31 March 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/14

National Poetry Month begins tomorrow, but we're getting a jump on it with this poem, which begins the theme for this month: poets writing about other poets. And as a reminder: we live in a commercial culture, and any art that doesn't make a lot of money for corporate interests is increasingly marginalized (or simply declared "dead" by people who never paid attention to it anyway). But we all know that the margins are where the interesting things mostly happen. If you think someone is doing good work, or keeping the good work of the past alive, support that person by buying their books. If I've posted a poem that interests you, I hope you will go to Amazon, or the publisher, or your local independent bookstore, or wherever, and buy the book.

Emily Dickinson's Defunct

She used to
pack poems
in her hip pocket.
Under all the
gray old lady
clothes she was
dressed for action.
She had hair,
in certain places, and
believe me,
she smelled human
on a hot summer day.
Stalking snakes
or counting
the thousand motes
in sunlight
she walked just
like an Indian.
She was New England's
favorite daughter,
she could pray
like the devil.
She was a
two-fisted woman,
this babe.
All the flies
just stood around
and buzzed
when she died.

Marilyn Nelson [Waniek]*

Contemporary American poet Marilyn Nelson cleverly adjusts our view of Emily Dickinson, who lived from 1830 to 1886 – prime pioneer woman days. She situates Dickinson in her habitat, New England, and simultaneously reminds us of New England's Puritan past, its influence on Dickinson, and her differences from it with a few deft lines: "She was New England's / favorite daughter, / she could pray / like the devil." Nelson emphasizes Dickinson's physicality (her body hair, her sweat: imagine, the poet orders, and emphasizes the word by placing it alone on its line) and her attachment to the natural world (the snakes – see Dickinson's A narrow fellow in the grass or Sweet is the swamp with its secrets; the motes in the sunlight; walking "like an Indian," that is, like someone who lives completely immersed in the natural world and can track his or her way through it; and at the end of the poem, stately use is made of I heard a fly buzz – when I died –). Dickinson's attachment to the natural world is well known as a feature of her poetry, but her physicality is less often considered; even the speculation on her sexual nature tends towards the theoretic and subliminal.

Given the common view of Dickinson (though perhaps less common than it once was, as her poetry becomes better known in more accurate editions – there was nothing resembling an edition that printed the poems as she wrote them until Thomas H. Johnson's in 1955 – and as critical views evolve and change) as the fey, reclusive woman in white, subject to odd fancies, it's really, really funny to think of her as "a two-fisted woman, / this babe." But those lines also capture something deeply true about Dickinson: she really was a two-fisted woman where it counts, in the only way that still matters to us about this long-dead woman: in her spirit, which was manifested in her aesthetic sense – she had to be aware that her way of writing poetry was not that of her time and place, and that it was in fact the type of art that has to create its own audience and its own posterity, as Proust puts it. Yet instead of trying to write in the style of her time, with more regular rhyme and meter (perhaps she knew such a style was not her gift, and therefore not to be attempted by her) she persisted in writing in her idiosyncratic style, and in preserving what she wrote, despite little expectation that she would be published in her lifetime, or even after.

* Marilyn Nelson wrote under the name Marilyn Nelson Waniek from 1978 to 1995, and she appears under that name in the anthology from which I took this poem, Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans Since 1945, edited by Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton. But if you're looking for her books, you may find them under Marilyn Nelson.


Sibyl said...

This is absolutely glorious. I shall revel in this for days. I am going to steal it for my poetry month posts without hesitation. I tend to post waaaaaay too many dead white male poets (as one might expect a 19th century specialist to do). That it is an appreciation of a dead white female poet adds magnitudes of savor. Goodness, my thanks to you do pile up!

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I'm very happy that you liked it and that you commented on it! Though as a half-dead white male myself, I should also add that you could have an entertaining high-quality month even if you posted nothing but them. . ..