Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Enigmas don't shop in their pajamas

There is an ongoing project among a current generation of critics and poets to make the ever baffling , provocative and incontestably brilliant poet Emily Dickinson a less problematic figure in the American literary terrain. Famous for her reclusive lifestyle and extremely selective preferences as to who she had personal contact and communication with,  some effort has been made to make  her a more human, more public figure. The publication of the handwritten "envelope poems" is the latest in the trend to bring her into the sunshine. I welcome the addition of more , previously unknown verse to her body of work, but the insistence on publishing them with careful rendered photos of the actual pieces of paper to be evidence of a growing fetishism; it seems less an effort to bring more insight into the words than it is , say, for an obsessed reader to imagine a real person who might have written these things in states of meditative reflection. That makes the book more stunt than an essential unveiling of  unknown poems. I wish there was a book merely with the poems printed, without the clutter. Here the result, for this   reader, is that the more I find out about her, the less is revealed. 

 Emily Dickinson was cryptic for reasons known only to herself, I’m afraid, but I am of the mind that she intended her compact lyrics to be interpreted any number of ways. Irony, contradiction, revelation; her poems move along general the general theme that one’s thinking, Dickinson’s, evolves with time, gently or brutally, and that the time to be a witness is finite. Nuances and whispered implications abound in her work and, beyond a loosely gathered bit of conventional wisdom about ED’s general themes and concerns; there is plenty in her work to warrant continued, fascinating and inconclusive opinions about where the center of the poem, its motivating core and precise particulars lie. But what is also fascinating and important to speculate is what’s not included in the poem; what is outside the text is a worthy subject of investigation/speculation.

 It is an element that makes ED contemporary to this day, as a body of work that still resonates with a modern readership discovering a wit, an insight, a corresponding feeling in her splendidly fragmented manner. My information is nothing else but my own reading gauged against my own experience, both as citizen and poet. What I’ve said I have found in the text, really. Literary commentary, of course, is not science and it is particularly pointless to insist on anything like “back to the data”. Historical context for poems is fine for perspective, but language is a living thing, not stagnate, as you know, and ED’s word choices. I am convinced that there are meanings in great poems that those most great poets were entirely unaware; poetry is an intuitive process however much a crafted discipline comes into play. There is the superficial element, the glitter, the dazzle, the alluring set of phrases that seem to say one thing, and then there are things that combined suggest and point toward matters perhaps the author might not have been aware of, let alone the reader. That is the joy of criticism, a rage of interpretative opinions based on the text. I fairly much reject definitive, “authoritative” interpretations of works of art.