Sunday, August 24, 2008

Dickinson, syntax, the poem that does not get written down


By Ted Burke

There's an intriguing discussion over on Slate's Poems Fray forum regarding Emily Dickinson's condensed visions and the use of syntax to achieve her odd and impressive effects. Poet and professor Paul Breslin argues that there 's an underappreciation of Dickinson's mastery , and rewrites the poem somewhat as if it were a single sentence, furnishing the missing words to make the poem a coherent example of her inner motions. I think that there might more to it.

Syntax is key in getting to the things Dickinson mused and murmured over, but I'm not inclined to think of a many of her poems as single sentences with the connecting articles and transitional qualifiers removed . I'd think that hers would be a poetry of longer sentences that had been scissored and had their parts arranged in abrupt, quizzical verbal eruptions. Her dependent clauses sometimes hit you in the head like a flying rock you didn't see coming, that shingle that conks you on the noggin when you're trying to repair the rain gutter.

The actually poetry for much of her work would be the unwritten empathy between her lines and cohering strategy a reader creates on the spot to translate, literally, her language into a diction that a contemporary fan can understand.

We have a situation that might not be dissimilar than that of Ezra Pound's translations of Chinese poetry, where he was not translating directly from the original language but rather modernizing, re-writing another translation. He had , in essence, not done a translation as much as written another, unique poem altogether, in pursuit of a verbal ideal.

Eliot, aware of Pound's habit of remaking literary ideas in his own image, referred to his editor as the creator of Chinese Poetry; it isn't a bad thing, of course, but the results are brilliant other than what's been claimed by Pound or his early champions. For Dickinson, her intriguing impressions, her conflated monologues, her faint but evocative traces of interior complexity, often times results in a brilliance that is exterior to her own writing, that is, the genius of the reader responding earnestly.
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I don't disagree that Dickinson's poems are fragments and shards of what she might have been thinking about in lifetime seclusion; the habit of mind she displays in the poems is indicative of someone who's developed their own lexicon and signifiers that are sealed against obvious interpretations, a short hand that, in the context of the poems, are not elaborated upon. This enigma is a large part of the allure her work has , and a I think a great deal of her greatness resides in the legacy of interpretation that her small stanzas have provoked.

Whether we've written in done in essay for or have contemplated the consequences of the dashes and asides in private, we find ourselves so furiously "filling in the blanks" and providing end notes to suggest context to the poems that there exists, in fact, a secondary literature that rather seethes, flows and weaves brilliantly, sloppily, energetically through large portions of the Western Canon; rather much of Dickinson's poetry gets lost as comprehensible statements and are converted for, say, more recent generation of response that cannot help but leave Dickinson and her world behind and instead discuss her work against contemporary conditions and philosophical drift. She is not a little like Bloom's,Shakespeare, casting a shadow a younger writer cannot step wholly from under.

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