in verse #72 : Christmas poems

None of the modernist poets I am discussing at present produced what might be called traditional Christmas poems.  My attention is drawn to them by the advent of Christmas on this, the longest night of the year.[i]  So once again I interrupt myself in the stately progress of this blog to be diverted by gems glittering in the garden.  But, as I said, these select modernists did not produce traditional Christmas poems.[ii]

Robert Frost came closest, in writing a poem a year to send out for Christmas.  But even that idea was imposed on him Continue Reading →

in verse #68 : bad poetry versus good

Valerie and I have been travelling through Canada, crossing the border at the Port of Roosville, north of Eureka, Montana, and driving through Kootenay, Banff and Jasper National Parks for most of a week. On our last day in Jasper, we stopped at two waterfalls, Sunwapta Falls on the Sunwapta River, and Athabasca Falls on the Athabasca River. The Sunwapta is fed by the Athabasca Glacier[i] , and eventually flows into the Athabasca, which is fed by the Columbia Glacier[ii]. Both glaciers are part of the now much diminished Columbia Icefield in the park[iii].

The falls are fascinating because both rivers, which are wide, swift, cold and turbulent, squeeze through rock crevasses which seem far too narrow to admit the volume of water passing through them. At Sunwapta, for example, the massive rock-flour river plunges through a gorge maybe 15 feet wide, at least 30 feet below a bridge spanning the gorge. DSC04833

This is a picture of the head of Sunwapta falls, and it is impressive enough that a river that wide and turbulent is plunging into this gorge. It could be a very wide but shallow river. This, however, is the wide part of the gorge, and it was impossible for me to determine how deeply the river has cut into the rock. But the next photograph is the narrow part of the gorge: Continue Reading →

in verse #62 : “No” is the wildest word

Emily Dickinson’s poetry is deceptive in many ways. One of those ways is its sheer fecundity. There may be 10 poems with which the general reader of poetry is familiar — 10 out of 1789. But the feeling many readers get, once they know “Because I could not stop for Death” or “To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee” or “A narrow Fellow in the Grass,” is that they know Dickinson. Her best poems, in a way, deceive the reader into thinking that he or she can ignore the lesser poems. For this blog, I am going deep into poems I have never encountered, and deeper into poems I felt familiar with. Continue Reading →

in verse #59 : Of Glory not a Beam is left

Today is a day for giving thanks. Rather than burden you with much prose, I propose to share with you some of the delights to be found in the rather large box that is the one thousand, seven hundred and eighty-nine poems identified by R. W. Franklin as The poems of Emily Dickinson.[i] These I have thrilled in encountering as I have been puzzling out Dickinson. You may know some of them already — in which case, enjoy them again. The dates of composition are Franklin’s, and he includes 104 poems which he has not dated — or had not in 1999. The first poem I offer he dated to 1863, one of her most productive years:

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –

And now We roam in Sovreign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him Continue Reading →

in verse #58 : Grammarian

In his preface to Poems by Emily Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson draws an interesting distinction, which he blames on Emerson.  This is how he opens his preface:

The verses of Emily Dickinson belong emphatically to what Emerson long since called “the Poetry of the Portfolio,” — something produced absolutely without the thought of publication, and solely by way of expression of the writer’s own mind.[i]

Higginson, as I noted in an earlier post, was the editor of the Atlantic Monthly whom Dickinson asked, in 1862, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?”[ii]  Perhaps he had forgotten in the intervening thirty years that he had judged her poetry unfit for publication.  But in the next sentences of his preface, he further compounds this lapse of memory by explaining why she was a portfolio poet:

Such verse must inevitably forfeit whatever advantage lies in the discipline of public criticism and the enforced conformity to accepted ways.  On the other hand, it may often gain something through the habit of freedom and the unconventional utterance of daring thoughts.  In the case of the present author, there was absolutely no choice in the matter ; she must write thus, or not at all.[iii]

Note how carefully Higginson delineates his world, that of “accepted ways,” and how much he urges upon us Continue Reading →

in verse #57 : Up close and personal

Had Emily Dickinson not been so persnickety about the idea of publication, she might have smothered an entire literary industry in its cradle. In 1955, having been industriously engaged in his efforts, Thomas H. Johnson published The Poems of Emily Dickinson[i]; the first variorum Harvard Edition; in 1962, he published Final harvest[ii], a paperback selection from the 1955 edition offering roughly one-third[iii] of the poems from the “Variorum Edition” to the vast reading public.  The reading public for Emily Dickinson had never let her poems go out of print since Continue Reading →

in verse #56 : raising the ghost

In 1993, long after Thomas H. Johnson’s edition of the complete poems of Emily Dickinson,[i] the University of North Carolina Press brought out New poems of Emily Dickinson.[ii] I bought it, of course, because, after all, if these were new poems by Emily Dickinson, then I had never read them before, especially not in Final harvest.[iii] So when I got around to reading the verso of the title page, which is usually where the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data are usually found, you can imagine my consternation[iv] at finding instead the following notice:

Selected poems are reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from The poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

I suppose that none of those fellows are narrow fellows in the grass, but still this notice surprised me — such a tangle of permissions for what should be, after all, new poems. Where then had these new poems come from, if select poems amongst them were reprinted? But to my astonishment, that note was followed by this even more cryptic notice: Continue Reading →

in verse #55: A famine in the land

In 1955, Thomas H. Johnson published both Emily Dickinson : an interpretive biography and the complete poems of Emily Dickinson. [i] The former has the appearance of a very long introduction to the latter, and my copy does not indicate whether the two were published as a set; but by 1955 a complete poems was sorely needed. Emily Dickinson had been loved to death, but what many people loved was the idea of Emily Dickinson, the heritage of Emily Dickinson, the genius of Emily Dickinson. Editors before Johnson had freely — sometimes very freely — edited Dickinson’s work to bring it into conformity with their conception of poetry.[ii] Someone needed to read her work as verse.

Ironically enough, Johnson’s work has been superseded by that of R.W. Franklin, in his The poems of Emily Dickinson [iii] in what Franklin (or his publishers) characterize as the “Variorum ed.”[iv]  If all of this posthumous publication and republication seems a little ghoulish, Continue Reading →

in verse #54: Bloat and dearth

Language is a bit odd in that it allows some words to have two contradictory meanings — a phenomenon known, among other things, as a “contranym.” One frequent example in English is “cleave,” which can mean to split asunder or to glue together. In this case, as Wikipedia explains it, “Some pairs of contronyms are true homographs, i.e., distinct words with different etymology which happen to have the same form. For instance cleave ‘separate’ is from Old English clēofan, while cleave ‘adhere’ is from Old English clifian, which was pronounced differently.”[i] While intriguing, such homographs interest me less than words which develop two somewhat contradictory meanings through long use. Some lexicographers want to consider them all as homographs; I prefer to think of them as products of double-mindedness. Continue Reading →

in verse # 34 : a different Blake

If William Blake is the father of contemporary American free verse, Emily Dickinson is surely its mother.  But hold on, I hear you say, wasn’t that father Walt Whitman?  Well, maybe he was the godfather.  And I am aware of the distance in time and space between the father and the mother, and the fact that Dickinson may have never heard of, let alone read, Blake.  Although he could have visited her as an emanation.  Maybe that’s what she was writing about in “Wild nights.”  So call it an immaculate conception, if you will.

I will.

After all, Blake worked with a biblical line, and Dickinson with a wide selection of meters, most commonly the ballad stanza of four lines in 4, 3, 4 and 3 stresses, a meter common in hymns as well.  Blake has always been known as an eccentric and experimental poet.  It is becoming clearer, as explorations of Dickinson’s manuscripts[i] proceed apace, that she was more experimental than eccentric.[ii]   More on Dickinson later, but for now the focus is on Blake.  And in my last post, I neglected perhaps one of the best sources on Blake’s relationship to the Bible.  Peter Ackroyd, in his biography of Blake, says this, which is worth reading at length in relation to Blake’s prosody:

His early biographers do agree upon a single aspect of his childhood, however, since it is one that affected his entire life — his closest and most significant attachment [among books] was to the Bible.  I would have been the staple reading of his family, the object of continual meditation and interpretation.  It is hard to re-imagine a culture in which that book was the central and pre-eminent text, through which the world itself was to be understood, but the sectaries of mid-eighteenth-century England [Blake’s parents were Dissenters from the Church of England] still retained the old radical traditions of commentary and exegesis. …  His poetry and painting are imbued with biblical motifs and images; the very curve and cadence of his sentences are derived from the Old Testament, while his passages of ritualistic description and denunciation come from the words of the great prophets that were heard in the house on Broad Street.[iii]

As I said in that last post, “The translators [of the Authorized Version] produced a liturgical text, a text intended to be heard by the congregation, to be read aloud by the priest or preacher or lector” — or, in Blake’s case, mother and father and siblings and, eventually, himself.  As Ackroyd notes above, “the very curve and cadence of his sentences are derived from the Old Testament.”  But here a word of caution is in order, a caution that I myself need to recall:  it comes from David Norton, the editor of The new Cambridge paragraph Bible, discussing the work of the translators of the Authorized Version.  “Poetic parts of the text” he says

have been given in verse lines.  Here a word of caution is necessary:  it is not always clear what parts of the original were poetry, nor how that poetry should be lineated; moreover, the King James Bible was made as a prose translation, and its words only sometimes work as verse.  Nevertheless, the appearance of poetry, at the least, may act as a reminder that some parts were originally poetry.  Sometimes it may do more, bringing out the structure of the poetry and more of the rhythm of the text.[iv]

But as you saw in that last post, Blake’s verse does have the lilt and stress of the biblical poetry exemplified in the selection from Nahum.  In this post, I want to examine Continue Reading →