O.K., listen up, please! Quiet in the back. Is this thing on? *Taps monitor, blows into mouse. Clears throat.*
I hereby designate Emily Dickinson the Poet Laureate of Via Negativa.
If ever there were a poet who needed no introduction, surely it is she.
But there are many other poets I could choose for this honor(?). Why Dickinson?
In the first place, because she’s long dead, and therefore can’t protest.
Second: I’ve always loved her. She was my first serious poet, whom I started reading at the age of eight. Though I’ve found other favorites over the years, I never stray too far, and I always go back to her eventually. She kept me company through a lonely adolescence, when I spent six long years as the class pariah.
Beyond that, she’s just a good fit. In the spirit of the via negativa, many of her best poems succeed in part because of their very indirection. She likes to write about things without specifically naming them, though for close to a century this feature was obscured by the imposition of titles. Perhaps a better word for it would be circumspection. It works to convey a profound impression of independent existence outside the poem to the subjects so treated (a hummingbird, a “narrow fellow in the grass,” a “formal feeling,” etc.).
When she does name names, the reader is thrown off balance even more. “Is this Bee merely the bee – Or is it She – Or is it Me – Or is it possible the Three – Buzz equally – ”
Three years ago I got a copy of F.W. Franklin’s variorum edition, which chooses from among surviving versions, as best as any editor could, those versions the author herself probably considered definitive. I read it though slowly from start to finish, over the course of two weeks – something I hadn’t done with Dickinson’s complete poems since I was ten. I developed the overwhelming impression that I was reading brilliant translations of 13th Century Persian Sufi poetry, by the daughter of Hafiz, say. But as far as anyone can tell, Dickinson knew nothing of Sufism. And it seems as if, surrounded by the stifling bigotry and simple-minded utilitarianism of mid-19th Century American Protestantism, she discovered the via negativa all on her own. For example, here’s Franklin’s #611:
Her sweet Weight on my Heart a Night
Had scarcely deigned to lie –
When, stirring, for Belief’s delight,
My Bride had slipped away –
If ’twas a Dream – made solid – just
The Heaven to confirm –
Or if myself were dreamed of Her –
The power to presume –
With Him remain – who unto Me –
Gave – even as to All –
A Fiction superseding Faith –
By so much – as ’twas real –
I could go on listing reasons: for example, the semantic ambiguities enhanced by her minimal punctuation, her slant rhymes and eccentric orthography often produce a delightful sense of disorientation. I dig her occasional, deft and understated social criticism.
But I want to stop playing critic here, especially given the hundreds of books and tens of thousands of papers that real critics have penned – a virtual library of Dickinsonia, from which I confess I have yet to read a single page (aside from Franklin’s brief introduction).
Why have a poet laureate at all? For the same reason as any state with a shady past and blood on its hands: to provide a very secular sense of sanctification to what really can’t be excused. My own crimes of omission, imprecision, inaccuracy and occasional outright mendacity may be looked upon with a more forgiving eye if I throw in a Dickinson poem now and then.
And the simple fact is, as I’ve been saying, there are few poets more compatible with this weblog. I’m sure I could find a suitable quote to accompany almost every post, if I wanted. Take Wednesday’s post on clarity, for example. Dickinson wrote:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –
Even the conclusion to yesterday’s post, un-Dickinsonian in tone as it might’ve seemed, finds its answer in her oeuvre:
He was my host – he was my guest,
I never to this day
If I invited him could tell,
Or he invited me.
So infinite our intercourse
So intimate, indeed,
Analysis as capsule seemed
To keeper of the seed.
Of course, in one sense this official designation does break with the tradition of poets laureate: there’s no exclusivity clause. Dickinson’s dead; she belongs to everyone – and no one – now. But that fits, too, since as a left libertarian I owe at least nominal allegiance to the oft-abused ideal of free love.
And how could one ever have so honored Dickinson were she still with us? You know what she’d say:
Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate . . .
and of course:
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
Nobody here but us pollywogs, Emily.
(The poet in the shape of a great-blue heron circles low for a landing.)