A Tiny Essay on Poem #826 by Emily Dickinson

A woman, Emily Dickinson, in a black and white photograph, is sitting next to a desk.

Just for y’all:

I wrote this essay for a free course on modern poetry that I’m currently enrolled in on Coursera. The class has been a really interesting exercise and I’ve gotten to read some poets that I’m woefully under-versed (pun intended) in. This short essay was just such an opportunity that I relished! Now I’m going to have to further bone up on my Dickinson.

Seriously, if you have any interest in learning about the history of contemporary poetry for free, you should check it out.

Also, this essay was given a word limit so it does jump right in pretty cold. I also don’t do a ton of verbatim quotes of phrases in the essay, so it may be worthwhile to refer to the text if you get lost. You can find the tiny, powerful poem here.

“Love” in the first line gives us images of affection or intensity of emotion. “Reckons” is tied to calculating, acting, but also can be used to mean “to rely upon.” “Itself” injects self-reference–love must be self-reliant and rely upon or calculate love. “Alone” set off by dashes and left lowercased underlines this self-reference and gives a feeling of singularity or solitary action. Even the choice to set it apart with two dashes and leave it lowercase underlines the loneliness and solitary notion.

The second line begins with a quotation that is a comparison. Perhaps “love” or “alone” is meant to be seen “as large as I,” but this is vague with the form of the poem. Dickinson refuses to use periods or comma and gives us breaks with dashes and line breaks. Regardless, “large” also connects to intensity–something that overwhelms another with its size. “I” in the comparison reminds us of the established self-reference and self-reliance.  After a dash, “Sun” also connects to intensity, power, and enormity while adding light. The third line offers “One” that is placed in a comparison with “Sun” enjambed across the line break; “One” in the comparison pointing to singularity and personhood. There seems to be two comparisons: “Love” is to “I” as the “Sun” is to “One.”

But the third line tells as that “One” has never felt “it blaze.” This lonely point hasn’t experienced the warmth or enormity of the sun. So while we have two comparisons–both seeming to draw an equivalence of size or magnitude–while knowing that the “One” has never experienced the “Sun.” From this point, we could potentially assume that the “I” has never felt “Love.” By giving the two relations that are to be taken as equal, we are to suppose this further extension of the comparison from the third line.

The final line (ending the poem with a dash, in kind with the rest of the lines) drives again at solitude and selfhood with “Itself” and “it.” It is not clear precisely what “it” is (perhaps it is Love or it is the self), but we are shown that “it” is alone and while it may be as great as “Love” or the “Sun,” “it” has not experienced those.

This riddle around an identity’s lack of love or sun leaves a lonely image, but refuses to relent by insisting that the self is just as great. Dickinson refuses to lament or whither in loneliness, but affirms it and affirms her own style of punctuation and twisting poetry that dares you to enter the practice of reading it.

On understanding: a quick note

I hold all truths to be self-evident.

I need not think further. I turn
in a stream of concrete
and polaroids encased in superglue.

What is the meaning of thirteen
blackbirds? To peel
the wings off? To pluck
the feathers?

To tear the beak off?
To rip out the ribs and find some pearl hidden in still-hot entrails?
Will a jewel give this meat

Will will will words worthy winnings?

The meaning is that it is.

The misconception is that all things are here for you. Not everything is made for you to consume without thought or work. Not every smattering of words is made for you to cut up and find A Meaning. Some things are here as nebulous and relational. You get out what you put in, filling the mortar between the rough stones to complete the wall. Don’t be so stupid as to suggest that something is bad because you aren’t spoonfed an easy story.

Lyn Hejinian’s enjambment and thesis statement

The image of a portion of the cover of a book, "The Book of a Thousand Eyes" by Lyn Hejinian, published by Omnidawn Press. ISBN-10: 1890650579

I recently made my way through Lyn Hejinian’s “The Book of a Thousand Eyes.” Coming out over 300 pages, this work is a lengthy and interesting meditation on sleep, night, perspective, and narrative.

It is tempting to take a poem and hone in on how it is or isn’t an example of language poetry, but I want to look at a specific poem. It is the first poem that ends with the first indicated break at “Of a mummy! what sort of individual is that?”

What made my ears perk up as I read this poem was not the “language” aspects of the discussion (though, her use of words and categories as poles of the poem is remarkable), but I was drawn to the ends of lines and the enjambment that she uses to craft a poem that leaps from line to line. Further than that, Hejinian starts the poem switch-hitting: she throws us a line that acts as a thesis statement or summation of the content and action of the poem. This first thought inhabits and haunts much of the rest of the body of this poem.

Let’s look at a few lines in particular to see how this enjambment works.

Mounted on a sorrel rocking horse

Whose reins are made of braided hair

And whose saddle is slipping like a continental plate

Around a diamond

Because the girth is loose and we’re bound

On a crash course. . .

Her bag full of images are impeccable, even in this middle section. She gives us things that loosely connect: a sorrel rocking horse, reins, braided hair, saddle, bound, crash. There’s a continental plate, a diamond, and a crash course that are also loosely connected. But there is no final punctuation; this is, presumably, part of one long sentence with many disparate images that play off of and against one another.

However, notice the way that Hejinian stitches them together!

The final word of each line is the needle and thread that holds this multi-chambered thought together. It is comparable to Gregory Pardlo’s Pulitzer prize winning “Digest,” which used enjambment to make the final word of each line the pivot point of two divergent clauses. Hejinian uses these images and words as the thread that binds lines together (to both immediately adjacent lines and even earlier lines of the poem). “Horse” obviously ties to its own line, and stitches “reins.” “Hair” connects to “horse” and “reins” while stitching “saddle.” “Plate” to “diamond.” The poem goes on and on like that, using the enjambment of these huge, grammatically questionable sentences to piece together the conflicting images into constellations.

I didn’t forget about that summary that precedes the poem!

What a curious convention to break. Amateur poets give summary lines at the end that spell out too much of the magic of a poem. Unpracticed poets don’t trust the audience and kill the animal by picking it apart and giving it an anatomy chart stapled to its back. Hejinian makes a rookie mistake on purpose and has this summation carry the poem forward, rather than killing the end. Hejinian takes a conventional no-no, thumbs her nose at it, and turns it on its head.

“Ideas cross empty spaces in a game” begins the piece. This lays out the play of the poem, the constellations of ideas versus images that circle around rural or farm life, around county fairs, around childhood, around tragedies, around girlhood, and around womanhood. This first line sets up the disjunctive of the poem by setting ideas (mental constructs) apart from things (perhaps these are merely physical objects) and then telling them to march to the things. Ideas must move back into place in this game. There is a disconnect that must be resolved or played within.

And we see this tension continue in lines like “The rider will be thrown” or “When it fails to accord with her ideas of what a county fair should be/—Timeless!” Here, “Timeless” serves as a capitalized idea that fails to match up to what is. How things ought be must reach for what is. Even the final lines play out the tension between idea and thing: “Impressions/Of a mummy! what sort of individual is that?” Impressions being held as ideas and the question that points to facts—individuals are not impressions or mental objects.

The nuance of voice in Philip Levine’s “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School, Detroit, 1942”

The cover of the book of poems, What Work Is by Philip Levine. (ISBN-10: 0679740589)

While this is not my favorite Phil Levine poem (that would be the titular poem, “What Work Is”), this poem grabbed me as an important example of voice as I made my way through this book. Here you can listen to Levine give his own voice to this poem.

I’ll let you do the easy work of finding the text, if you so choose (support your library, right? Right!). However, I think that experiencing the recording of the late Levine gives enough weight to this playful poem.

Within the context of a serious collection of poems that deals with the working class, this poem finds a tone that is both humorously irreverent and quotidian. This poem thumbs its nose while crafting an honest picture of the mind of a bored child or student.

Levine presents Monsieur Degas, presumably Edgar Degas, as a teacher in an “intermediate school”—”middle school” more commonly nowadays. He asks us to imagine this giant of French Impressionist painting to have lived at least another 25 or so years and then had decided to teach young adolescents in Detroit, Michigan. Levine puts himself in the shoes of a student that is caught in this lecture where Degas divides a blackboard diagonally and asks for interpretations which a precocious classmate is more than willing to give him.

This poem is not so different in its appearance on the page from the rest of the book. Levine seems to be obsessed with creating consistency in line length and composes in singular chunks of verse that form rectangles of poetic meaning. However, this poem gives a dimension that is not always present in the rest of the book.

Degas makes a line with chalk to divide the chalkboard diagonally. (Some of his work also makes this compositional choice by framing a figure in a corner, cutting the canvas in a diagonal with a dancer or a seated person that is the subject of a portrait.) He makes this move in the poem, asks what he has done, and a snide comment is unrewarded. However, the confident Gertrude Bimmler answers more to his desire and interprets this act.

The voice of the poem is aware of this exchange between teacher and eager student, but is concerned with the time and the weather outside. The voice wants to be elsewhere rather than watching the exchange between a teacher and a presumed teacher’s pet. The voice “believed/that before I knew it I’d be/swaggering to the candy store/for a Milky Way.” Time slows and Gertrude continues to interpret the act of the teacher. The observer that is the voice of the poem is in agony and “knew this could go on forever.”

Certainly the quotidian and boring notions of work, even as a child, is present. The poem is not out of place. The speaker that gives this poem a voice is disinterested in this scene that is playing out and they are held to (and time is dilated through) when they could be getting candy. But it is this childish disdain for the boring tasks and questions of adults that gives this poem its extra dimension. There is nothing life threatening about the task at hand: the speaker is not tasked with working on machines that could mangle the body or kill. The child that is held in this thing that could go on forever is annoyed and wishes to be elsewhere and has no interest in the faithful answers of a bright classmate. This exchange is a useless annoyance and exercise in meaning making that doesn’t enrich the observer in the seat.

This annoyed despair of childhood in a classroom is so relatable and funny. We can all remember being annoyed at the teacher’s pet that drags an obvious or ridiculous lesson on forever. Levine walks his own diagonal divide of humor and serious sincerity within the poem!

Riding a Wave: On Barbara Guest’s “A Handbook of Surfing


An image of Barbara Guest's Selected Poems on a wooden background. ISBN-10: 1557132003
Barbara Guest’s Selected Poems (ISBN-10: 1557132003)

Barbara Guest instructs me on the deepest level in her serial form poems. One can hardly think of an interconnected serial of Guest’s without thinking of The Türler Losses (what a great book!), but I first encountered “A Handbook of Surfing.” A smaller, self-contained serial poem, this handbook illuminates the lineage and logic of Barbara Guest’s poetry.

The repetition of images in the poem, the elongation of a moment pulled and re-experienced whispers Stein and this debt to modernism. Unlike Tender Buttons, Guest’s time isn’t tied to a prose poem or a grammatical trick for insistence (rather than repetition), but each tableau makes up a another turn in repetitive elongation and the waves of the water lap over and over. The moments gather and fold, as waves that fold, and the whole poem reaches toward length like Alice growing taller. “I’ve read a poem about surfing and now time has been stretched. I’m stuck in a moment, catching a moment.” Moment after moment that forms the serial is a new repetition of a moment held and folded as waves tumble and pleat.

The lines of the poem are often broken before the breath catches a stop, Guest halts the breath and pushes it back with the tide of her lines. Ends topped and full phrases are seldom there to surf all the way these long pipelines of words that curl around and reach a true apex. But even further than the breath that is rolled back and forward, to and from the shore—Guest positions the poem is a free form flow that jumps and flows from left to right on the page. The water of words also move to and from on the page, mimicking the breath, mimicking the sea, mimicking the body of the surfer picking a point to ride and flow on.

Something about the strokes of her pen, the redoubling and glazing of images, the turns in form to underline the rolling content and mimics the image of the title all points to the importance of painting on Guest’s work. The splatters of Jackson thrown over and over to produce the collaged effect of the poem and the painting. The glazing and layering of repetition that cries of Rothko. The importance of the image nailed and forced to move or repeated in the movement of a triptych as in Bacon. Sure, Guest is indebted to modernist literature. She is also indebted to modernist painting. She is in conversation with art, without categorization.