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!

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When first reading, “A Tongue – to tell Him I am true!” I felt disoriented by Emily Dickinson’s roundabout, meandering syntax. So, I decided to take on a sense of having been thrust into a mission that seems impossible to understand.  I found a story line acted out between the poem’s speaker and a still-unproven emissary. Play along with me, if you like, to create a complete sentence out of the poem’s first line by using the recognizable lead-in.

Whimsically, at first, I placed the familiar cliche from the movie, “Mission Impossible,” in front of the poem. This is your mission.  If you decide to accept it, you will need:

A Tongue – to tell Him I am true!
It’s fee – to be of Gold –
Had Nature – in Her monstrous House
A single Ragged Child –

To earn a Mine – would run
That Interdicted Way,
And tell Him – Charge thee speak it plain –
That so far – Truth is True?

And answer What I do –
Beginning with the Day
That Night – begun –
Nay – Midnight – ’twas –
Since Midnight – happened – say –

If once more – Pardon – Boy –
The Magnitude thou may
Enlarge my Message – If too vast
Another Lad – help thee –

Thy Pay – in Diamonds – be –
And His – in solid Gold –
Say Rubies – if He hesitate –
My Message – must be told –

Say – last I said – was This –
That when the Hills – come down –
And hold no higher than the Plain –
My Bond – have just begun –

And when the Heavens – disband –
And Deity conclude –
Then – look for me – Be sure you say –
Least Figure – on the Road –

The first line of the poem, now, has a subject (you), a main verb (will need), and a prepositional phrase …well, I’m not going to turn this into a grammar lesson, though I confess I always loved conjugating sentences.  Right away, I feel lured into accepting this mysterious appointment with the promise of more than a fair wage: “It’s fee – to be of Gold -”.  In this conjured mission, the only assurance of reliability, “… I am true!” is set opposite the vulnerable condition of precarious reliance on nature’s “monstrous House”, and, “A single Ragged Child -”.

If the “Him” referenced throughout the poem is an allusion to posterity, and “a Mine” is the rich source, or treasure house, of truth stored up in the poems for future generations, it stands to reason that, “To earn a Mine – (anyone worthy of it, willingly) would run/That Interdicted Way,”.  I think part of the difficulty in this poem is that there slips back and forth self-talk by the speaker, and, imaginary instructions transmitted to another. The first two lines of the second stanza appear as a personal reflection, while the other two are addressed to one who is charged with following through. If a poem is a storehouse for truth, regardless of how much “That Interdicted Way,” that opaque language, seems to resist meaning, then the hero of this mission impossible will be the reader intent on breaching poetic perimeters.  I find it comical then to read, “.. Charge Thee speak it plain – ”, speak it plain (!?), that which is embodied in the poetry itself.

Just like the movie, this “mission impossible” is not impossible at all if the poet’s representative is up to the challenge. Much of the implied dare is in the question about whether, “.. – Truth is True?”

As in the famous thriller, instinct and skill must guide when truth is not forthcoming.

The speaker seems to say that if you cannot find the truth, then look at the source of the message, “And answer What I do -”.  Almost as if we are told to, “consider the source.”

Perhaps this third stanza’s apparent reversal of night and day refers to enlightened self-interest which results from a period of emotional darkness, “Since Midnight – happened – ”. If so, it would fit in with this idea of poetry-for-the-ages being dependent on a single “ragged child” and “Another Lad – (to) help thee -”.

The fifth stanza reiterates “orders” in language fitting promises to a soldier of fortune for hire, “Thy Pay – in Diamonds – be – /And His – in solid Gold – /Say Rubies – if He hesitate – ”.  The speaker then seems to be whispering only to herself, “My Message – must be told – ”.

The final two stanzas are a decorative conclusion as we might see in a Hollywood film. The brave speaker walks out of the picture into the sunset.  The dominant, starring role is now forever placed into the hands of the reader (ragged child? other lad?), “Say – last I said – was This – /That when the Hills – come down… And Deity conclude – / Then – look for me… Least Figure – on the Road – ”.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

When Emily Dickinson created “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – ” she gave readers a conundrum – how to reconcile somber death with an exuberant fly. Dilemmas and riddles abound in Dickinson’s work so that part is no surprise. Humor is the wonderful and crucial element.

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

With the beginning stanza, I have a picture. Not calmness, but “like the Stillness in the Air -/ Between the Heaves of Storm – ”, a foreboding quiet. Everything in my life is suspended: conversation; loved ones, even thoughts of them; shopping; striving for excellence.  I am waiting; having said goodbye to all.

Suddenly, in starkest contrast, a buzzing fly, the uncontrollable and unpredictable third party, insinuates itself to mediate between me and immortality.

To reiterate the control that the vast unknown has on me and others, “Breaths were gathering firm”, the second stanza goes a step further than bleak resignation, to provide a villain. That other interloper, “King” Death, the one I can foresee, predict. Custom says death is the perfect and unpredictable, if inevitable, foil to life.

In this poem it is life’s unpredictability and exuberance, dramatized by the fly, that appears to do the impeding, or obstructing.  Hindering death’s progress.

Dickinson employs the very heart of humor here. For in the telling, the poem has it over King Death, if only for a moment. The poem dares to turn the tables on inevitability. A smile works its way onto my face.  For as I read I, too, momentarily play death at its own game.

Having attempted, as we do, to amass a modicum of sway, “I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away/ What portion of me be / Assignable”, it is sweet control, that I relish, through my paraphernalia, my stuff.  Here, again, “and then it was / There interposed a Fly – ”.  This time, the poem makes me laugh at myself. Control? ForgetAboutIt!

The final stanza’s “fly” is a fading image, now blending “With Blue – ..” while the crisp words of the first line are replaced with an echo of ebbing consciousness: “..uncertain stumbling Buzz – ”. Light, me, failing windows and the fly seem to move toward one another. But, “I could not see to see – ”.

Ponder 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

 

The other day I read on a fellow amateur’s blog an ambitious, sincere account of how to make a woman find a man more than just attractive. Without consciously attempting a poem that dealt with this unlikely form of control, nevertheless, I smiled reading “He parts Himself — like Leaves — ”, by Emily Dickinson.

I know. I know. It’s about frost. Like Harold Pinter NYT… AP was only about pauses.

Ya-Right.

He parts Himself – like Leaves –
And then – He closes up –
Then stands opon the Bonnet
Of Any Buttercup –

And then He runs against
And oversets a Rose –
And then does Nothing –
Then away opon a Jib – He goes –

And dangles like a Mote
Suspended in the Noon –
Uncertain – to return Below –
Or settle in the Moon –

What come of Him at Night –
The privilege to say
Be limited by Ignorance –
What come of Him – That Day –

The Frost – possess the World –
In Cabinets – be shown –
A Sepulchre of quaintest Floss –
An Abbey – a Cocoon –

In stanza one, I’m to believe “He” is vulnerable — always a good technique in a blooming romance, “He parts Himself — like Leaves — ”. A tactic I’ve fallen for more than once. 

Then, faster than a man can jump when a diaper starts to leak, “And then — He closes up — ”. Oh! the speed of it all. He then, “stands opon (her) Bonnet / ”, metaphorically, of course, but, when falling in love, who bothers about metaphors.  After all, I’m not “… Any Buttercup — ”

In the second stanza, “surprise!” when it begins to look like a one-night-stand, “And then He runs…”. Enough said. But, this is poetry, so let’s twist the knife. While he’s running “And oversets a Rose — / And then does Nothing (OMG) — / Then away opon a Jib — He goes — ”

Predictably, the third stanza has our lover asking himself if he should stay or go: “And dangles like a Mote / Suspended in the Noon — / Uncertain — to return Below — / Or settle in the Moon — ”. Moon, the astrologers tell us, is about emotion. 

Every leading man knows to throw in a bit of mystery to keep her interested: “What come of Him at Night / … Be limited by Ignorance — ”. The poem doesn’t say if this is a happily-ever-after affair. I suppose it depends on whether the two concerned are balanced by or obsessed with the mystery, “The Frost — (that) possess the World —”.

The fourth stanza: Will they be for show, or, will they represent the burial site of potential love, or each other’s safe harbour, “An Abbey — a Cocoon — ”.

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way

For all the time and energy spent on affairs of conscience and conscientious affairs, “The Spirit lasts — but in what mode — ” gives me the sense that destiny will have its way. Emily Dickinson’s poem suggests to me at least a temporary leave-taking from worry about outcomes and judgments.

The Spirit lasts – but in what mode –
Below, the Body speaks,
But as the Spirit furnishes –
Apart, it never talks –
The Music in the Violin
Does not emerge alone
But Arm in Arm with Touch, yet Touch
Alone – is not a Tune –
The Spirit lurks within the Flesh
Like Tides within the Sea
That make the Water live, estranged
What would the Either be?
Does that know – now – or does it cease –
That which to this is done,
Resuming at a mutual date
With every future one?
Instinct pursues the Adamant,
Exacting this Reply,
Adversity if it may be, or wild Prosperity,
The Rumor’s Gate was shut so tight
Before my Mind was sown,
Not even a Prognostic’s Push
Could make a Dent thereon –

I can’t imagine why I think this poem is more powerful read backward. Except that it reads to me like a who-dunnit. In this case, the mystery is what role spirit plays in the drama acted out by the body. 

The spirit cannot speak on its own. But, body, the speaker, is like a violin unable to provide music without it.

It might feel nice to touch a beautiful old violin discovered in my great aunt’s attic after a lifetime of silence. “… yet Touch / Alone — is not a Tune —”.

Perhaps my spirit and body have no grievance one with the other: “Like Tides within the Sea”. On the other hand, the two may be strangers, “estranged / What would the Either be?”

Either way, “Instinct pursues the Adamant / Exacting this Reply” from life itself. 

It matters not whether “Adversity if it may be, or wild Prosperity,” or, what others have to say. “Before my mind was sown,” not even the push of other’s expectations could have made “a Dent” on my destiny — to be the me who’s me.

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your way

Today I was directed by Arts & Letters Daily (www.aldaily.com) to an account of cultural conditions in the days of Emily Dickinson which ties them to Barack Obama’s politics, and emerging trends in science and religion. “We need literary prophets and social critics – but also intellectual mystics, agnostic gnostics, and neuro-Buddhists. Try Aldous Huxley… more»“.

One poem I like to read as both a visitation of and as evidence of the very seismic shifts discussed in that article is Dickinson’s “Dying! Dying in the night!”  For me, the poem diffuses tension on a personal level with the use of humor and insight into the importance of communication.  

Dying! Dying in the night!
Wont somebody bring the light
So I c see which way to go
Into the everlasting snow?

And “Jesus”! Where is Jesus gone?
They said that Jesus – always came –
Perhaps he doesn’t know the House –
This way, Jesus, Let him pass !

Somebody run to the great gate
And see if Dollie’s coming! Wait!
I hear her feet opon the stair!
Death wont hurt – now Dollie’s here!

I read of the pressures building up around the world for somebody, anybody “Wont somebody bring the light” to America and the world in economic darkness and religious extremism, etc. The need for reassurance is rampant worldwide, at just the time when strengthening traditional conflicts find there are even mightier threats being hatched. Are we all marching “Into the everlasting snow?”

Jeffrey Kripal, in today’s The Chronicle of Higher Education, says, “This, of course, is a cultural war that is still very much with us in the present debates around religion and science, belief and atheism, creationism and evolution. Add to that volatile mix the violent terrorism of radical Islam, the likely role of modern technology and carbon-burning fuels in global warming and the environmental crisis, and the ability of institutions and governments to monitor our thoughts and words in extraordinarily precise and effective ways, and you have all the ingredients for … what?”

What, indeed. 

The poem’s challenge to religion also reflects desperate conditions. “And “Jesus! Where is Jesus gone? / They said that Jesus — always came — Perhaps he doesn’t know the House — ”.

Dollie, the affectionate nickname for a friend, feels to me like a synonym for love.  Abandoning the steely-eyed pragmatism that infects most poems, the final verse returns to the “pre-poetic” condition of belief, or faith. Aligning itself with my desire for reassurance when external realities threaten, I am permitted my own ideas of how to face the unknown. 

What’s next? Real or symbolic, “Death won’t hurt — now Dollie’s here!”

 

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way