Tag Archives: poem

“the scariest poet since Emily Dickinson”

The Poetry Foundation podcast, Poetry Off the Shelf, has recently re-broadcast a piece about Rae Armantrout, “More Than Meets the I,” whom Ange Milenko calls “the scariest poet since Emily Dickinson.”

Readers who are drawn in by Dickinson’s gnomic, witty, sharp verse would be well-advised to try Armantrout. Like Dickinson, she takes on big topics–the nature of the self, the meaning of love and pity, the way language works or doesn’t–in brief, clever poems that pack much into a short space. Her poems are short, but by no means easy; they’re puzzling, sometimes inscrutable, and haunting.

The thrust of Milenko’s piece is that Armantrout stands apart from most contemporary American poets by her use (or, more often than not, non-use) of “I.” She’s not a confessional poet; we don’t learn anything significant about her private life from her poems, much the way Dickinson’s private life is veiled (and made that much more open to overwrought speculation for its invisibility). Instead, she offers a cool and detached “I,” an observer and commentator but not a participant.

It’s this detachment that makes her scary, in the way Dickinson can be scary. Armantrout doesn’t offer just pithy observations; she offers riddles about important things told in a seemingly off-handed manner. But she doesn’t offer answers to those riddles.

You can read more Armantrout at the Poetry Foundation site, or dip into some of her books:

My friend must be a bird

The most unsociable of poets meets the latest in social media! In addition to visiting Daily Dickinson, you can get updates from this project on Facebook, Twitter, through a Google Gadget you can add to your own pages, through RSS, and in your e-mail:

Sweet Skepticism of the Heart

On January 12, 2009, the words of Emily Dickinson will return to the London Underground. Not, though, as part of the Poems on the Underground series, which has featured Much madness is divinest sense, I taste a liquor never brewed, and There came a Wind like a Bugle in the past.

Instead, two lines from Dickinson will be part of the British Humanist Association’s Atheist Bus campaign:

That it will never come again
Is what makes life so sweet.

Believing what we don’t believe
Does not exhilarate.

That if it be, it be at best
An ablative estate —
This instigates an appetite
Precisely opposite.

The campaign on the Underground will also feature Douglas Adams, Albert Einstein, and Katherine Hepburn. The choice–of Dickinson in general, and these words in particular–is thought-provoking.

Dickinson was certainly a skeptic. Though she lived in a world charged with religious and spiritual fervor–the last waves of the Second Great Awakening, Calvinist pietism, Emersonian Transcendentalism–she paddled against the general stream. Though she attended the Mount Holyoke Seminary, Dickinson never “converted” like so many of her peers. “Christ is calling everyone here,” she wrote in an 1850 letter, “all my companions have answered, even my darling Vinnie believes she loves, and trusts him, and I am standing alone in rebellion.”

But an atheist? I’m not entirely convinced. Dickinson’s approach to religion was certainly ironic, skeptical, sometimes sacrilegious, often playful. In her poems about death in particular, she strikes some pretty hard blows against religious beliefs. Safe in their alabaster chambers, for example, notes the eternal sleep of the “meek members of the resurrection” while “[g]rand go the years in the crescent above them”; Death, for Dickinson, is a particular Eternity, with no sounding trumpet on Judgment Day.

But God–or a god of some sort–is strongly present in many of her poems. In some cases, it seems to be a Calvinist God–remote, unknowable, harsh. In other cases, as in her poems about the loss of loved ones, there seems to be a consoling God:

They perished in the seamless grass, –
No eye could find the place;
But God on his repealless list
Can summon every face.

More often, “God” seems to be a metaphor for something–universal order, the grandeur of nature, time–larger than the individual. There’s much vastness in these short poems, and much wonder. Dickinson certainly rejects the trappings of church and piety, and is at the very least unorthodox, heretical, and strongly critical of religion. But she is very much of her time and place all the same, and not easily made to fit into contemporary atheist or humanist garb. If anything, she reminds me most of the Nontheist Friends, a particularly slippery sort of Quaker.

That the Atheist Bus campaign picked this particular Dickinson poem, and these specific lines, is interesting. It’s certainly an aphoristic statement, and it echoes the “stop worrying and enjoy your life” catchphrase of the campaign. But the second two lines–“Believing what we don’t believe / Does not exhilarate”–seems more consistent with Dickinson’s poetry, and, to be honest, much less trite; I could almost picture “That it will never come again / Is what makes life so sweet” printed on the pedestal of a “Precious Moments” figurine. There are better, more searing quotes available–her poem on the inefficacy of prayer, for example, or her playful mocking of a Heavenly afterlife:

I ‘m glad I don’t believe it,
For it would stop my breath,
And I ‘d like to look a little more
At such a curious earth!
I am glad they did believe it
Whom I have never found
Since the mighty autumn afternoon
I left them in the ground.

We need to be careful when marshaling the dead to our contemporary causes, particularly the subtle dead like Dickinson. Her concerns were not necessarily ours, and her approach to doubt and faith much more nuanced than what we hear now on either side of the debate. I don’t know that she’d be bothered to be on the Atheist Bus posters–she’d probably find it more than a little funny–but her smile would be more than a touch wry.

meet me at sunrise, or sunset, or the new moon

At the intersection of family history and literary scholarship, Carol Damon Andrews has found what may be the secret source of much of Emily Dickinson’s most interesting and passionate poetry: a doomed love affair with George Gould.

Gould was a student at Amherst College at the time, and a friend of Dickinson’s brother Austin. He worked on the Dickinson farm before going west to work on the railroads, and returned to Amherst to follow a career as a respected clergyman. And, according to the journal of Andews’ ancestor Ann Eliza Houghton Penniman, he was briefly engaged to Emily Dickinson, before her father “vetoed the whole affair, . . . and poor Emily’s heart was broken.”

Andrews is not the first to have proposed the Gould engagement theory; Genevieve Taggard explored the possibility in The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson in 1930, presenting the “purloined valentine” that Taggard argued was intended for Gould. 1930, though, was a bit too close still to 1886, and Taggard’s search for Dickinson’s doomed love affair was quashed by the Dickinson family and the scholarly world. Dickinson as lovelorn spinster remains the received image of her, rather than Dickinson the passionate young woman.

Published in the June issue of The New England Quarterly, Andrews’ article discloses not only the sketch of this doomed affair but also Dickinson’s early musical education. Both revelations are of interest to Dickinson scholars and readers: that the musicality of her poetry has its roots at an earlier age than previously suspected (she was eight years old in the Penniman journal), and that her aching, longing love poetry is grounded in an all-too-real disappointment, enrich our understanding of her poetry, and add a human dimension to the “Belle of Amherst” prism through which we too often see her life.

That there was a flesh and blood source for Dickinson’s love poems–often bitter, frequently playful, sometimes passionate–should not come as a surprise to those who’ve spent some time reading them. And should come, too, as a relief to those who have shared with Dickinson “the kind of early romantic entanglement and disappointment that so many young people have,” as Christopher Benfey has it in Slate, that she made something so extraordinary from such ordinary sources.

Posting Schedule: Resuming August 20, 2008

After our long summer hiatus (which is not in any way to be confused with a vacation…), the Daily Dickinson poetry feed will resume on August 20, 2008. Enough daily poems are queued up to keep things rolling on a daily schedule for a good while.

Also starting on August 20: the Weekly Whitman site will do with Walt Whitman what Daily Dickinson has done with Emily Dickinson (though on a weekly rather than daily basis): regular poetry features, a photograph that captures the mood of the verse, and the occasional odd bit of news and linkage.

On the surface, no two poets are more dissimilar than Dickinson and Whitman. I think of Dickinson’s wry smile and ironic voice, against Whitman’s boisterous laugh and barbaric yawp; Whitman’s scatter shot verse against Dickinson’s precision; the tight, structured lines of Dickinson suspended between dashes, against the sprawling lines of Whitman that are too large to be contained by human pages; Whitman abroad in the world, roaming beyond the world, and Dickinson secluded in her rooms and garden while her mind travels through strange eternities.

And yet, these two poets share quite a lot as well. They are unmistakably American, making new kinds of poetry and inventing their own languages to express modern ideas. They are deeply concerned with the Soul–both tend to capitalize the word–but not so much concerned with orthodoxy. Strong personalities both, and complex; both contain, and revel in, their contradictions.

The pleasures of reading Dickinson and Whitman are certainly different; Whitman’s voice is thrilling in its cadences and in love with its loudness, while Dickinson invites us in close for whispered secrets that we may not understand until long after we’ve read her lines. But pleasure a-plenty lurks in both.

I sing to use the Waiting

According to the Dublin Evening Herald, people waiting at the Naas Hospital Kildare and other places around the region will have the chance to read a little poetry instead of just out-of-date celebrity rags and old medical journals.

Poems in the Waiting Room is a pilot arts project funded by Kildare County Council. The idea was driven by Kildare-based writer Kate Dempsey.

It was inspired by pieces of public sculpture dotted across the country. The idea is to make poetry an art form that is available in ordinary everyday places.

The project has a web site, too, from which you can download a poster-sized version of Dickinson’s “Hope,” watch Alan Rickman recite Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”), or read Leigh Hunt’s Jenny Kissed Me, a sweet little poem about Thomas Carlyle’s wife.

Similar to the various poems-on-public-transit projects, like the recent Wilkes-Barrie Poetry in Transit or the famous Poems on the Underground in London, the Poems in the Waiting Room project seeks to slip poetry into the fallow spaces of our lives and enrich the unsuspecting with a few well-chosen words. Given the rate at which video monitors and loud music have colonized gas pumps and grocery-store lines, this incursion of verse is certainly welcome.

buttons, ribbons. feathers and lace

Book artist Charles Hobson interpreted Billy Collins’ “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” in a wonderfully inventive way; reading this book requires one to deal with mother-of-pearl buttons with a “light forward pull” and contend with the “hook-and-eye fastener” to get to the pages between the covers.

Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes

While you’re visiting Hobson’s site, be sure to look at the other interpretations he offers: of stories and essays by Barry Lopez, poems by Richard Wilbur and Margaret Atwood, paintings and monotypes by Edgar Degas, and Balzac’s thoughts on coffee. They are rich and tactile expressions that merge words and print and paper and images in fascinating ways.

From Beyond the Grave

Kurt Anderson’s Studio 360 rebroadcasts a 2006 piece on Emily Dickinson as part of the show’s American Icons series. Focusing on Dickinson’s The Chariot (a.k.a. “Because I could not stop for Death”), the piece highlights the strange and gnomic characteristics of Dickinson’s poetry, particularly as opposed to the loquacious style of the Fireside Poets.

Interviewed for the show was Belinda West, who portrays Dickinson (among others) for the Vermont Humanities Council, PBS and the History Channel. She wove Dickinson’s words about the perils of publication (“the auction of the Mind of Man”) and the pitfalls of fame into her responses in a natural, witty way.

The “common meter” peril–singing Dickinson to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” “Gilligan’s Island,” or any number of hymns–is, of course, brought up; but so is the wordplay and subtlety of the poems that Dickinson dressed in such homespun garb. (Or in gossamer gown and tulle tippet; Billy Collins has his say, too, with thoughts on taking off Emily Dickinson’s clothes.)