…it sometimes seems as if in her work a cat came at us speaking English… (Blackmur)
Reality leaves a lot to the imagination… (John Lennon)
I Trained to be a Teacher Between 1964 and 1968
They were great years! The first essay we had to write was to be called, without a second thought about political correctness, ‘What is an Educated Man?’ I remain now rather pleased with what I wrote all those years ago: an educated person is one who can deal with imponderables, keep all the plates spinning, and is generally one who has a high degree of toleration of ambiguity. I’ve been refining this point of view and, I hope, practising it, ever since.
This was before the days when education was taken over by the mechanists and those who labour under the totally mistaken impression that school is a preparation for work. We took part in keen debates about whether the purpose of school was to fit people into society or to train them to be able to change society. I don’t suppose they do that any more in training establishments for prospective teachers…
Now Capitalism has prevailed and the majority has been brain-washed into imagining that school is simply there to process little kids into becoming docile, compliant work-fodder who will focus on the pay-packet and cause no problems. To achieve this aim they are pumped full of Facts, Facts, Facts (Dickens: Hard Times 1854) which, it is assumed, can just be transmitted from one mind to another in the spirit of Gradgrind—the crude conduit metaphor of communication: ‘…Words, like little buckets, are assumed to pick up their loads of meaning in one person’s mind, carry them across the intervening space [or conduit], and dump them into the mind of another.’
The Great Text of the 1960’s was Language the Learner and the School by Barnes, Britton & Rosen who challenged the idea that teachers say things and children automatically learn what they say.
An absurd idea! At the next party you go to, ask a group of people individually to have in their minds what they associate with the word ‘cat’ and then tell you what their answers are. There is no one connotation for the word ‘cat’. Nor is there for any word under the sun…
What Price the Communications Revolution…?
‘Communication’ is only very vaguely concerned with transmitting Knowledge; to get to the much more important state of Understanding, one needs to DO something with raw data. Understanding, which is derived from Knowledge, is about negotiation, about something constructed between people talking to one another in order gradually to come to an approximation to some common position which might be described as ‘truth’, as JGBennett suggested…
The same process applies to the relationship between writer & reader…
Reading Emily Dickinson is about reconstructing multiple meanings.
She requires a different way of reading—more playful in spirit, maybe, setting aside feelings about a need to have one word following another in the usual ‘host of golden daffodils’ kind of way. She’s a poet about whom it may be said that she doesn’t really want to write poems, doesn’t wish to commit herself too strongly to one way of thinking/feeling/seeing things, and so we get just hints of possibilities.
To see the Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie—
True Poems flee—
When we read any poem to gain an often hard-won understanding we have to put ourselves into it in wrestling mode but usually we are provided with more obvious clues than Emily D gives us…
How can we find a way into the work of such a slippery poet-customer?
This is what I’m addressing… How can we establish a few general guidelines, templates, to aid understanding of her 1775 poems?
The conduit theory of communication will certainly not help us.
The first thing one might bear in mind when reading Emily Dickinson is that she is subject to great exultations, transports of delight, raptures, intoxications such that the excitement boils over into half-completed stabs at meaning—it’s as though she can’t get one bit of ecstasy on to the page quickly enough to be able to cage the next one. Hence, maybe, the frequent use of hyphens—a bit of typography one was always taught to avoid at school because it was supposed to indicate lazy thinking.
Is Emily D subject to the blight of lazy thinking or is it that she demonstrates extreme liquidity of thought processes without being able (or needing, from her point of view) to dam them all? This evolves into the question: Is the problem our inability to pin down meaning or her own lack of control? Then one asks is it lack of control or—bonfire mentality? The explosive expression of who and what she is—Bonfire Mentality, I’d say.
Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea.
Past the houses—past the headlands—
Into deep eternity—
Bred as we are among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?
First a seeming definition, if a rather strange one, of ‘exultation’; second we focus on ‘soul’, rather than physical being, then the mystery of an ‘inland soul’ only to find ourselves all at sea:-
Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea.
Then we’re suddenly flying over two-a-penny mundane houses and ordinary headlands into something extraordinary—‘deep eternity’. Suddenly, when things seem to be taking off, a hyphenated switch to acknowledge that ‘we’ are bred ‘among the mountains’; the implication is perhaps that, therefore, being used to dry land, we are not used to coping with this sea which is as deep as eternity. The question arises: if we were a sailor, to whom presumably the sea is as humdrum an event as solid earth is to us, would we get anything like ‘the divine intoxication’ of going into eternity away from dry land? For the sailor, being at sea is a merely ho-hum experience—the sailor would not get ‘the divine intoxication’. Do we, perhaps, neglect ‘the divine intoxication’ of the mountains?
There seems to be a whole chunk missing from the thought process; how exciting it is to be trusted to supply a possible explanation!
So often in Emily Dickinson’s poems there is this movement between two contrary states as though she’s on a pendulum:-
Also on a pendulum are feelings and their verbal expression; any writer gets stumped when it comes to translating a feeling or abstract notion into ordinary words. When one is lucky enough to experience a feeling—delight, for instance—it is so difficult to explain; you just can’t adequately ‘lift the lid’ on it—explanations run the risk of destroying the experience; we have to be ‘surprised by joy’ otherwise it ceases to be whatever it is we experience. Words imprison feelings.
A transport one cannot contain
May yet a transport be—
Though God forbid it lift the lid—
Unto its Ecstasy!
A Diagram—of Rapture!
A sixpence at a Show—
With Holy Ghosts in Cages!
The Universe would go!
You can be beside yourself with a transport of delight; delight transports you way beyond yourself; it cannot be contained (in a box with a notional lid, for example) and let’s not even try to lift the lid on an ecstasy (literally, the standing outside of yourself) God forbid that we should even think about doing so!
You can have a formal psychological explanation (a model or structure or diagram, for example, presenting possibilities) of Rapture—you could apply the model and figure out how this or that contributed to the emergence of a certain feeling and how it might perhaps be sustained; you could hand over your sixpenny piece and be present at a show consisting of ‘Holy Ghosts in Cages’, spiritual events isolated for scientific observation.
But in spite of all this, without seeking to trap a transport of delight, we can still have the experience—even if we can’t contain the experience it’s still an experience and we could easily be satisfied with that.
There are at least two outcomes: lock Rapture up in a showman’s booth and the spiritual-event-that-is-the-universe would suffer corruption or disappear (one possible meaning of ‘go’); on the other hand, manage to embody or ‘cage’ it in yourself and you’d be fizzing with the universe (another possible meaning of ‘go’—the universe would be made to operate in its totality, it would work).
Emily D never went very far from home or formed lasting attachments but her imagination roved widely and there seems always to be some male presence
In lands I never saw— they say
Immortal Alps look down—
Whose Bonnets touch the firmament—
Whose Sandals touch the town—
Meek at whose everlasting feet
A Myriad Daisy play—
Which, Sir, are you and which am I
Upon an August day?—
Precise Meaning Always Slips from our Grasp
All that’s possible is to keep doing one’s own commentary on the poems which may be slightly different each time one reads them. Rhetoric is designed to do that.
Emily D is simply sending us fleeting awarenesses. It’s as though her mind can never be made up conclusively; as though the intuition and the danger of a merely humdrum explanation just won’t work for her. All the effort is dissipated.
I felt a cleaving in my Mind—
As if my Brain had split—
I tried to match it—Seam by Seam—
But could not make them fit.
The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before—
But sequence ravelled out of Sound
Like Balls—upon a Floor.
Trying to fit Emily D’s ideas together proves to be impossible—the concrete image she chooses to express this successfully rescues us from being compelled to link her thoughts for her; all we’re left with is the sound of a load of ping-pong balls falling on a wooden floor. It seems like a dismissive gesture—“I can’t think about this any more…”—but a gesture which leaves something positive in the reader’s brain—if we cannot fit things together in a successfully joined-up way, at least we are left with something created by a very distinctive sound.
Daughter of a cold and aloof mother and a very ambitious father, Emily D became a virtual hermit from 1860 for the last, most productive, 26 years of her life to the extent that if there were visitors to the house she would speak to them from behind a more or less closed door. Being a female in a male-dominated society, she found it difficult to make headway as a poet—only a handful of her poems were published during her lifetime and they were doctored to make them less extraordinary in their design. One could imagine the hyphens being taken out by a red in the face teacher who had the belief that hyphens betokened mental laziness.
The pendulum images of Emily D’s poems are perhaps dictated by the pendulum alternatives she swung between in her life:-
Her way out of swinging between alternative irreconcilabilities was to settle for a unique kind of compelling rhetoric which gave her a personal authority that could not be gainsaid.
So there’s often the appearance of what one might call ‘normal communication’ after which some uncompromising rhythmic undertow begins to take over. The ‘normal’ becomes relatively bizarre as the poet’s focus goes down into the other-than-conscious mind.
I started Early—Took my Dog—
And visited the Sea—
OK, that seems perfectly ‘normal’; we’re on familiar territory here. But very quickly things become strange and somewhat detached for
The Mermaids in the Basement—
Came out to look at me—
And Frigates—in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands—
The sea has become a human living space with a basement and an upper floor. We are in some fairy-tale zone with mermaids looking at us and frigates not only beckoning to us but even making presumptions about our animal status.
Presuming Me to be a Mouse—
Aground—upon the Sands—
This flight of fancy then turns into something with sexual overtones—a man appears on the scene; the poet is unmoved by mermaids and frigates and certainly by the man (or by men in general…): she is unmoved by the tidal pull of sex. Well, that’s a possible reading!
But no Man moved Me—till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe—
And past my Apron—and my Belt
And past my Bodice—too—
She is being notionally undressed and the ubiquitous hyphens indicate either anticipation or increasing horror, or both, at the idea of the consuming male from out of the depths…
And made as He would eat me up—
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion’s Sleeve—
And then—I started—too—
Started? Started to get excited or started off to get away from her pursuer?
And He – He followed—close behind—
I felt His Silver Heel—
Upon my Ankle—Then my Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl—
Would she like to be consumed and flowing with pearls? We don’t know because suddenly we’re back in the ‘Solid Town’ where ‘he’ was a perfect stranger simply bowing to her and withdrawing…
Until We met the Solid Town—
No One He seemed to know—
And bowing—with a Mighty look—
At me—The Sea withdrew—
And so it turns out that Emily D has been having a great game with us, flirting with the reader by making out, in spite of little indications to the contrary, that there is a serious game of sex going on: but ‘He’ is simply ‘The Sea’. We re-read the poem in a different way and get the joke.
It’s the case that whenever a pronoun referring to the male of the species appears in a poem we are never sure who or what it refers to. There’s always some poetic dislocation to mirror Emily D’s own ‘cleavings; she writes as though her poems were an embodiment of herself—her rhetorical gestures make a poem—the poem is herself, her way of staking a claim in an alien universe.
It seems to have been important for Emily D not to be committed either to the world or to a male; she indicates that it is better never to consummate a relationship, better to live in a state of perpetual suspension, a total toleration of ambiguity, as we might say nowadays. Being always on the very edge of knowing generates a sense of Wonder; coming to a definite conclusion reduces things to the mundane. Flirting offers a meaning that is not quite a meaning unless one makes it so.
Wonder—is not precisely Knowing
And not precisely Knowing not—
A beautiful but bleak condition
He has not lived who has not felt—
Felt what? To live is simply to feel; or, more complexly, to live is to feel the ‘not precisely Knowing And not precisely Knowing not…’ So it’s not just a matter of feeling—to live is to go with contradictions, keeping them in balance; the outcome may seem pretty ‘bleak’ to an outsider but such a state of endless suspension in uncertainty can be ‘beautiful’, exhilarating, even. And what should we feel? The hyphen after the word ‘felt’ allows us to accept the principle that to live is to feel; but reading on beyond the hyphen presents us with the much broader step: to live is to feel suspense…
Suspense—is his maturer Sister—
Whether Adult Delight is Pain
Or of itself a new misgiving—
This is the Gnat that mangles men—
It is a sign of maturity, to arrive at the status of an ‘educated person’, to be able to live with imponderables; the Delight this provides is, paradoxically, painfully uncertain but it is also generative—small thing like a Gnat in the whole scope of things, Euclidean non-existent point between certainty and uncertainty, it leads us on constantly to seek for ways out of the resulting confusion. This is the stuff of life. Intentional suffering.
The Function of a Poet
A poet is literally a ‘maker’; the Greek root of the word suggests somebody who simply ‘does’, somebody who performs. Further, somebody who gives us a ‘renovation of experience’ as William Carlos Williams suggests
What’s the point of being a poet according to Emily Dickinson? She makes new and she performs—her poems are perhaps best read out loud so that due regard can be given to her rhetorical devices; at the hyphen the reader pauses, shrugs the shoulders, gestures with a pursing of the lips, makes a quizzical distortion of face and eyes to suggest that the listener must supply something of their own at that point. How often it happens!
This was a Poet—It is That
Distills amazing sense
From ordinary Meanings—
And Attar so immense
From the familiar species—
That perished by the Door—
We wonder it was not Ourselves
How come we other-than-poets don’t make something out of a distillation of Rose before the petals fall outside our very own door? What distinguishes a poet from mere mortals is that she can ‘distill amazing sense from ordinary meanings’.
The poet makes a record of pictures (metaphors, icons, images, symbols) that we might well have missed without her guidance. Emily D refers to the part of her that does poetry as ‘He’, maybe to hide herself but also perhaps out of the very old-fashioned belief that making poetry is a male pursuit under the hospitality of a female Muse. But she was a woman of her time. She was also an ironist & flirt.
Of Pictures, the Discloser—
The Poet—it is He—
Entitles Us—by Contrast—
To ceaseless Poverty—
Whatever, when we ordinary folk mechanically accept the view that the poet is something special, we choose to give ourselves leave not to attempt to capture ‘amazing sense from ordinary meanings’—we’ll leave all that stuff to the poets as professionals and so entitle ourselves to a ‘ceaseless poverty’ of spirit or
Of Portion—so unconscious—
The Robbing—could not harm—
Himself—to Him—a Fortune—
Syntactical disintegration at this point suggests a descent into the other-than-conscious once more. We can, if we wish, fill in the gaps to elucidate the hopelessness of piecing things together: when we condemn ourselves to poverty of spirit by, in virtual space, negating our human potential as poets, we don’t harm ourselves by choosing to rob ourselves of it because it’s a Fortune that’s outside of Time, incomprehensible to us; what we don’t know about we can’t miss. Only the poet is truly ‘exterior to Time’, heir to a Fortune.
I’d rather stick with Emily D’s way of saying something like this!
Poem as Interplay between Conscious and Other-than-conscious
This is how I conceive of Emily D’s characteristic working process. It might be argued that this is how all poets work but I’d say it’s markedly so here. She starts with a definition or an ‘normal’ world activity in the top circuit of the Figure of Eight but she will very soon dive down into the ‘internal milieu’ of other-than-conscious images felt pre-verbally in the body before they surface into what seems, in expression, very much like the stuff of dream.
mind—produces text, syntactical meanings bearing some relationship to facts in the outside world
body—yields up non-verbal associations, symbols, images
A full work-out of the Figure of Eight model is to be found at
Emily D doesn’t effect to present whole pictures—she flirts—she offers hints, dances endlessly round the Figure of Eight, Her poems are units of force—pulses—intended to grab rhetorically rather than exist as fully-formed aesthetic objects.
What she does very successfully recreate is the fragmentary state of the mind. Your mind has been flipping from thing to thing as you’ve been half-reading my words, just as mine has while I’ve been writing them: is it still raining?—shall I make a cup of coffee?—which poem can I connect with what I’ve just said?—I begin to feel a little cold—this chair’s a little uncomfortable or is it the way I’m sitting… Our mental life consists of millions of fragments, well, mine does anyway… Emily D brilliantly captures and conveys fragmentariness. And, what’s really nice is that, as in ‘Real Life’, we always seem to be teetering on the brink of understanding’. She offers ‘…those invaluable seeds, from which, since it is impossible to have every experience fully, one can grow something that represents other people’s experiences. Often one has to make do with seeds; the germs of what might have been… like those rapid glances, for example, that I cast into basements when I walk in London streets…’ (Virginia Woolf: Moments of Being)
Probing the Self
Whatever she does, Emily D does it with a great sense of humour
I felt my life with both my hands
To see if it was there—
I held my Spirit to the Glass,
To prove it possibler—
‘Possibler’… than what? More possible to see Spirit in a mirror than an image of one’s body? The eyes being the windows of the soul? Looking for something concrete—feeling ‘life’ with both hands. Turning ‘Being round and round’, pausing at the sight of every pound of flesh, or maybe at every dog pound, to ask—What am I doing here? Who am I? Afraid to ask the owner of this apparition’s name for fear of not understanding the answer…
I turned my Being round and round
And paused at every pound
To ask the Owner’s name—
For doubt, that I should know the Sound—
And so she resorts to poking & probing bits of her face, a more concrete approach to the hitherto abstract investigation…
I judged my features—jarred my hair—
I pushed my dimples by, and waited—
If they—twinkled back—
Conviction might, of me—
If there was the least little ‘twinkle’ of recognition she might make a bit of progress in the matter of finding out a sense of who & what she might be in this vale of tears.
I told myself, “Take Courage, Friend—
That— was a former time—
But we might learn to like the Heaven,
As well as our Old Home!”
Again a dismissive gesture—courage, mon ami, let’s just get on with life, swinging on the pendulum between Amherst and Eternity to locate heaven at home, Attar in a familiar species.
For two pieces on the way the pendulum works as a way of thinking in general see:-
3 thoughts on “Emily Dickinson, Pendulums and Cleavings (R8)”
Thank you Colin for this very illuminating introduction to the fantastic pendular turnings of Emily Dickinson’s amazing poetry! Indeed her fertile imagination teaches that Eternity is found in ordinary places.
Awesome! I wish someone had done this analysis of ED when I was in college!!!!!
I pulled my hair apart to understand ED’s ambiguity. I started to understand Emily D much later. Loved the way you presented this.
Thank you Colin.
I agree! Emily Dickinson once said she wanted her poems to breathe. I can’t remember the name of the man who became a confidant of Emily, but he said her presence was like being next to a strong current of electricity. I’ve had the pleasure of sitting with poets and talking at length about her poetry, both in and out of classrooms, and I’ve also had the pleasure of writing in my journals my own musings on some of her poems. This essay brings something new to this great poet, something I’ll return to many times, and share with others. Below is a found poem I wrote after reading Colin’s essay.
While reading sly Emily –
in a chair still and bleak – improbable
in air thick and dark – Another came
to my hand – some form
stripped of pity’s delight –
my count in repose to fill
As I was ill I did not sleep –
no light or song of love – in wooded
hills where I was born – high above the frill
It placed me there alone.