Monday, February 20, 2012

I *heart* Emily Dickinson

I've been meaning to dip back into The Poems of Emily Dickinson and my friend Aric, who is currently teaching a whole course dedicated entirely to Emily, has given me the opportunity, directing my attention to an essay by Martha Nell Smith and a poem I've never noticed before:  "I reason, Earth is short"
Check out ED's holograph within Smith's collection Rowing in Eden: rereading Emily Dickinson here (scroll down to page 68 of the Google book).  And now here's the poem, as rendered by R.W. Franklin, editor of the as-now "authoritative' version of E.D.'s poems (Belknap/Harvard). Dare to compare!
I reason, Earth is short -
And Anguish - absolute -
And many hurt,
But, what of that?

I reason, we could die -
The best Vitality
Cannot excel Decay,
But, what of that?

I reason, that in Heaven -
Somehow, it will be even -
Some new Equation, given -
But, what of that?

I like how we can read the line "But, what of that?" to bring into question some portion of the situation that precedes it (that many hurt, that we'll all decay when we die, that things may be equal in heaven) OR that the statement brings the speaker's own reasoning itself into question. In other words, "I what of that?" I like this second reading because of the tension it puts into play between logic and faith once we get to the final stanza.
I've been looking at the poem a bit in my Franklin edition, wondering why he didn't preserve that exclamation point at the end!?!? His choice changes the tone of the poem, stripping it of that sassy, revelatory declaration.  But, what of that! Boo-yeah! Snap! You know?

The words "reason" and "that" are also worth exploring. Reason, meaning to logically argue or engage in logical discussion but also reason as an explanation made to explain or justify (which might not have its roots in logic, but rather in hope, feeling, intuition, self-delusion, etc.). What of that?

And are all these "that"s all pointing to a direct referent, a word or phrase that comes before? Or could there be some unnamed, far-off indicator (as in THAT over there, not THIS here)????
She makes my head spin in just a few quatrains. And this isn't even close to being one of the most enjoyable of Emily's poems (for me).

Just as fun (if not more so) is contemplating the rendering of this poem from her handwritten pages into Franklin's edition (apparently E.D. wrote out two versions of the poem--one sewn into a fascicle, the other sent to her confidant/friend Susan, which is the one linked above). In her analysis, Smith raises some salient points about poems: do they exist primarily in language and breath uttered aloud? Does it matter to get them "right" in writing, fixed on the page? I hold these in my mind and also wonder to what degree the handwritten poem can be an art object of its own. I am captivated by Dickinson's handwriting and impatiently hoping for all of her fascicles and letter poems and unsewn manuscript pages to be available online free for all. When, oh when?
Detail. Jen Bervin, The Composite Marks of Fascicle 28 at

Here's a blog post from the NEA's website about a collection of E.D.'s holographs that were on display until a few days ago at Poet's House in NYC. And if you're really interested in the visual realm of E.D.'s holographs, check out what artist/writer Jen Bervin does. Amazing!

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