.  If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.  These are the only way I know it.  Is there any other way?” ( Mulvihill, 2013)
     Even today, Intrigued readers see Emily Dickinson can still baffle and create challenging expectations in what a poem is all about.  Her writing style has captivated her readers with her title-less   
lyric poems that are not only literary innovative, but captures impressions of particular moments, scenes, or moods that focuses on nature, love, immorality, death, faith, doubt, pain and the self.  In the following paragraphs, some of Dickinson's writing characteristics will be illuminated through her poetry, along with her biography. (vcu.edu, 2013 )
     It was not until 1955, when Thomas Johnson published Dickinson's complete works and attempted to reformed its true manuscript vision, that the reader had the opportunity to be graced with her writing style.   Until then, there has only been seven or so poems printed in her life time; the ones that were printed, were never prepared for publication.  The poem that were published, the early editors took the liberty in alternating her poems in the traditional nineteenth century style by giving them titles, rearranging the poem's syntax, normalizing grammar, capitalization, while deleting her famous elliptical lines and dashes into a more readable conventional nineteenth century expectation.   In other words, they felt uncomfortable with her unique writing technique, and could not appreciate her gem-like imagery and unexpected metaphors that penetrated her poems. (vcu.edu, 2013 )
     Born December 10,1930, in Amherst, Massachusetts, her prominent and prosperous family resided at the 'Homestead' with her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, one of founders of Amherst College.  In 1940,  Samuel Dickinson had a temporary financial collapse caused by the expenditure of the Amherst College and loss the Homestead.  At nine of age, along with her younger sister, Lavina, her older brother Austin, and parents moved to a house on North Pleasant Street in Amherst.  Emily spent most of her happy adolescence and young adulthood at North pleasant until her father repurchased the Homestead 1855.  There she remained until her death, May 15,1986. (english.illinois.edu, 2013)
     All the Dickinson males were lawyers with political ambitions; whereby, her father eventually became a congressman. Her home was a center of Amherst society and the site of annual Amherst College commencement receptions.  Growing up in an academic family, Emily's father Edward, made sure his children had a well rounded education, however, he was very strict what type literature was allowed in the home.  Walt Whitman, was one example, was not allowed and considered 'inappropriate'.   With this said, Emily never new in her life time, that she, along with Walt Whitman, where actually paving a path to modern day poetry. (english.illinois.edu, 2013)
     During Emily's youth years, Calvinist revivals became popular and swept the nation.  Initially, it was exciting to be part the religious gathering, but over time she realized that she no longer wanted to be a participant, worshiping became more satisfying at home.  The privacy and relationship with God,  were instead expressed in her poetry. (english.illinois.edu, 2013)
    As very independent, vibrant, hopeful young woman, Emily felt her calling for poetry.  She discovered works of William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson.   Tutored by her father's friend  and lawyer Benjamin Newton, he encouraged Emily's passion and writing of poetry.  Newton died from tuberculosis while Emily was still young. (english.illinois.edu, 2013)
    Emily seclusion became gradual.  Deaths  and departures of mentors and of friends had taken away some of her emotional spirit.   When her mother's health began to fail, Emily became more and more home bound.  Withdrawing further in conclusion, made Emily more productive in her poetry writing.  The added conservatory to the Homestead and having her room also made it advantageous for her year round gardening, letter writings and rewriting of her poems. (english.illinois.edu, 2013)
     In addition to her confidant friend and sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson, Emily Dickinson had only one other critic in her life time, Thomas Wentworth Higginson.  He not only was an American minister, author, abolitionist and soldier, he also wrote a piece encouraging new writers in the Atlantic Monthly.  Emily began sending many of her poems to him to critique, knowing from his pass writings he was sympathetic to female writers.  He ultimately became her mentor. (english.illinois.edu, 2013)
     Dickinson's subject matter could be best reflected on her life's experiences, education, and her wonderful imagination.  Her simplified life that dealt with doing without actually meant doing within her creative mind.  We presumed reading the Bible, Shakespeare, and seventeen century metaphysical and natural sciences may have come from the family library, allowing her to bring individuality to her observation of nature for itself. (english.illinois.edu, 2013)
     Reading Emily Dickinson's poems out loud, one can hear the rhythm and sound that Dickinson might have heard in her time from musical forms such as ballads and hymns.  Dickinson's poems  usually slows down, speeds up, interrupts itself, holds its breath and sometimes trails off.  The reader is  guided through the poem by her stanza forms, typically quatrains and her unusual emphasis on words either by capitalization or line position.  Some of the common forms of hymn meter ( counts syllables only, not feet)  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).  Unlike ballad meter , quatrains are typically closed, meaning the first and third lines will rhyme as well as the second and fourth.  Dickinson took liberty with the meter, many time she used 'enjambment' where one line of poetry runs over to the next without stopping.   A good example of this “I cannot live with you” Dickinson writes the second stanza in the following:
                        The Sexton keeps the key to -
                        Putting up
                        Our Life – His Porcelain -
                        Like a Cup -
(“I cannot live with you”, 2006, p. 105)
In the poem “I cannot live with you”, the above stanza Dickinson breaks the first line after a preposition and before a direct object; in both places one would not punctuate with a comma, semicolon, or a dash, and there would be no pause.
     Dickinson syntax is problematic, try filling in the blanks, the poem are so compressed.  She also uses dashes often stand for the reader to pause or for punctuation, or bridges between sections of the poem.  Both the uses of dashes and the use of capitals to stress and personify common noun is one method that Dickinson uses with all her poems.  In most Dickinson's lyric poetry, the speaker single speaker is identified as I, the reader has to be careful, her poetry  does not speak for the poet herself.  It could be a spirit such as in "I heard a Fly buzz- when I died-" (“I heard a Fly buzz- when I died-”, 2006, p. 103)   Sometimes poems use slant rhymes and sound rhymes, as an example as in Dickinson's “A narrow Fellow in the Grass”: the end rhyme of the second and fourth lines in each stanza, where the line are too short to create much of the sense of repeated beginning sounds, therefore, slant lines are nearly, but not exactly the same sounds such as “rides” and “is, “Seen” and “on”, “Corn” and “ Noon”, “Sun” and “gone”. Finally Dickinson is a master for metaphors.   Dickinson's poem  “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” uses similes such as “narrow Fellow” is a snake, or “ The Grass divides as with a Comb-”. ( “A narrow Fellow in the Grass”, p.107).      
      Emily Dickinson indeed intrigues readers while baffling and creating challenging expectations in each poem.  Her writing style is captivating, innovative, and captures impressions of particular moments of the human senses.  Emily is by far an intelligent independent woman poet of her time.  Tell tell the truth, but tell it slant -
Success in Circuit Lies
too Bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lighting to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind -
( “tell the truth, but tell it slant”, p.108).      

 Mulvihill, J. (2013) Why Dickinson Didn't Title
       retrieved February 15, 2013 from University of Illinois website

Muller G.H.,Williams J.A.  (2003) Writing About Poetry
     (p 48 - 200) Ways In – Approaches to Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2nd edition,
     McGraw Hill, United States of America

Manson, M.L. (2011, November 1) Emily Dickinson and Hymn Culture: Tradition and
          Experience (review)
          Retrieved February 16, 2013 from JHU website

Campbell D. (2010, November 24) Common Questions on Emily Dickinson
                    Retrieved February 16, 2013 from Washington State University website

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