Tag Archives: poetry

Happy Letter

So there is good news in no particular order. The broken oil well in the Gulf has been plugged finally. The temperatures have dropped to around 90 degrees after cooking us in the hundreds for a while. Before During After, a book of Katrina photos and essays (some of which I edited) has been published and looks beautiful. Geoff and I are reading Emerson with the Lyceum group. We read On Self-Reliance a few weeks ago, and this week we’ll read The Over-Soul. I skipped my report on our reading of Beyond Good and Evil because my brain goes into lock-down when faced with Nietzsche. Emerson is such a breezy tonic by comparison.

Emily writes today with peculiar urgency.

#494, Version II, c. 1862

Going — to — Her!
Happy — Letter! Tell Her —
Tell Her — the page I never wrote!
Tell Her, I only said — the Syntax —
And left the Verb and the Pronoun — out!
Tell Her just how the fingers — hurried —
Then — how they — stammered — slow — slow —
And then — you wished you had eyes — in your pages —
So you could see — what moved — them — so —

Tell Her — it wasn’t a practised writer —
You guessed —
From the way the sentence — toiled —
You could hear the Bodice — tug — behind you —
As if it held but the might of a child!
You almost pitied — it — you — it worked so —
Tell Her — No — you may quibble — there —
For it would split Her Heart — to know it —
And then — you and I — were silenter!

Tell Her — Day — finished — before we — finished —
And the old Clock kept neighing — “Day”!
And you — got sleepy — and begged to be ended —
What could — it hinder so — to say?
Tell Her — just how she sealed — you — Cautious!
But — if she ask “where you are hid” — until the evening —
Ah! Be bashful!
Gesture Coquette —
And shake your Head!

My hand landed on the above poem, which is called Version II. The one that comes just before it is Version I. The two are almost identical except that this version uses the third person singular pronoun “Her” and Version I uses the “Him”.

The poem’s voice speaks directly to the writer’s own letter, asking it to “speak” to the letter’s recipient. This is a familiar literary conceit, to direct the poet’s message to the written paper as if it were a living entity, directed by the poet’s hand to convey some part of the writer to the reader. Also quaint is the faux modesty, pretending that the letter is a poor representation, spoiling the page, a waste of good paper, etc. (Shakespeare’s sonnets follow this tradition.) These faulty words written by this wretch of a poet, possessing a mind dulled by the sickly taint of overwhelming love, can never rise to the task of expressing to the beloved the full breadth of the poet’s true feelings. These are too vast and words alone too small . . . yadda, yadda, yadda. Emily, you are sooooo romantic.

The only problem here is that Emily can’t decide who should be the recipient of her letter, whether a “Him” or a “Her”. It looks like someone at some point made an arbitrary decision to call the Him version the first and the Her version the second. It’s difficult enough to assign dates to Emily’s work, so I imagine it’s fairly impossible to say for sure which of these she wrote originally and which was the amended version. Mainly scholars have settled on the dates of certain poems by the type of handwriting. They assumed that her handwriting style changed with age, so the poems appearing to match the style or slant found in Emily’s handwriting in dated letters, were given that same date. This process, although inexact, more or less helped to pinpoint when the poems would have been written.

So many, hundreds, were written in the 1862 handwriting that it appears she either had an astoundingly prolific year in 1862. (Possible.) Or that she revised and re-copied a large portion of her already existing collection of poems into a “fair hand”, perhaps in preparation for publication. Possible, although not likely given her dour view of publication. Or it may have been that she wanted to assemble a final or “fair” copy of her best work for her own records. She was sewing many of these into booklets, fashioning her own “publishing” house by hand.

Most likely this was so, but now we have these two highly stylized romantic love poems, almost exactly alike, written apparently at the same time in the same “fair hand”. One speaks to man and one speaks to a woman. What was she up to?

Did Emily seek to obscure her lesbian love affair by disguising the recipient of the poem’s letter as a man in one version? Then later did she decide to “come out”, at least to herself, by re-writing the poem to a woman? Maybe. Although I find it hard to imagine that Emily would be ashamed by any part of herself or hide from herself. She was too self-directed to start with. Plus it seems to me that a woman so sheltered from the world would be naive about sexuality and the social mores around sexuality, that it seems unlikely she would hold this conventional condemnation against herself. In addition, it was commonplace and accepted for women in this Victorian period to use passionate, overblown language to express affection for each other in their letters. Not hard to imagine that this afforded plenty of social latitude and a vocabulary for women to locate their sexual longing for each other as well, if they felt so moved.

Another possibility is that she was experimenting with voice and persona, both in her life and in her work. Emily would write the same poem twice and change the channel for each just to see what it would be like. That sounds more like her. Curiosity would push her to stand on both sides of the looking-glass, for no reason other than she’d like to know what it’s like over there. The lover’s perspective is by definition warped and one-sided. I can imagine Emily looking at that and wondering how it would sound to express the same sentiments to either one sex or the other. Emily the gymnast can take the stance of either.

The result is intriguing and varies depending on the disposition of the reader. Version I sounds like something out of a Bronte novel, a wild woman in the throes of passion beyond her control. Version II sounds like a Victorian girl, reaching for a literary model to channel her feelings toward a safe subject. The whole thing hangs on the letter being a failure due to its grammar. It is only syntax, says the poem, which is to say only the empty frame is there. The speaker/writer left out the verb and the pronoun, which is to say there is no action and no human presence. No life, no movement. How can love flourish in this place?

The poet with any sense of responsibility to her own curiosity wants to push her poem this way and that, just to see what it might do. Also to see how just a couple of letters changed here, makes all the difference in the world.


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Don’t Go Back To Sleep

It has been just about a year since I began this blog.  So it’s time for a reckoning, I figure.  Today’s contribution from Emily is helpful.

#245, c. 1861

I held a Jewel in my fingers —
And went to sleep —
The day was warm, and winds were prosy —
I said, ” ‘Twill Keep” —

I woke — and chid my honest fingers,
The gem was gone —
And now, an Amethyst remembrance
Is all I own —

She’s meditating on the work. Her work, my work, your work. You know . . . the work. In the realm of Emily, the winds are prosy and drop jeweled phrases into her hands. Everything around her shimmers with some kind of artful story. Poems happen with each shift in the breeze. Once you wake up and notice the lovely vein to be mined, the world becomes so rich with imagery and meaning that you could become doped into a stupor by the plenty that lies within your fingertips.

That’s what Em did, and I think she’s very sorry about it. She made the mistake—an honest mistake but wrong all the same—of going to sleep and thinking she did not have to capture the jewel and commit it to paper immediately. Foolish girl, she believed it would still be there later. That laziness, although understandable, left her bereft on waking. The poem had slipped through her honest fingers. Poems will do that if you’re not careful. At first they always have that bullet-proof brilliance, but it doesn’t last on its own unless you get it into the notebook. It evaporates like a gem made of mist. The sun and the wind take it away. There is no one to blame but the lazy poet.

Okay, I’m being too hard on Emily, way too post-Industrial Revolution for her. Not fair. Laziness is not the culprit for the poem’s loss. Instead the problem is that the writer can become too easily dazzled by her own wealth and forget to husband her resources wisely. (I love the word “husband” as a verb, but that’s another blog entry.) It’s no trouble at all for Emily or me to remain in our respective bubbles of radiant potential. This realm of pure thought is threaded all through with the shocking sense impressions offered by experience of “out there”. Rude physicality enlivens what is “in here”, and the result is an utterly absorbing tension between “what is” and “what might be”. Writers live on that tension and get drunk on the excitement it creates. The only drawback is that often writers, for whatever reason, do not mine the gem and bring it back to the surface. They are so captivated by their own supercharged radiance, that they forget their day job: Make it make sense and write it down!

It’s easy to see why writers are careless with their own gifts. That richness in the experience could seem infinite in the moment. So why bother rendering it into rigid form? There will always be more. Why not instead just enjoy the rich flow of imagining? This sense of infinity may even be true. Certainly, I have never noticed a shortage of words. Emily knew that better than anyone. She wrote a poem nearly every day of her life. The problem lies in the drunk stillness and rapture taking over the whole process so that the coherence dissolves. The writer naturally wants to communicate, bring her own radiance out of that vast potential without boundaries into some externalized structured form that makes sense to someone else, not just herself. She has to wake from her own trance to do that.

How many times do my thoughts pursue a shimmering trail of thread, all the way down a rabbit hole, while the pen falls to the notebook? Who knows how much time passes like that? An hour? Ten minutes? It all feels the same. Pursuing the invisible becomes more absorbing than recording it. Next thing I know, I look down at the notebook and can’t recognize the last thing I wrote because my thoughts ran ahead of my hand. The connection dissolved because I didn’t keep that psyche/soma port open and working. There isn’t any blame to assign here. It’s no one’s fault that my thoughts race too fast for my pen to keep up. But it is a problem.

The solution is to cultivate habits that make coherent capture possible. That is show up at the page and just keep the pen moving, for god’s sake don’t lose that thread of ink. Most of the stuff in the notebook is junk that makes no sense to anyone, but if I have enough junk in some fixed form outside of my head, there is a chance I can craft a shapely thing out of the junk. The best to hope for is something resembling that faceted jewel I found in the mine, but those always appear more beautiful in that pure radiance of potential than they do in the ordinary surface world light. The manifestation out of potential into form necessarily imposes limits, therefore crushes the radiance. You never have the same jewel, once rendering it to others. This loss of perfection is heartbreaking, but at least it leaves you with something more lasting than thought. Why do this? Why not let it remain pure radiant potential? Oh, I don’t know. Somehow I believe it’s worthwhile to keep the pen moving, if for no other reason than it keeps me busy.

Official notice here: Last week at the Neighborhood Story Project’s Write-a-Thon I wrote another 1200 words in this thing I’ve had moldering at the back of my hard drive for a year. I’m calling it a “thing” because there really isn’t any other word for it. Sorry to be so vague, but that’s all you’re getting from me right now.

I’ll close with another poem from Rumi that I return to often.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are moving back and forth across the threshold
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

I enjoy hearing Rumi and Emily speak to each other across centuries and continents. . . . okay, I just answered my own question.

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Waking Is Better

A great soaking and thunderclapping storm this morning. I’ll see how long I last out here on the porch. It’s noisy, and poor Lance can’t take it. I have to dose him with xanax whenever there is a thunderstorm, and even then all he can do is hide and tremble. It’s a sad day, when drugs don’t get you through.

Okay, time for retreat. Notebook is soaked.

#450, c. 1862

Dreams — are well — but Waking’s better,
If One wake at Morn —
If One wake at Midnight — better —
Dreaming — of the Dawn —

Sweeter — the Surmising Robins —
Never gladdened Tree —
Than a Solid Dawn — confronting —
Leading to no Day —

I have had a hard time recalling my dreams lately. I know something is happening, a lot in fact. Then as soon as my eyes open, the scene evaporates. My subconscious is busy. I wonder, though, does it still count if I can’t bring the material up to the surface and make a clear narrative? Does the dream still fulfill its task of informing the psyche, if the content doesn’t survive into waking hours?

There is a middle-of-the-night quality of vision that seems more “awake” than simply not being asleep. The darkness and the hour cloak otherwise familiar surroundings in a way that seems alien only because it’s not visible in daylight. The darkness and the hour do not make our surroundings strange; these only reveal what the light can’t show. The dark side of the moon still exists, even though we can’t see it. That vast continent of rock moves in space and enacts its gravitational pull on us here on Earth, blocked from our sight. We are tempted to say that what we can’t see doesn’t matter, but we’d be wrong.

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