Mar 30, 2012

Emily Dickinson, "A bird came down the Walk" (328)


Flicker, July 2011
Here is my latest response (tweaked a little) to the thoughtful visitor comments here after my last post (March 22), :

Kitty, thanks, and I think you hit on one of the biggest, most timeless questions about art. I suspect most people think (rightly) that good art must be somewhat realistic—that is, willing to look ugly truths in the eye—while being uplifting is optional. But who wants to read a page of details belaboring the rather obvious thought that life is hell? Never mind 400 pages . . .

Also, aren't the hellish things so easy to spot that it's like shooting fish in a barrel? How much insight is required to conclude that war is unpleasant? (Yet we seem to enjoy war, going back, as we do,  for seconds and hundredths . . .).

Also, in most parts of the world, at most points in history, aren't the uplifting (including comic) things almost as evident as the dark stuff? So I doubt I'm ever satisfied with art that doesn't see both (or all) sides.

Of course there's also the fact that darker art, if it's beautifully constructed, takes steps toward redeeming even the ugliest subject matter. That's a big part of my reasoning when I ask poetry to offer gifts along the way, such as skillful, inventive phrasing and compelling imagery. A decent poem offers those, no matter how unoriginally grim its outlook.

I bring all that up because it connects to what I’ve been intending to say about the way Emily Dickinson and Deborah Digges connected in my mind a few weeks ago, regarding birds.

First, let me repeat a line from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” a line that has seemed more and more important to me lately (I think it has to do with aging, along with the internet). Having chosen the second path considered at a fork in the road, Frost says:    

            Oh, I kept the first for another day!
            Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
            I doubted if I should ever come back.
                        (“The Road Not Taken,”  13-15)

“How way leads on to way” is the part that charms and haunts me these days. As if to prove Frost right, some roaming on the internet steered me to re-reading a famous Dickinson poem about birds: 

            A Bird came down the Walk (328) by Emily Dickinson  

            A Bird came down the Walk—
            He did not know I saw—
            He bit an Angleworm in halves
            And ate the fellow, raw, 

            And then he drank a Dew
            From a convenient Grass—
            And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
            To let a Beetle pass— 

            He glanced with rapid eyes
            That hurried all around—
            They looked like frightened Beads, I thought—
            He stirred his Velvet Head 

            Like one in danger, Cautious,
            I offered him a Crumb
            And he unrolled his feathers
            And rowed him softer home— 

            Than Oars divide the Ocean,
            Too silver for a seam—
            Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
            Leap, plashless as they swim.

 
I thought once again about the way I used to hear the words, “Emily Dickinson” as “hickory dickory dock.” Not to mention, “Lah dee dah dee bum.”

I think other English majors—especially the cool ones, if there were any—thought, “Quaint little New Englander popping perky rhymed ditties in the attic.” Or later as a young teacher, I wondered, “How am I going to sell Dickinson as a skillful, complex, deep, disturbing, mind-expanding poet students should care about?”  Or, “Emily Dickinson:  one of the many hip, cool, money poets acting like an LSD drop, she rode a Harley with Cummings, Bukowski, and Ferlinghetti. Well, maybe not."  How was I going to argue she wasn’t the founding editor of saccharine Hallmark greeting cards?” 

I don’t know when I began to hear E.D.’s toughness, but it was embarrassingly late in the game. So, with way leading on to way, when I once again stumbled onto “A Bird Came Down the Walk,” I found both my old problem with E.D. and my newer sense of her as a tough ol’ bird who embraced both the darkness and the bliss of it all—and one who offered gifts in practically every stanza, if not every line.

In “A Bird came down the Walk,” we get two opening lines that sound the way all of E.D. sounded to me at age 20. But in Line 3, the genteel little spinster becomes something of an amused, accurate, and honest scientist in calmly observing Nature’s food chain in action. In the first particular she offers about the bird, he’s complacently slaughtering a fellow being, and the narrator sounds equally complacent, if not smiling just a little. She muses, "He didn't pause to cook the fellow."

After that, the poem's gifts begin to promote a more Victorian and gentle menagerie. The predator-bird of Lines 3-4 now steps aside, “To let a Beetle pass.” In stanzas 3 and 4, the bird seems frightened, which maintains some tension within the overall sweetness of the poem. Niceness, though, is the dominant impression, and in the conclusion, we move to the even gentler butterfly. In fact, maybe the butterfly has emerged from the worm of Lines 3-4, as if to suggest that dead worms, even those eaten by “Velvet Head”-ed birds, end up fluttering about beautifully in Caterpillar Heaven.
But for me, that opening act of animal butchery creates a realism that just will not go away, no matter how sweet the rest of the poem becomes. The fact that the hungry hunter also becomes “Cautious,” and probably “frightened,” further undercuts any complacent silkiness we might think we’ve heard in the poem.

Nature is gorgeous. Nature is a cruel platform full of mass murder. Which is true?  If we’re going to allow ourselves such personification of Nature at all (and as long as we don't stop there, I think we must; it's a human effort to connect), surely we can only conclude that Nature is both beautiful and savage—and a lot more. 

A Bird came down the Walk (328)  by Emily Dickinson

A Bird came down the Walk—
He did not know I saw—
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw, 

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass—
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass— 

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around—
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought—
He stirred his Velvet Head 

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home— 

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam—
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.
 *

10 comments:

Hannah Stephenson said...

Emily Dickinson's stuff is lovely, right, but as you say, in the way that nature is lovely and horrible, both.

That poem of hers "This Quiet Dust" has always struck me as creepy and wonderful....creepy only after many readings. It starts out with something like "This quiet dust was once gentlemen and ladies..."

Yes, she could mean that the quiet, dusty room once held parties, but I like her weirder, eerier meaning (that, literally, dust contains pieces of people, and that people turn into dust).

It's really funny how we are so nervous about the coolness factor of poetry when we are younger. I remember feeling this way.

That Emily Dickinson is extremely cool.

Paula said...

I look at it as process, or at least a part of it - whatever IT is - and the bird is part of this chain, doing what it does. Then again, I have Sweet William on my mind. Actually, this is perfect for me.

RuneE said...

I wholeheartedly agree with what you write about positive and negative aspects of art, not to mention any kind of media (have you watched TV - lately - anywhere in the world?). Maybe that is why I mostly read popular science these days. And enjoy your photos :-)

Kitty said...

We are truly lucky to be humans in this age, where we don't have to worry about finding the worm to eat, and instead can lie back and ponder nature, life, art and meaning.

In developing worlds, art and meaning are the last things on the list. It's all about technology there, or how can people be assured clean water. Art and meaning are luxuries, and I fear that is lost on people.

Thank you, Banjo for sharing ED's poetry. She has always seemed so mystical to me in her spareness.

altadenahiker said...

What a difference it would make if we could read Dickinson without knowing anything of her life and idiosyncrasies. Her biography has always come between me and her words. And I love her words.

Stickup Artist said...

I'm a big Emily fan, finding her a kindred spirit through her poetry. On the other topic, I can refrain from judgement when it comes to Mother Nature. It is what it is, what it must be. I don't hate the cheetah or call it bad for taking down a gazelle. But, when it comes to humans and their actions, I can be quite judgmental. Though, I try not to rush to judgement. With Art, something either touches me, speaks to me, or it does not. So I don't think of Art as being bad or good either. And I always have to appreciate the effort and respect the personal journey.

Paula said...

AH, I think I've lost interest in various kinds of artists over the years not because I don't like their work anymore but because I know too much about them and it just gets in the way.

altadenahiker said...

I have lost much more than I've gained by being nosy about the lives of those who have produced wonderful works of art. In only a couple of cases has it informed or given me a greater respect for their work. FSF, for one, because his life was so messy, yet somehow he saw it clearly and wrote so cleanly. As a man he wallowed in self-pity and self-deception, but not as an artist. How is that possible? I trust his narrative voice, absolutely. Truman Capote, also, but not anything after Breakfast at Tiffanys. With so many others, though, after I know about their lives, I see in their work excuses, revenge, that type of thing. And I lose faith.

Brenda's Arizona said...

I like the 'rapid eyes' that look like frightened beads. Who else would say that? We all might think of beady eyes, but I have never seen frightened beads. Are we speaking of the same kind of beads????

I prefer ED cold, just dumped on the page as you have done, Banjo. It is much easier to read her this way than to have the long intro about her life, tainting her poetry. Thank you!

Pasadena Adjacent said...

May I just say I'm probably enjoying the comments more then Ms Emily and her bird.

Back when I was in my early 20's I picked up a ED book for cheap. Read it cover to cover and sadly don't have one impression I can call upon. I probably would enjoy her biography more.

Lovers' Lane