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Friday, December 10, 2010

Focusing the Lens of the Age on Emily Dickinson

“Dickinson the writer: how do we characterize her?” asks Helen Vendler in the introduction to her absorbing new book. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries.
She is epigrammatic, terse, abrupt, surprising, unsettling, flirtatious, savage, winsome, metaphysical, provocative, blasphemous, tragic, funny—and the list of adjectives could be extended, since we have almost 1,800 poems to draw on.
Dickinson (whose birthday is today) published just a handful of poems in her lifetime; her poetry has come to us, much as Dickinson foretold in “The Poets light but Lamps” through the “Lenses” of subsequent “Ages.” “Each Age a Lens/Disseminating their/Circumference.“ Vendler appreciates Dickinson’s long vision of her work:
Dickinson allows for the appeal of different poems to different Ages (the lens of one Age may fix more rarely here, more frequently there) and also for the difference between eras (as between convex and concave lenses), but the affirmation that every Age is a new Lens for old Light is a reassuring one: somewhere, at some time, the vital poem will find its audience. . . The Circumference widens as each era adds a new Lens, until finally no limit can be placed on the influence of poetic radiance.
Vendler discerns four ages since Dickinson’s death: the Age of Publication, the Age of Biography, the Age of Editing, and the current Age of Commentary. Focusing with dazzling acuity on 150 of Dickinson’s poems—from “first-person poems to the poems of grand abstraction, from her ecstatic verses to her unparalleled depictions of emotional numbness, from her comic anecdotes to her painful poems of aftermath”—Vendler demonstrates why Seamus Heaney has called her “the best close reader of poems to be found on the literary pages.”

And in another recent book, Maid as Muse, which the late Tillie Olsen found “absolutely original and electrifying,” Aife Murray brings us to a new appreciation of who we should thank for the survival of those 1,800 poems:
On her deathbed, Emily Dickinson extracted an oath from her maid Margaret Maher to burn the poems she stored in her maid’s trunk. This maid later tearfully appealed to the poet’s brother and sister-in-law about breaking this oath.
Of related interest:
Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, volume two: Melville to Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals (includes 172 poems by Emily Dickinson); American Writers at Home (includes a chapter on Emily Dickinson’s Homestead)

1 comment:

  1. "Emily Dickinson extracted an oath from her maid Margaret Maher to burn the poems she stored in her maid’s trunk."

    This isn't an unusual reaction from writers on their death bed.

    Kafka comes to mind, too.


    It seems such a strange act of undoing. I wonder if it's the illusion of control that is so appealing. One's life is unravelling, most likely against one's will, but one can always consciously assist it with all kinds of weird, strange symbolic acts.



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