Jan 8, 2010

Emily Dickinson, Poem 510, "It was not Death," PART TWO

It was not death, for I stood up by Emily Dickinson : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

I apologize for the ridiculous length and self-indulgence here today. But I might not get back to Banjo for a couple days, and all this textual stuff actually interests me. So, as if you need my permission to skim or skip, please skim or skip as you like.

Poem 510 tries to pin down an inexplicable gloom, an anxiety and sense of impending catastrophe, somewhat similar to the more famous “A Certain Slant of Light” (poem 320). Although 320’s magic word, “Despair,” reappears, Poem 510 explores a more complex and unnamable condition.

First a couple of notes about Dickinson's words: a sirocco is a warm desert wind. Is that too Saharan, too exotic for the overall texture of the poem?—especially a poem that winds down not with a sandstorm, but with images of a “beating” earth and a foundering sea vessel? Maybe Dickinson is trying to cover as many aspects of earth as possible, but for me, “sirocco” is a self-conscious stretch.

Also, in the final stanza’s second line, if anyone can argue with confidence and clarity which kind of “spar” the poem intends, I hope you will. A wooden pole on a ship seems the most apt of three possible but unsatisfying definitions (the others—a mineral like feldspar and “sparring” as a kind of boxing practice—seem completely irrelevant).

The pole (mast?) for a ship’s crow’s nest makes some kind of sense, since the speaker can be seen as a lost, floundering ship (or a person there), so far from land that “despair” is ineffective as a word to describe her great psychic drift or chaos.

Also, I can’t help but wonder if E.D. settled for “spar” for the sake of rhyming with “despair.” Like every stanza but the fifth, it’s only half-rhyme anyway, so I doubt that explanation; but her choices of rhyme must have been many, so "spar," in such a key position, troubles me.

However, what I’m coming to in my reading life is an appreciation for E.D.’s quirky diction, full of words that are simply more interesting than most writers would have chosen. Also, they can be uncannily precise, and this can create ideas and conditions that are as uniquely interesting, accurate, quirky and, again, as precise as the words that carry them.

Who else, in her despair, would think to verify that she’s alive simply by noting that she’s standing up? This simplicity is compelling and should make Descartes roll over in his grave, with that pretentious Cogito ergo sum jazz. Dude, were you standing up? Then you weren’t dead, Dude. Nobody gives a shit that you were thinking, and you might be the only one who cares that you exist.

I’m sure that logic won’t endure scrutiny, but it was fun.

Back to E.D.’s choices about words: who else thinks of bells having tongues? Therefore, like us, they make noise; so we know it’s not literally night, though our souls might be submerged in a night terror. In the third stanza, as if to follow up on "tongues" and to cover the five senses to determine just where she is and in what condition, Dickinson introduces the sense of taste: “it tasted like them all.” If that doesn’t make complete sense in rational terms, remember that we’re not in a rational place.

Many of us might compare such a state to midnight, so in the fourth stanza, Dickinson specifies that it’s only like “some” midnights, which is a more honest and restrained claim—and maybe therefore more alarming.

“. . . everything thing that ticked.” What ticks other than clocks? But Dickinson finds many ticking things, and all of them have stopped. What a way to intensify her sense of dread: turn the world into a stopped clock; the most horrific of midnights is now timeless. She’s magnifying without hyperbolizing—a paradox, an irrationality, a dark magic.

Then, as if she’d already established that the earth breathes and has a heartbeat (“beating ground”), she repeals it. You or I might think of the planet as a living, pulsing entity, but if we were to say it now feels dead, would we think of death as repealing that life? Isn’t it laws that we repeal. And aren't laws our attempts to be rational and ethical? Well, the “beating ground” is a kind of law here, and this other-worldly gloom is repealing it.

Dickinson is also messing with chronology (repealing a living earth before she births it), so the speaker finds one more way to suggest a lawless limbo; it’s not governed by time as we know it.

She seems to know that if she talks about time, she needs to include space, another major force upon us that’s supposed to make sense. But here, space and time “stare” at her and everything.

In this context, “Chaos” might be a predictable word, but “stopless” is not. It’s childlike, and what is the lost, threatened speaker if not a child, adrift in a “stopless” nightmare? Consider how much less effective “endless” would have been. I wonder if E.D. spent many hours in her attic considering synonyms for “endless.” If she had a thesaurus, I bet “stopless” was not in it; I bet she had to come to that on her own—in an instant or over days and weeks. (Hard core New Critics, forgive me that biographical and intentional fallacy).

In closing, Dickinson's tossed ship of self might feel lucky if it could settle on “despair” as the name and nature of its condition. To “justify” that, however, there must be, in this stormy sea, at least a “report,” a rumor, of land, which lies within sight of the “spar.”

Why we must have visible land to have despair, I’m not sure. I suppose that would be something like a rational universe: there’s land, security, life as I knew it, and I cannot get there. Therefore, my despair is justified.

But my location—a meaningless word and concept in this chaos—is so alien and so full of endless midnight that “despair” is a meaningless, trivial label for what I feel. Yet I have no other label; none is large or terrifying enough.

The other day, I posted Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” It too makes ample use of paradox to convey a place and condition that are incomprehensible and unutterable in human terms. His place was a paradise; Dickinson’s is the opposite of that, and labels like living Hell and limbo are inadequate to convey it. So instead, she gives us analogies as a way of understanding something that all of us may have known. Or maybe we haven’t; maybe we got lucky.

It was not death, for I stood up by Emily Dickinson : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

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PJ said...

I'm not an English or Literature major and I can't reference her material or discuss structure but I think I can place (some of) her vocabulary in context.

I don't find her diction quirky at all. I think she's using a lot of New England (New English) imagery so the spar is very appropriate. The term indicates several nautical items including a pole that you use to hook or rescue things/people, something I'm familiar with and have actually done myself. And a chance is more than an opportunity, it could be a lottery ticket - perhaps betting on them was ta common activity in her day - and she wants to convey that she feels she's without any luck. I also think that it's possible that in her day a sirocco was a common term for something exotic, intense, and wild.

What I'm taking from your piece is that she had a knack for using a single word to convey a whole thought or image, very Eastern if you think about it. She's very visual so reading this poem of hers, once you settle down to it, is like watching a movie. You move from a graveyard (skull and crossbones on the headstones) to a far away desert, back to the town square (wagging tongues),and then to an intimate (perhaps scourged) image of her, followed by the experience of the cold and death of a New England autumn, and, finally, the worst, being shipwrecked and therefore completely out of your element. I find this very effective when contrasted with the fact that sailing and shipping were very common means of earning a livelihood. A shipwreck could devastate an entire family or community so it was also a common source of anxiety along the seaboard. I think they would identify with her words easily.

Banjo52 said...

Paula, very helpful, esp. on "spar" and the sailing life. Thanks.

I like your comparison of her lines and stanzas to movie scenes. It seems that a lot of readers these days don't have the patience to take their time and work through a poem in that way.

E.D. and many of the other greats--and some contemporaries who might be future greats--bowl me over with a word or phrase in, maybe, every other line. Others seem to be just chewing the fat, taking their good old time, as if they had plenty of it.

I prefer the school of thought that says a poem should feel urgent. That may be the main thing that separates poems from fiction and memoir.

gothpunkuncle said...

I DO like this notion of a single, well chosen word portraying a bigger situation. I've been opening my heart and mind to the late Susan Sontag (Do you guys read her?) and I've been liking and pondering her distinction between an idea and a "sensibility." Having lived in Amherst and walked the path from her home to her resting place many a night, I feel this poem captures the sensibility of her time, a time when multiple siblings shared the same first name and the survivor claimed it. Death was her 7-11; death was her lottery ticket, as prevalent in land-locked, Victorian Amherst as it was the Old Testament, which is where she got her nautical and desert metaphors, I'd wager.

(When you return to the movies, how about some thoughts on the concept of "spectacle," as contrasted in both Avatar and Dr. P.'s Imaginarium, if you're up to it B-52. Consider the gauntlet thrown, the student eager.)

Aside #2: I can't use or read the shortened "B-52" without imagining you performing "Rock Lobster" and "Private Idaho." What a hoot that would be! Is there enough good whiskey in the world to hook that up some Saturday at the L.A.C.?

Banjo52 said...

GPK, eloquent! Your examples really bring E.D.'s world to life (and death), esp. following Paula's contributions yesterday.

I think I mentioned here, months ago, Sontag's long essay, "Camp," which concerned the very distinction you mention--tho' its focus was on "sensibility." I liked it a lot. Sensibility and "culture" or "subculture"--they're kissing cousins, aren't they?

Don't know about Dr. P., or Rock Lobster. Might have seen Private Idaho, but can't remember anything about it. Do any of 'em need a banjo played badly?

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