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

A gift for all the people in a group, committee, club or family is a non-starter if I expect to be loved or remembered for the gesture. If you like the idea that a gift to a friend will become a cherished keepsake, a small trinket that costs little or nothing is the best bet. Emily Dickinson, in “’Tis Customary as we part”, gets at the emotion of successful gift-giving.

‘Tis customary as we part
A trinket – to confer –
It helps to stimulate the faith
When Lovers be afar —

‘Tis various – as the various taste –
Clematis – journeying far –
Presents me with a single Curl
Of her Electric Hair –

This little poem, (unlike hundreds of Dickinson poems that describe, analyze and push the limits of language to dramatize loss), focuses on a practical implement that assumes significance only because the people we love are not always close to hand. Nothing amplifies feelings like parting, which the poem uses to universalize itself. I notice the contrast between the immeasurable quality of “we part” and the diminutive connotation of “A trinket – to confer -”. The point being that a token of affection may be infinitely more important than relics of memory alone as a way to keep affections alive.  A reminder in my pocket, drawer or frame has the potential to turn a frown caused by time and distance into a smile, “When Lovers be afar – ”. No token too small. A contrivance! Be that as it may, any little item can become a memorial if it is associated with a priceless memory.

Only the very rich can give automobiles, Tiffany jewelry or, say, a Rembrandt painting. Even these gifts are likely to be held in limited regard if they don’t symbolize palpable, shared love. If a gift will be one that “.. helps to stimulate the faith” it must strike at the heart of the bond between family or other loved ones.

The important element for any gift, if it is to hold its significance, is attentiveness to variety, the kind that fits the variety in tastes among individuals. “’Tis various – as the various taste – ”.

Clematis, or “travelers joy,” is in knowing, or relying on, the quality of loyalty of a loved one.  Joy is symbolically carried with me because I have certain trinkets, like trophies, as reminders to me of the emotional tie between us. Holiday gifts that we give for Christmas, Hanukkah and memorializations of other religions, along with birthdays, serve to “stimulate the faith” as we travel the calendar or “… journeying far”.

There are all kinds of presents. There are all kinds of relationships. The one thing that is constant is the stirring quality, perhaps even explosive element of  “.. a single Curl / Of her Electric Hair -”.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Demands and temptations of the outside world can cause me to lose track of what I really want in life – my goals and objectives.  Emily Dickinson’s, “I cautious, scanned my little life”, takes stock, while considering unintentional, misappropriated and fateful influences on inner feelings and personal desires.

I cautious, scanned my little life –
I winnowed what would fade
From what w’d last till Heads like mine
Should be a-dreaming laid.

I put the latter in a Barn –
The former, blew away.
I went one winter morning
And lo, my priceless Hay

Was not upon the “Scaffold” –
Was not upon the “Beam” –
And from a thriving Farmer –
A Cynic, I became.

Whether a Thief did it –
Whether it was the wind –
Whether Deity’s guiltless –
My business is, to find!

So I begin to ransack!
How is it Hearts, with Thee?
Art thou within the little Barn
Love provided Thee?

I may want to do an Emily Dickinson and withdraw from the outside world to cut through the ideas that govern my life and separate what I want from someone else’s expectations: “I winnowed what would fade”.

The idea of a time-honored practice of self examination shows up in the first and last stanzas’ use of old English punctuation like “w’d,” and “a’dreaming,” and the personal pronouns “thou,” and “thee.”

But, a very present-day word like “cautious” connotes being on the lookout for dangerous or opportunistic effects to “my little life -”, one that may be tender, vulnerable. I’m tempted also to read “clueless” into this diminutive term for the self. If we’re vigilant/cautious we are watchful for a purpose. So the self in this poem takes on two personas: the one who needs looking after and the one who is circumspect. The cautious one is alert to the dangers and errors that can cause treachery or trickery to the “little life.”

I find it helpful for grasping meaning in “I put the latter in a Barn -” to draw from the final stanza.

“Art thou within the little Barn/Love provided Thee?” Am I synchronized — are my goals/objectives in tune with my inner feelings and personal desires? When “I put the latter (what w’d last) in a Barn -” my brain/barn may not remain in tune with my feelings and personal desires if I mistake society’s or an authoritative-powerful other’s judgment for my own.

For, “…my priceless Hay”, the very trajectory of my life, may lose its bearings, causing me to discover it “Was not upon the “Scaffold” -/Was not upon the “Beam” -”. When I go full speed ahead with a project that I judge to be meaningful in some way only to realize in the course of events that by continuing to give it time and energy I am robbing myself of accomplishment in ventures that express the very essence of me, I must develop a healthy skepticism. “And from a thriving Farmer -/A Cynic, I became.”

All sorts of scenarios play out when I think of “farming my brain” for new words and ways to use them. But, you may ask, are these ways consistent with the brain “Love provided Thee?”

Ponder A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way

Postscript: I am indebted to participants in the lively conversation yesterday of the Emily Dickinson International Society Poetry Conversation, which took place at our local library. The comments made and the shared ideas about this poem showed me more than I’d suspected through my solitary reading and sent me on a search for more.

Nobody left a pile of money on my doorstep today. No long lost love has called. I am simply in a mood to see my everyday conditions and circumstances, comings and goings, as more gleeful than usual. Emily Dickinson’s “In many and reportless places” reflects on this mysterious happiness that occurs like a visitation from some kind of benevolent angel.

In many and reportless places
We feel a Joy –
Reportless, also, but sincere as Nature
Or Deity –

It comes, without a consternation –
Dissolves – the same –
But leaves a sumptuous Destitution –
Without a Name –

Profane it by a search – we cannot –
It has no home –
Nor we who having once inhaled it –
Thereafter roam.

Coincidentally, perhaps, I am looking forward to a get together this evening with friends and neighbors to have fun, dance, and simply socialize and talk.  However, I think I would feel this way whether or not there were activities going on.

Today I woke aware of being among the, “We (who) feel a Joy – / Reportless, also, but sincere as Nature / Or Deity –. It is indeed “Nature” that has acted on me, without plan, without motive, without even consciousness. The delicious privacy of this kind of inner transaction provides for a sense of connectedness.

Unlike those “bad moods” that act to create an unexplainable wedge sometimes.  Yesterday was, by contrast, more like an infestation! For no apparent reason, I looked for an argument. I found myself trying to upstage someone in a conversation from which I had absolutely nothing to benefit. Today has a different feel altogether. I don’t particularly feel like discussing serious matters, I am enjoying a state of mind, “It comes, without a consternation -”.

Experience, like that of the speaker’s in the poem, tells me it will sooner or later, “Dissolve – the same -” as it arrived – inexplicably. The present tense used in the poem fascinates me in the poignancy it lends to the wistful, rueful nostalgia that takes over when it, “But leaves a sumptuous Destitution – / Without a Name -”.

It is in this tenor of life that I realize there is a considerable amount of love in everyday affairs. The poem adds another layer of experience by reminding me of the impossibility of guaranteeing myself the best attitude for every situation: “Profane it by a search – we cannot – / It has no home -”. If I wish to accept the lesson it offers, I notice that the poem deems it “profane,” the opposite of “Nature,” the antithesis of “Deity,” to try to pin down, or make happen, this graceful spirit.

On my own I would not see the comparison the poem seems to establish between not having to search-for-affection and “home.” The little irony of there being no origin, “no home” for this provisional mood, and its effect of making me feel “at home” in my own skin and surroundings is one of the charms of the poem.

I wonder how many people go through life without appreciating the love that pops up in unpredictable ways all the time. To become aware of the connectedness I feel in simple ways, as well as the important ones, is to have a richness of experience that cannot be bought. “Nor we who having once inhaled it – /Thereafter roam.”

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Emily Dickinson persuades us with the allure of beauty and its devastating seductions in “Nobody knows this little Rose – ”. Exquisite grace, in a little Rose, or other form of beauty, takes part of its appeal from its intrinsic vulnerability.

Nobody knows this little Rose –
It might a pilgrim be
Did I not take it from the ways
And lift it up to thee.
Only a Bee will miss it –
Only a Butterfly,
Hastening from far journey –
On its breast to lie –
Only a Bird will wonder –
Only a Breeze will sigh –
Ah Little Rose – how easy“
For such as thee to die!

When reading this poem, I first visualize a pretty little rose going unnoticed, except by me.  This vision is accompanied by a tugging emotion.

As “It might a pilgrim be” may indicate a purpose other than the one I attribute it, so also could the “Little Rose”‘s beauty be something intended just for me. (In the 11th line a capitalized “title” replaces the all-inclusive little Rose in the first line.) Similarly, important choices about identity, career and family must entertain alternatives.

In the background of my thoughts I’m compelled to wonder how many other charming examples of wooing-nature, either in my own character or my environment, suffer the fate of being barely missed when I “…take it from the ways” that are available to me when I act on my own volition.

When I follow a particular path in my life, perhaps I fulfill my destiny, “And lift it up to thee.” Typically, however, someone — a parent, friend or employer has other ideas. In fact, I may be removing myself from another purpose where someone needs me to be, as in, “Only a Bee will miss it – / Only a Butterfly, / Hastening from far journey – / On its breast to lie -”.

Feel the drama. Praise, and pay tribute to, the discovery of purpose. Mourn the dismissed alternative. Let your heartstrings be pulled. “Ah Little Rose – how easy” to be, after all.

But, of course, the contest, the tension derives from the evenly matched deftness with which we may choose something else, some other way, “to be.” “For such as thee to die!” Some alternative must always be set aside. And, we cannot hope for complete anonymity in our choices. Even if, “Only a Bird will wonder – / Only a Breeze will sigh – ”.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Few incidents prompt me to reach for a love poem-sorry about regrets-more than loss. Emily Dickinson’s “I’m sorry for the Dead – Today -” recognizes the crushing quality of lost opportunities and squandered relationships. The poem’s tone teaches, prescribes, the necessity for orienting away from death’s overwhelming potential for its survivors. Its lyrical, compassionate rendering avoids looking full-face into the tragedy, just as the grief-stricken must do.

I’m sorry for the Dead – Today –
It’s such congenial times
Old Neighbors have at fences –
It’s time o’ year for Hay,

And Broad – Sunburned Acquaintance
Discourse between the Toil –
And laugh, a homely species
That makes the Fences smile –

It seems so straight to lie away
From all of the noise of Fields –
The Busy Carts – the fragrant Cocks –
The Mower’s Metre – Steals

A Trouble lest they’re homesick –
Those Farmers – and their Wives –
Set separate from the Farming –
And all the Neighbors’ lives –

A Wonder if the Sepulchre
Don’t feel a lonesome way –
When Men – and Boys – and Carts – and June,
Go down the Fields to “Hay” –

Acceptance and avoidance are perfectly balanced in this poem. Look at Dickinson’s use of the same word, “Hay”, twice. An equilibrium is established with the alternating “Hay” in the first and last stanza; and, in the last line of each. The first, “It’s time o’ year for Hay,” denotes a celebration of life. The second, “Go down the Fields to ‘Hay’ – ” contextually invites acceptance of final conclusions.

As a poem written right smack in the middle of the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) there were thousands of deaths each day from both sides. There would have been tens of thousands of mourners going about their day with a weak hold on their emotions.  But emotions had to be carried to keep society and government intact. If everyone who was mourning soldiers were to become hysterical how much more could be lost.

The second stanza speaks for our attachment to meandering “Discourse between the Toil – ”. Aren’t we humans characterized by a yearning for unpredictable “…laugh, a homely species”. Easy-going conversations, or even a penchant for gossip “That makes the Fences smile -”.

Then, our poor minds wander, thinking in spite of ourselves: “It seems so straight to lie away/From all of the noise…” So that even the ones we gossiped about yesterday have become “Those Farmers – and their Wives – /Set separate from the Farming -/And all the Neighbors’ lives -”.

“Wonder” is an intentional attempt, I believe, to be low-key, measured, working toward calm, avoiding panic. Yet, not prettifying the truth of the burial chamber as epitome of “… a lonesome way – ”.

Then, a scene that would summon back memories of practically every family’s ordeal during the Civil War, and thousands in our day, “When Men – and Boys – and Carts – and June,” form a deadly, military parade. In this portrayal of Hay, death takes its place in the continuum of life, another type of harvest. “A homely species.”

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way