One of the most humbling experiences for me is to read the Valentines Day prose poem by Emily Dickinson penned (probably) when she was only 20. The back story, as relayed by biographers, has her discovering that her poem has been published in the college newspaper. In all likelihood, Dickinson’s recipient for the poem was the young editor of the paper, George Gould.

I say, “humbling,” because for all its silliness, it is a triumph of flirtation, entertainment, fiction and, if  evidenced only by its non-repetitive lengthiness – sincerity.

I would give anything to have not lost a poem I wrote when I was 16, that was as long as this one but done for an English class, not a boyfriend. It surprised both me and my English teacher. My parents were stunned. But, none of us held on to it. It would be a “trip” to see now if I think it’s as “good” as it seemed to be at the time.

Dickinson, on the other hand, seems to have written tongue-in-cheek a missive that off-handedly records her ease with popular topics like Valentines Day.  A love note that counterpoints the profound and challenging poetry on which we rely.  Here’s the Valentine –

Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine,
Unwind the solemn twine, and tie my Valentine!
–         –
Oh the Earth was made for lovers, for damsel, and hopeless swain,
For sighing, and gentle whispering, and unity made of twain.
All things do go a courting, in earth, or sea, or air,
God hath made nothing single but thee in His world so fair!
The bride, and then the bridegroom, the two, and then the one,
Adam, and Eve, his consort, the moon, and then the sun;
The life doth prove the precept, who obey shall happy be,
Who will not serve the sovereign, be hanged on fatal tree.
The high do seek the lowly, the great do seek the small,
None cannot find who seeketh, on this terrestrial ball;
The bee doth court the flower, the flower his suit receives,
And they make merry wedding, whose guests are hundred leaves;
The wind doth woo the branches, the branches they are won,
And the father fond demandeth the maiden for his son.
The storm doth walk the seashore humming a mournful tune,
The wave with eye so pensive, looketh to see the moon,
Their spirits meet together, they make their solemn vows,
No more he singeth mournful, her sadness she doth lose.
The worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living bride,
Night unto day is married, morn unto eventide;
Earth is a merry damsel, and heaven a knight so true,
And Earth is quite coquettish, and beseemeth in vain to sue.
Now to the application, to the reading of the roll,
To bringing thee to justice, and marshalling thy soul:
Thou art a human solo, a being cold, and lone,
Wilt have no kind companion, thou reap’st what thou hast sown.
Hast never silent hours, and minutes all too long,
And a deal of sad reflection, and wailing instead of song?
There’s Sarah, and Eliza, and Emeline so fair,
And Harriet, and Susan, and she with curling hair!
Thine eyes are sadly blinded, but yet thou mayest see
Six true, and comely maidens sitting upon the tree;
Approach that tree with caution, then up it boldly climb,
And seize the one thou lovest, nor care for space, or time!
Then bear her to the greenwood, and build for her a bower,
And give her what she asketh, jewel, or bird, or flower —
And bring the fife, and trumpet, and beat upon the drum —
And bid the world Goodmorrow, and go to glory home!

Someone should add music. “It ceased to hurt me, though so slow” is musical, easy to understand and sweet-sounding. It embodies familiar feelings of having survived loss. But, not without a melancholy reluctance to let go of hurt.

It ceased to hurt me, though so slow
I could not feel the Anguish go –
But only knew by looking back –
That something – had benumbed the Track –

Nor when it altered, I could say,
For I had worn it, every day,
As constant as the Childish frock –
I hung upon the Peg, at night.

But not the Grief – that nestled close
As needles – ladies softly press
To Cushions Cheeks –
To keep their place –

Nor what consoled it, I could trace –
Except, whereas ’twas Wilderness –
It’s better – almost Peace –

Dickinson borrows from the lexicon of railroads, “That something – had benumbed the Track – ” to add to the sense of motion. We are carried along in a life that refuses to stop despite a deprivation forced upon us.  Still, we can’t keep from looking back: “I could not feel the Anguish go – /But only knew by looking back – ” .

In another poem of Dickinson’s that is familiar to many fans of the poet, we are told that hope “..sings the tune without the words – and never stops – at all.” The silent force of hope acts on our minds and spirits without our being aware. Then, one day I realize my once deeply felt sorrow has undergone a change; “Nor when it altered, I could say, / For I had worn it, every day,”.

Don’t get me wrong, is the warning of the third stanza. Here, the poem instructs me to avoid the mistake of thinking that while the debilitating effects of great loss have been alleviated – grief itself is not cast out: “But not the Grief – that nestled close”.  As needlecraft is employed to decorate and comfort, so grief and its aftermath renders the tapestry of days, “To keep their place -”.

While I read this poem, I, too, am compelled to think about the past, and wonder “what consoled it,” . There is nothing “I could trace -” that would fulfill such a mighty undertaking!  All I know is, “whereas ’twas Wilderness – / It’s better – almost Peace -”.

If a modern band like, say, “The Who” were to record this song-poem, I feel certain they would scream in all the right places. And, give drive-time radio listeners and MP3 download zealots a high time.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Like many children, when little I was entertained by garrulous motormouths. At some point in late adolescence I started to appreciate those who could concentrate on a topic so as to enjoy a lengthy conversation.  Not long after, I learned self-confidence when I discovered a knack for leading group discussions and that I enjoyed public speaking and performing. Emily Dickinson sets up conversational references in “I fear a Man of frugal speech -” perhaps to comment on the developmental effect of our interaction with others.

I fear a Man of frugal speech –
I fear a Silent Man –
Haranguer – I can overtake –
Or Babbler – entertain –

But He who weigheth – While the Rest –
Expend their furthest pound –
Of this Man – I am wary –
I fear that He is Grand –

My tendency is to rattle on to fill the gaps of silence in the conversation, as described in line one, between me and someone who uses speech very sparingly, frugally.   In the second example, since there’s no conversation possible with “… a Silent Man – ”, I think of a party or group meeting. There’s the inevitable one who sits listening. The only conversation in this instance is the one I have with myself, so I feel compelled to try to “make ’em talk!” Or, heaven forbid there drop a moment of quiet in an otherwise lively exchange of ideas. Then, I’ve more than once jumped at the chance to have my say.

I read the third example as outright funny. “Haranguer – I can overtake -”. What a spectacle it is when I take the bait and get into a contest of insights, opinions and interpretations with someone who confuses their entitlement to beliefs with their right to exist. Fourth, it is probably a sign of a dampened conscience that my mind goes into to cruise control when I’m around naturally loquacious individuals who epitomize the gift of gab: “Or Babbler – entertain – ”.

In stark contrast to circumstances where another’s silence or “frugal speech” prompts thoughtless chatter on my part, in the fifth line, “But He who weigheth – While the Rest – ”, the poem indicates a progression. Perhaps “the rest” is about those of us who talk or say little because reflective or philosophical thinking is forgotten in the anticipations and apprehensions of discussion.

The word fear is used three times in the poem; twice in the first stanza and once in the second. Fear of what I will say when reacting to someone’s silence by blurting the first words that occur to me. Fear of how much smarter they might be than me. Akin to the fear of the unknown, these conversational lapses remind me that nothing is foreordained. Surely fear in the sense of respect, too, for one who keeps his own counsel when others, “Expend their furthest pound -”, put all they can into convincing others, or showcasing their own cleverness.

In young children it is endearing when bravado and bragging enter into their language and behavior. As Erikson’s “stages of psychosocial development” describe it, 2 to 3-year-olds will either enjoy autonomy or feel shame and doubt; ages 4 to 6 will exhibit self-motivation or guilt; diligence or inferiority will typify childhood from 7 to 11. Autonomy, self-motivation and diligence in these ages is easy to recognize in little babblers and haranguers.

Whether I interpret wary and fear in the final, “Of this Man – I am wary -/ I fear that He is Grand -”, as dread or esteem depends on whether I have found any grandeur in my own life and being – my motivations and responsibilities. And, whether I have the power to experience sympathetic understanding in all kinds of conversations.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Two little girls and a boy I know, who like bedtime stories and cuddly night-night prayers, let me know evening rituals need not include too much kissy-face.

My urge to send them off into the unchaperoned world of dreams buried in kisses, as I would bundle them in woolens in winter, is part of my desire to protect.

Emily Dickinson’s “Now I lay thee down to Sleep —” turns a nursery rhyme prayer on its head, with a similar motivation.

Now I lay thee down to Sleep –
I pray the Lord thy Dust to keep –
And if thou live before thou wake –
I pray the Lord thy Soul to make –

The familiar, “Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord my Soul to keep/If I should die before I wake/I pray the Lord my Soul to take” provides the form for the poem. A version that has scared the stew out of many children obliged to pray, meander off to sleep, and half invite death. Possible death before morning?! There is small comfort in prevailing upon “the Lord” to get busy and take the child’s soul if such a catastrophe were to occur. 

Dickinson’s poem does not ignore the concept of death altogether. “I pray the Lord thy Dust to keep — ”, regards life’s earth-bound origins as part of a process before, during, and after earth-time. I ask the Lord to keep you intact. Great idea.

Less clear, but astoundingly concise, “And if thou live before thou wake —”, indicates that my child and I are never to young or too old to begin living. If “live” is to smile my own smile, not theirs; find my own words, not theirs. Live my own life, not someone else’s. No one is too young to learn to be true to herself.  She need not wait for “the Lord my Soul to take” to wake to the miracle of miracles — Life.

The loveliest concept of all, “I pray the Lord thy Soul to make —” suggests that neither violence, poverty, neglect or loss may be allowed to make a soul into a contorted reflection of misfortune. The poem suggests a knowledge gained from experience, perhaps a regenerative one, a love for life that we want to give our loved ones. But, that cannot be imposed, or forced, if they do not want either a kiss or an authentic life.

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way

 

Emily Dickinson’s “Color — Caste — Denomination — ”, like the great equalizer, death, discards all my best and worst as mere symptoms of my fallible, error-prone status as human.

Color – Caste – Denomination –
These – are Time’s Affair –
Death’s diviner Classifying
Does not know they are –

As in sleep – All Hue forgotten –
Tenets – put behind –
Death’s large – Democratic fingers
Rub away the Brand –

If Circassian – He is careless –
If He put away
Chrysalis of Blonde – or Umber –
Equal Butterfly –

They emerge from His Obscuring –
What Death – knows so well –
Our minuter intuitions –
Deem unplausible –

“These — are Time’s Affair” is an easy concept, somewhat nostalgic in nature. They are words that role off the tongue. Just as conditions of race, social standing, or religious ideology skirt out of memory as soon as we are dead. Or, perhaps even in sleep.

Important only when our consciousness is controlled by time, “Color — a black president, Caste — corporate titans vs. poverty’s luckless, and Denomination — Catholics, Mormons and Muslims, all define current events. These concepts are essential to understanding temporal civilization and earthly history, but lousy at classifying people.

The poem suggests to me, by its own simplicity, that it need not be so hard to avoid defining myself and others by such episodic concerns.

If I really want to get it straight, the poem counsels, when looking for what really matters in this life, I should use death as my guide. For death does not know about distinctions: “Does not know they are — / As in sleep — All Hue forgotten —”.

All the principles that guide my treatment of myself and others; all my beliefs about what to expect; all the doctrines I’ve inherited about God and honor: are no more, no less than “Tenets — ” that are flawed when “put behind — ”.

As the “purest” type of white person, “Circassian women were said to be the most beautiful on earth, prized by Turkish sultans. The use of this kind of human description is funny when followed by the idea of “careless,” almost scientific, experiment. Butterfly cocoons of different species, may be indistinguishable.  Put two chrysalis (that sheltered stage of growth that obscures color) away on a shelf.  They may emerge from that obscure state to surprise the experimenter by their color.

If I am focused on the differences, (“Our minuter intuitions —”), the poem has a wry, sardonic retort. For by prizing such transient descriptions I am more sheltered from the truth than the larvae.  For I cannot  perceive what “Death — knows so well —”.  Red, or yellow, black and white, “Blond — or Umber — / Equal Butterfly — ”.

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way

If Emily Dickinson were to appear on Oprah, the poet’s famous “I’m Nobody, Who are you” would be a likely topic. 

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – Too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog! 

If the new President Barack Obama has anything to say about it, no one will be able to hide in obscurity during his presidency. In fact, he has given excitement to the notion of every “nobody’s” capacity to create excitement and potential for growth.

Obama has drawn audiences into his points of view by emphasizing the deprivations in his early life, implying, “Are you — Nobody — Too?”

“Don’t tell! they’d advertise — you know!” is to launch greater control and to make life a better vehicle for the right kind of action. To say, “How dreary — to be — Somebody!” is to scoff at luck; to look at the likelihood that my life can be much more free. The satire in “How public — like a Frog” pokes fun at the “me, me, me” of most notoriety. It also begs the question of exactly what might be a potential for personal greatness. It is unlikely that coverage by the media, “they’d advertise — you know”, will do much to add to my worth to myself and others.

The new administration of government would have us lose ourselves, not in comfortable ruts, which are limiting. But, to sit up and take notice of the needs around us. “To tell one’s name — ” in the course of telling ourself who we really are is the opposite of looking “To an admiring Bog” to find out who we are.

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way 

Myself will have its fun.

In winter, there may be activities abroad I would enjoy if I could get my lazy bum in gear. 

To overwhelm the urge to seek fireside retreats, Emily Dickinson’s “In Winter in my Room” creates the tale of a suggestive, humorous encounter.

In Winter in my Room
I came upon a Worm
Pink, lank and warm
But as he was a worm
And worms presume
Not quite with him at home
Secured him by a string
To something neighboring
And went along –

A Trifle afterward
A thing occurred
I’d not believe it if I heard
But state with creeping blood
A snake with mottles rare
Surveyed my chamber floor
In feature as the worm before
But ringed with power
The very string with which
I tied him – too
When he was mean and new
That string was there –

I shrank – “How fair you are”!
Propitiation’s Claw —
“Afraid he hissed
“Of me”?
“No Cordiality” –
He fathomed me –
Then to a Rhythm Slim
Secreted in his Form
As Patterns swim
Projected him.

That time I flew
Both eyes his way
Lest he pursue
Nor ever ceased to run
Till in a distant Town
Towns on from mine
I set me down
This was a dream.

The little “Pink lank and warm” visitor victoriously subdued with a string tied to, “something neighboring”, is a slightly annoying but familiar fellow.  Since I know the author of this poem spent countless hours with indoor and outdoor flowers; planting, coaxing, studying, adoring and sharing them, I wonder how many times she could have said, “I came upon a Worm”

What a comic scenario! Not wanting to destroy the worm but knowing “worms presume” their way into self-selected routes the poem is tying up a worm! Horses, yes. Cattle. Even dogs. But a worm? As dreams do, this one confronts the folly by having the tiny creature become a snake imbued with enough qualities of supposed reality to create continuity. Dreams find continuity any way they can. Like a good story. Like a sane life.

No more silent reading by the fire. No more gazing at slants of light on snow wondering how it connects so precisely with my worst dread.

“ ‘How fair you are’ ”, he said.

I think there may be no more fully engaging act than “Propitation…” when I am compelled to gain or regain the favor or goodwill of someone. To use the word with claw connotes fear if I feel I need to appease someone. But I wonder if anyone without a really healthy sense of self can bring herself to do it.  

The conversation continues. “ ‘Afraid he hissed / Of me’?  ”. Moi!! “ ‘No Cordiality’ ”

You got it, buster.

Now the poem shifts immensely. “He fathomed me — ” , said with quick intake of breath, may be about the limit in testimony to intimacy. Then…

“That time I flew…/ Nor ever ceased to run/Till in a distant Town.”                                                                                                                           Okay. Whatever it takes, I must get out of the house, today.

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way