Friday, December 10, 2010

Happy Birthday, Emily Dickinson

She would be 180 today.

I felt a funeral in my brain,
And mourners, to and fro,
Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
That sense was breaking through.

And when they all were seated,
A service like a drum
Kept beating, beating, till I thought
My mind was going numb.

And then I heard them lift a box,
And creak across my soul
With those same boots of lead,
Then space began to toll

As all the heavens were a bell,
And Being but an ear,
And I and silence some strange race,
Wrecked, solitary, here.

And then a plank in reason, broke,
And I dropped down and down--
And hit a world at every plunge,
And finished knowing--then--

That's my favorite among her poems. So sue me. I'm a gloomy goddess.

Another one of interest for its possible feminist connotations is this one:

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him -
The Mountains straight reply -

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through -

And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master's Head -
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow - to have shared -

To foe of His - I'm deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -

Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without--the power to die--

Adrienne Rich interprets it as follows (though also see here for different omissions):

..I think it is a poem about possession by the daemon, about the dangers and risks of such possession if you are a woman, about the knowledge that power in a woman can seem destructive, and that you cannot live without the daemon once it has possessed you. . . .

I do not pretend to have--I don't even wish to have--explained this poem, accounted for its every image; it will reverberate with new tones long after my words about it have ceased to matter. But I think that for us, at this time, it is a central poem in understanding Emily Dickinson, and ourselves, and the condition of the woman artist, particularly in the nineteenth century. It seems likely that the nineteenth-century woman poet, especially, felt the medium of poetry as dangerous. . . Emily Dickinson's is the only poetry in English by a woman of that century which pierces so far beyond the ideology of the "feminine" and the conventions of womanly feeling. To write it at all, she had to be willing to enter chambers of the self in which

Ourself behind ourself, concealed--
Should startle most--

and to relinquish control there, to take those risks she had to create a relationship to the outer world where she could feel in control.
All this may be true. At the same time, I've become more and more convinced of isolation as an absolute necessity for the successfully creative women of the past.

They had to detach themselves from the societal norms for women which did not reward female creativity but female connectedness to others and female service in general, and that detachment was best achieved by physical isolation, to the extent it was feasible.

Only women with funds and some amount of social freedom could even contemplate that, and the emotional cost of that isolation was always considerable. Neither did it work equally well for all types of endeavors, because some required membership in a circle of like-thinking individuals. Still, there are enough examples to suggest that the physical isolation of women such as Emily Dickinson and Georgia O'Keeffe was not a purely accidental aspect of their creative lives but perhaps a necessity, that which gave space and air for their work.

It can be argued that something similar applies to all creative individuals in arts. But the societal pressures were harder for women than men because the gender myths placed creative women more at variance with the societally expected behavior.