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...over-educated and under-experienced, or so they say...

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Response To My Response To Emily

I recognize, having been both a student and a teacher of English, that poetry is a lost art. I recognize that if the poet and the mathematician hold anything in common at all, it is that a select few truly understand where their mind is at and what they're doing with it. I used to write poetry all the time, it used to be my method of choice, until I realized that if I wanted to live my life as a starving writer, poetry was my best bet.

I still write a poem every so often (The Drain, which I posted a few weeks back, is the first one to come out of me in quite a while), and I still enjoy writing them. The problem is, I fear, my readers may not enjoy reading them, which is something I completely understand.

Poetry is a puzzle. It makes use of various stylistic and grammatical subtleties to get its point across, even as it's somewhat hiding that same point from your view. As a reader who may not enjoy poetry, this can be frustrating. As a reader who loves poetry, this is where the fun begins: this is your time to solve the puzzle, in which there is no complete way for you to walk around feeling 100% positive with your result, but you can be satisfied with your understanding and walk away with an immense amount of appreciation and fondness for the writer and the writer's ability to share their emotion and imagination with you in such an enigmatic and esoteric way.

I bring this up because one of my readers expressed some interest in what I was doing with yesterday's Response To Emily. I appreciate his question because I knew when I posted that poem, out of all the ones I have written and shared on this blog, that it was a difficult puzzle to solve. But his interest was enough for me to believe more of you may be interested and so... here is my answer to his question, and here is a breakdown on "the puzzle" that is "the poem."

Response To Emily is a response poem to Emily Dickinson -- a 19th Century American poet. I wrote this one a long time ago. I was still living with my parents, finishing my BA, and in the midst of divorce at the time. It was an assignment for a Whitman & Dickinson class I was in (I wrote Autumn Leaves, also posted to this blog somewhere, for that same class as a response to Whitman's Song Of Myself).

Traditionally, a response poem is both an exercise in walking in another writer's stylistic shoes as well as showing your ability as a writer to adeptly mimic their style. (I once wrote a dialogue between theorist Stanley Fish and 18th Century poet Alexander Pope called Tea and Crumpets With Stanley Fish for a Literary Criticism class. I did that one as a bet. Alexander Pope wrote in everything in heroic couplet -- every line is written in iambic pentameter and every two lines have a rhyme at the end of them. I had made a joke about doing it for the dialogue assignment and then two fellow English Majors dared me to follow through with it. They were betting on the fact I wouldn't be able to write in heroic couplet for five to ten pages. They lost the bet, which on a student budget meant I got two soft tacos from Taco Bell but still...) If you studied Dickinson, you would recognize that I mimicked her style as I expressed concepts of my own life and perception through her "voice." Both Autumn Leaves and Response To Emily were showpiece compositions that year, and they have followed me around all this time until I finally decided to post Emily's piece yesterday. She was never my favorite of the two, but as I dug through my past work the other night I ran across it and found it a worthy addition, even though I knew most people would not understand.

Dickinson's style, even more than Whitman's, is one weighted in symbol and metaphorical imagery, which is why I used so many images in this poem: the Dawn; the Moon; the Pinnacle; the Mouth; the Eye; the Sky; the Birds. When faced with something like this as a reader, it is important to see the image in your mind first and then think about the words and the grammatical tools that surround them -- and depending on the poet, use of rhyme and meter. Dickinson was known for the strange use of the dash and her use of capitalization. Her use of these is actually the topic of much research and debate and has a lot to do with the way the reader interprets the poem. I always believed they were simply there to direct the reader's attention to a specific image or metaphor, causing them to think on it for a while; at least that was the effect she had on me.

So, in this poem, the first thing you see is "At Once" followed by a dash. This indicates there is a significance in the sense of suddenness in the timing. Following that is "Arose the Dawn," also set apart with a dash. If you have ever sat and watched a sunrise, you have experienced a slow and peaceful observance of something that gradually rises and sheds light upon your world. It never rises "at once," it is never "sudden," so immediately the reader should notice that, despite the natural images, the author is using them as a metaphor to explain something else. The next line is "A Tirade to the Moon." Obviously, when the sun comes up the moon goes down. The Moon could be understood as the keeper of the night: it sheds a light of its own, but it never sheds enough light for an individual to see that clearly. And a "tirade" is bitter outburst. The last two lines of that stanza, "Brilliant Beams ascending O'er Pinnacle's said Doom" create the image of the sun beams rising over the mountains. So if you look at that stanza as a whole, you can interpret that the writer was previously sitting in the midst of the dark night, with no light except what was given by the moon, and suddenly, out of nowhere, the most powerful light that could possibly shine rises up over the mountain tops, shedding light on what could be understood as certain doom.

So then, stanza two helps the reader understand what that doom could very well have been. "In Lunar Light -- pale skin Does glow -- as Languid Lips Fabricate Amorous Mouthing -- An Eye, in deed, mislead." In other words, in the dark, underneath the limited light of the moon, you have a set of lovers, naked ("pale skin Does glow"). And in this darkness, words of love and promises were whispered like lies by an indifferent soul: "Languid Lips Fabricate Amorous Mouthing," which could also be understood as a sexual metaphor, supporting the concept of two lovers beneath the moon. "An Eye," something that can be fooled by a slip of the hand or visual action as well as a metaphorical image for an "I," that was "in deed/indeed" mislead -- play on words being, yes, "I" was indeed mislead, but also through the deeds of another "I" was mislead.

As the second stanza depicts the events of the darkness, the third stanza explains the significance of the light: "But Sweet the Light that shines, Condensing Careless words --, Unto the Boundless Sky -- And I, away with Birds." The light that suddenly rose over the mountain (metaphor for the uphill climb) is sweet as it shines brightly, shedding light and truth over all that was hidden by dark and false; "condensing [the] careless words" and actions of the "amorous mouthing" into nothing, like clouds dissipating into the "boundless sky," and therefor, freeing the "I" from the "doom" it was headed for, allowing the "I" (the same Eye that was in deed mislead) to make an escape into freedom -- flying "away with Birds."

So, there you have it. Maybe I should explicate myself more often. That was kind of fun. ;-) Remind me to tell you about my experience with T.S. Eliot sometime.

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