Emily and Me, part II

Emily and Me, part II

The Emily Dickinson seminar – The Incredible Brightness of Being (given by Mark Scarbrough, at the Gunn Memorial Library in Washington, Connecticut) – is over now, and there is so much still to ponder, to appreciate and revel in. Bits and pieces of poems and background, philosophy and technique float through my every day since, sparking reflections, discussions, and work. The titles of Mark’s lectures tease a multitude of starting points: I -The Soul Selects Her Own Society; II -Take That, Emerson: Dickinson, Romanticism, and What It Takes To Make A Prairie; III – My Business Is Circumference; IV – “Our Lives Are Swiss”; V – Pugilist and Poet: The Struggle With God. No matter the topic or frame of his lecture, Mark attends to Emily’s craft as he reads her poetry, especially her deft use of rhythm and rhyme, her exquisite word choices, and her concision. Which are all revelations to me, the writer.

Another sharp awareness comes from two separate themes presented by Mark, that together center my intuitive understanding of powerful writing, and art. The first is the idea of Master Narratives, and how they play upon any reading of Emily’s (or any other poet’s/writer’s/artist’s) work. The second is his unearthing of Emily’s obliquity – her refusal to identify, name, or locate any idea she nonetheless engages.

The concept of master narrative is de rigueur now in the world of literary criticism, and a commonplace understanding among the rest of us, but it is worth noticing, again, here. Master narratives are the frameworks we construct and carry with us to filter and make sense of the world, like creation stories, or Greek myths, or any philosophy. What this means for art is that we the reader bring our meanings to bear on a work. We interpret, according to our mores, ideals, hopes, and experiences – according to our own master narrative(s).

Great works are just such because they allow our imprint. They have the capacity to hold many meanings: one work equals many texts. Think the Bible, and Shakespeare, the Constitution – even History itself. All start definitively, with words or facts, yet allow us to read between the lines, and importantly, to edit. And we do. As our contexts differ and change, so do the meanings we find among the givens. In this way open-endedness in art and text gives long life to created work.

Art-making has long recognized the active role of the reader, too, as has design and literature, most explicitly in the expressions of participatory art and open narrative. Umberto Eco’s beautiful essay The Poetics of the Open Work is an historical exposition of participation in art. He makes the case that the reader/viewer’s agency has always been recognized by artist and writer and composer; what has changed is how any created work addresses this fact. At one extreme the artist attempts to control the viewer’s experience with perspective and frame: This is what to look at, this is what to see, to learn, to know. At the other, the creator embraces ambiguity – Tell me what you think – or expressly leaves a role for the audience in performing the work: Show me what you would make, create this with me.

Emily Dickinson makes room for her readers in two ways. She is deliberately circumspect about her topics and themes, rarely if ever naming them. Instead she uses a marvelous mix of metaphors and aphorisms to dance around ideas, and to conjure feelings. To read Emily is to have emotional experiences first and foremost, rather than rational or logical or analytical ones. This is how she hooks us and so places an idea within us. She tells us what something is by telling us how it feels – how she feels – and reveals truths to us in that way.

I do wonder if this was intentional on her part. How much is craft, and how much is simply process writ down? Was she playing with an intended audience, attempting to gift an experience? Or, is her poetry more a diary of her own struggles to understand herself, the world, life? Another way to ask it: Is her poetry a simply a record of her attempt to put (nonverbal) interiority into words?

For myself, I have always felt my best work realizes processes of learning, and the deep yet fleeting emotions that accompany them: the ache of beauty, the rapture of an idea, the epiphany of wisdom. My work – writing and art – are simulations of acquisition, knowings wrought with feeling. I experience this most powerfully when I read my memoirs aloud to an audience. Then I am performing, reliving the feelings I remember, as much as if not more than the events I recount. My audiences confirm it, with applause and comments, and it is true, too, of the art work most special to me.

I’ll leave you with this poem, to experience and understand on your own terms. Or as Emily intended/wanted/crafted. You decide.

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –


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