Friday, April 02, 2004

A Volcano Life

The first poet of the month is Emily Dickinson. I thought about doing Chaucer, a little Canterbury Tales, but when I took down my Norton Anthology (mine is the 5th edition) and began reading:

Whan that April with his showres soote The droughte of March hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veine in swich licour, Of which vertu engendred is the flowr
I realized there would need to be some translating going on and I'm not so good at that. Still, I managed to give you a little Chaucer anyway. And let me just say when I read him in college, the professor knew how to read Middle English and it was beautiful, lilting and sweet. Emily Dickinson's verse while beautiful, is not lilting but tends to be broken with its short lines and unusual punctuation. I think her verse feels contemporary and modern. Dickinson's verse was never published while she was alive. When she was 31 she entered into a correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a professional man of letters. Dickinson was prompted to write him after she read one of his essays in the Atlantic Monthly. She sent him four poems. He wrote back judging the poems not for publication, but asking for more verse. Though she never published, Dickinson kept writing in her own style. When she died in 1886 her sister, Lavinia, while going through her effects, discovered a small box containing about 900 poems. It was Lavinia who found a publisher, and with the help of Higginson, selected 115 poems. Unfortunately Higginson took it upon himself to make the poems more acceptable to the public by smoothing out the rhymes, regularizing the meter, changing words and metaphors. The 1890 publication was a success and more poems were selected for another edition. It wasn't until Dickinson's estate was transferred to Harvard University in 1950 that anyone decided to publish Dickinson's poems as she wrote them. The 1955 variorum edition was the first time the reading public was able to read Dickinson's poems without anything but a minimum of editorial tinkering. Hers is an amazing story. It is a testament to her will and creativity that she continued to write even when told her poetry was unpublishable. And we are fortunate that Lavinia did not decide the poetry was worthless when she found the box. I first read Dickinson when I was in high school and didn't understand her. But after a few years had gone by and I had to read her in college, a light bulb went on. I have since read from cover to cover The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by Thomas H. Johnson and reproduced from the 1955 variorum edition. I plan on some day reading it from cover to cover again, but in the mean time it is a great book to dip into when I need a poetic moment. And here, for your reading pleasure, are a couple of my favorites.
254 "Hope" is the thing with feathers-- That perches in the soul-- And sings the tune without the words-- And never stops--at all-- And sweetest--in the Gale--is heard-- And sore must be the storm-- That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm-- I've heard it in the chillest land-- And on the strangest Sea-- Yet, never, in Extremity, It asked a crumb--of Me. 435 Much Madness is divinest Sense-- To a discerning Eye-- Much Sense--the starkest Madness-- 'Tis the Majority In this, as All, prevail-- Assent--and you are sane-- Demur--you're straightway dangerous-- And handled with a Chain-- 601 A still--Volcano--Life-- That flickered in the night-- When it was dark enough to do Without erasing sight-- A quiet--Earthquake Style-- Too subtle to suspect By natures this side Naples-- The North cannot detect The Solemn--Torrid--Symbol-- The lips that never lie-- Whose hissing Corals part--and shut-- And Cities--ooze away--
I could go on and on. Since I can't post all of her poems here, get thee to a book!