Classics Book Group: Galway Kinnell on Emily Dickinson

Published December 7, 1999 12:20PM (EST)

Emily Dickinson wrote about the kinds of experience few poets have the daring to explore or the genius to sing. She is one of the most intelligent of poets and also one of the most fearless. If the fearlessness ran out, she had her courage, and after that her heart-stopping recklessness.

More fully than most poets, Dickinson tells how it is to be a human being in a particular moment, in compressed, hard, blazingly vivid poems -- which have duende! Her greatest seem not sung but forced into being by a craving for a kind of forbidden knowledge of the unknowable.

Being thoroughly conventional, the few literary men of the time who saw Dickinson's poems found nothing very special about them and attributed her experiments in rhyme and rhythm to the naiveté of an untaught lady poet with a tin ear.

Similar figures today think she cannot be considered a major poet because she writes tiny poems. Of course there is nothing inherently minor in smallish poems, and in any case, many of Dickinson's poems are little because she omits the warming-up, preface and situation -- and begins where a more discursive poet might be preparing to end. Relative to their small surface, her poems have large inner bulk. And since her themes obsessively reappear, a group of the poems, when read together, sweeps one along inside another's consciousness much as a long poem does.

In my opinion, she could not have accomplished her great work without making two technical innovations.

Dickinson's chosen form requires rhymes, which are scarce in English, at frequent intervals. To avoid using an imprecise word for the sake of rhyme, she made a simple revolutionary innovation: expanding the kinds of echoes that qualify as rhyme. To exact rhyme (room/broom) and slant rhyme (room/brim) she added assonant rhyme (room/bruise), thus multiplying the supply of rhyme words many times over. Sometimes, perhaps shocked by the rightness of an unrhymable word, she resorted to rhyme by vague resmblance (freeze/priviledge) or skipped the rhyme entirely.

Her other innovation protects the density and dissonance of her poems from the singsong latent in common meter's de dum, de dum, de dum, de dum / de dum, de dum, de dum / de dum, de dum, de dum, de dum / de dum, de dum, de dum. Using wee dashes, she divides lines into clusters of syllables (sometimes a single syllable) that are not unlike William Carlos Williams' "variable feet" -- rhythmic units of varying length that are all spoken in approximately the same amount of time.

Saying her poems aloud, we hear two rhythmic systems clashing and twining: the iambic beat, and superimposed upon it, Dickinson's own inner, speech-like, sliding, syncopated rhythm. The latter suggests an urge in her toward some kind of Creeley-like free verse, and it is also what allows her to write in formal verse using all her passion and intelligence.

A poem by Dickinson that I particularly like is the widely admired "I heard a Fly buzz - when I died." Here, through what Keats called "negative capability," Dickinson enters, imaginatively, a dying person and goes with her into death. To write this poem with authority, Dickinson had to "die" a moment in imagination, which may be to say that she had actually to die a little in reality. Another poem of hers that I love, "The Soul has Bandaged moments," concludes, referring to moments too horrible and personal to tell to just anybody, "These, are not brayed of Tongue." Perhaps the meaning is: "These ought not to be brayed of tongue," given that in a number of poems she seems to do just that. For a poet to conceive images and phrases that can be said to "bray," which are equivalents of the harsh, grating, dissonant sounds made by donkeys, in order to say what is too terrible to be said, would be like a singer attempting sounds the human voice cannot make without risk to itself and could possibly damage the psyche permanently. The brilliance of Emily Dickinson's greatest poems may have exacted a high price in emotional stamina and stability, and foreshortened by years that amazingly prolific period (in one year, she wrote 364 poems) when she was writing with her full powers.

Only 10 of Dickinson's poems were published in her lifetime -- some without her permission, some containing drastic "improvements." "Publication - is the auction of the mind..." she wrote, with haughty bitterness, perhaps in part trying to console herself, and she tied her poems in bundles and put them in a drawer. How wild a thought that now she makes her appearance in Salon, and that we, who love her poems, can talk together about them here.

By Galway Kinnell

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