Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Life of Emily Dickinson

I'm reading Sewall's biography of Emily Dickinson. It's a really wonderful book, and I highly recommend it. He is at war with what he calls, with a capital 'M', “the Myth” – which is the story that Dickinson, disappointed in love, and really too fragile for this world, withdrew from it and attempted to vanish behind the masks of poetry, as a way of escape. He sets up a counter-story, of a woman finding her vocation and simply dropping the obligations of an intensely social world (the typical life of an upper-class New England lady was a mass of social obligations) that would have eaten all her time and pulled her away from her life's work.

You can practically feel his longing: he wants very much for it to be true. But he's too disciplined and conscientious to skew his evidence, and I don't find myself believing his story much more than the the story he so successfully shoots down. I'm not convinced that Dickinson believed in her own poetic immortality, or that she was easy in her skin.

I'm aware of wanting to make a third story, to co-opt her and take her for my own. I would make her endlessly restless, a person of deep religious feeling but impatient with doctrine and suspicious of religious professionals. I would make her disappointed in love, in a drastic if unspecific Shelleyan way. She flings herself at people (in writing at least), and leaves them uncomfortable and bewildered by her enthusiasm. Nothing quite works out, and she moves restlessly away, having been failed – somehow – she doesn't even know how. But person after person moves out of her orbit, unsatisfied and unsatisfying.

All the while, I can see why I'd try to make this the Dickinson story: I can see the tendentiousness of my own mind, its eagerness to co-opt her, to make her play out one version of my own psychodrama, to find a way out or around or through this baffle. Nothing will come of that.

Again and again, I come to the baffle, the stone in the tunnels in Cirith Ungol that I can get neither around nor through nor over, though I can hear the voices of my enemies, carrying away what I love. What was all this for, then? That is probably not a question that means anything, but it is an insistent one.

I grow more and more wary of this sort of thinking, thinking of purposes and destinies and the fate of character. I looked at my recent poems, though, because someone else was looking at them, and I thought, my God, what a bitter and resentful person wrote these poems! And all alike. Flinging himself at the baffle again and again. It's time to stop and think, instead: time to back off.

In the meantime: sun and rain in a complicated dance, and the grape leaves – whatever they really are – phosphorescent in the mist, and hugging Deb Scott on Mississippi Avenue. An arc of color where the rain was sorting the light, and photos of robed Rinpoches on an office wall. I wait for November, and the healing dark, and the recovery of touch.


Murr Brewster said...

I have been moved to comment on all your ED posts (not erectile dysfunction) but have held back. It's a little embarrassing. I have not followed poetry after having written it and loved it only when much younger. When I went dry, I ignored the whole genre, and never fell back in. But at that time, when I was writing and loving poetry, I didn't care for Emily Dickinson. I thought she was too simple. I haven't gone back, but now I will. Because I recognize a parallel failing: I used to think the same about Mozart. I did stay with my music, and now I see how wrong I was. (Very, very wrong.) So it's time to revisit your friend.

Peter said...

I've never read a Dickinson bio, but, you know, I've read all of these Lincoln bios. The different theories these writers posit on him! I enjoy most of the attempts, and I'm left wondering if the guy was all or none or if we're all all or none.

Maybe famous dead people bring us together. Liberals and many conservatives claim Lincoln; I think people in different literary camps like Dickinson. Sure, we don't agree on what we mean by Lincoln any more than we agree on what we mean by America, but at least he keeps returning, as anyone would, full bodied and beyond anyone's conception.

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson said...

There is a novel in Emily Dickinson's voice which you might read, "The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson" by Jerome Charyn. I was inspired to start a FB community around it. The author has announced his next novel (also for Norton) will be about Abraham Lincoln. - Lenore Riegel [Here's a link to the Author's Guide to Secret Life:]

Zhoen said...

Aside from a cursory pop culture awareness, and a poem required to be memorized in school, I don't know Dickinson. But I've been reading Le Carre for years. He's been pushed to write an autobiography for a very long time. I always think, well, all his books are about his journey, and The Perfect Spy is probably a more truthful biography, if not strictly factual, than could be written otherwise. Does having a more literal reason make a writer's own truths - expressed in the way they felt most descriptive, be it poetry or fiction or music, make it any more true?

rbarenblat said...

What I love about this post is your honesty about the desire to read your own story into Dickinson's, at least on some level. Isn't that what we all do? But we so rarely admit that that's the yearning which motivates us to read a poet in a particular way.

Kathleen said...

I, too, appreciate your honesty--here in how you connect to or interpret her possible life story. I read the Sewall biography some years ago, preparing to perform The Belle of Amherst, and a hefty recent bio by Cynthia Griffin Wolff that also improved my understanding of Emily's time (death ever present, so common) as well as her personality--bringing in new info & evidence, too.