Second Dickinson Lecture

"The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice...." -- Wallace Stevens, "Of Modern Poetry"

Today I was hoping to look at a lot of specific ED poems. We looked at about two-thirds of the ones I'd planned to get to -- enough, I hope, to make the point that her poems aren't necessarily consistent, either with each other or with any large theological or philosophical program, but rather faithful to her own experience -- the existential "experiment" that she describes as the life each soul inevitably leads in #822, the "adventure" the soul is "condemned" too. I would love to think we looked at enough to also get those of you who have always felt alienated from or intimidated by ED's poetry to realize that her poems, as her attempt to understand and express and make art out of her own feelings, are neither foreign or opaque (because we've all had the emotions/feelings/anxieties/joys she's writing about).

Most of the class we spent looking closely at two pairs of poems, about faith and doubt (#'s 338 & 1952), and about death (#'s 712 & 465). "I know that He exists." begins on a note of rare certainty, but by the end (in about 65 words) ED has gone from the world of Watts' Protestant hymns to something like the metaphysically barren landscape of Becket's Waiting for Godot. On the other hand, "I never saw a moor" is a devout assertion of belief. Similarly, "Because I could not stop for death" (though it expresses some real anxieties in the middle of the journey) finally ends where it begins, with the conviction of "immortality/eternity." But "I heard a fly buzz" takes the conventional 19th century Christian death bed scene and suggests that, rather than angels coming for the eternal soul, death is a fly coming to feast on the decomposing body. All four poems are ultimately about her own inner experience -- i.e. not whether "God exists," but whether she feels his presence or absence, etc. And all four are ultimately hymns to the resources and power of her own creative intelligence: the ability of the poem to express (be "adequate to," in the language of #822) her own experience.

I tried to generalize about this characteristic of her art: the way she remains vulnerable to the world as the site of her experience, but able to appropriate the world (as metaphor, symbol, point of reference) to represent the richness, depth, "amplitude and awe" of her inner life (for example, the way her poems refer to getting drunk, shipwrekcs, hunting, chariots and emperors, cathedral bells, abbeys, etc. etc.). I ended by looking at one of my favorite poems, #670 -- "I felt a funeral in my brain." In that poem she loses some belief that was crucial to the way she understood the meaning of life (that's what dies, I suggested -- "a funeral in [one's] brain" to me describes the death of some idea). "Sense [i.e. reality] breaks through," "knowing" destroys "reason" (i.e. the mind's attempt to make sense of life), she feels absolutely alone and exiled in the universe (I contrasted the falling the poem describes to the opposite spiritual/psychic experience, section 5 of WW's "Song of Myself," the sense of becoming one with the cosmos) -- in this poem everything fails, except the poem, except her poetic intelligence, which communicates the horror and chaos of the experience in wonderfully well-defined and controlled language.

To me, finally, ED makes us realize how much there is to discover by exploring our own feelings and ideas, our inward life, and how much of it is disconcerting (which probably explains why we seek so many things, from Superbowls to Academy Awards, to distract ourselves from our selves), but how we can finally distill amazing meaning from that inward life, and at least hope to be adequate to its revelations about the meaning of life itself.


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