Don’t Forget the Poems

There was a quote from Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, describing the poems.  I wasn’t able to fit it into my review of the book.

A Dickinson poem can open out into any number of dramas to fill its compelling spaces.  As a woman unmodified by mating, a stranger to her time, speaking for those who are not members of the dominant group, Dickinson’s dashes push the language apart to open up the space where we live without language.

This act of daring takes off from a logical argument along the tightrope of the quatrain.  She flaunts her footsteps.  Her poetic line is a high-wire act:  a walker pretends to hesitate, stop, and sway; then, fleet of foot, skips to the end.

Gordon gives a thoughtful analysis of Dickinson’s poetry.  The foundation of her claim that Emily suffered from epilepsy is constructed on the clues she picks out of the poems, making it all the more convincing.  So if you love the poetry, and aren’t interested in the drama of the poet’s life, Lives Like Loaded Guns won’t disappoint.

Another source, one I highly recommend, is Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978.  It contains an essay, written by Rich in 1975 – Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson.  It was my introduction to the Emily described in both Lyndall Gordon’s and Jerome Charyn’s books.

Dickinson is the American poet whose work consisted in exploring states of psychic extremity.  For a long time, as we have seen, this fact was obscured by the kinds of selections made from her work by timid, if well-meaning, editors.  In fact, Dickinson was a great psychologist, and like every great psychologist, she began with the material she had at hand: herself.  She had to posses the courage to enter, through language, states which most people deny or veil with silence.

And then, of course, there are the poems.  I’ve been reading them since I was 13 years old and still find them bewildering.  But isn’t that the mark of genius?  Like the cliché onion, great poetry has layers that we can peel away; at different stages of our lives we discover different meanings.

There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself –
Finite infinity.


On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 by Adrienne Rich
Publisher:  W.W. Norton & Company, New York (1995)
ISBN:  0 393 31285 2

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson
Publisher:  Little, Brown and Company, Boston (1960)
ISBN:  00355 13 01

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Top 10 Books (Mostly Fiction) Which Have Influenced My View of the World

William Faulkner

Time to play The Influential Book Game here at BookSexy.  I’ll try to keep it brief – but these are the books which have changed my life!  It’s kinda’ hard to encapsulate something that monumental into 50 words or less.

1.  Big Two-Hearted River by Ernest Hemingway – I read it once, in high school no less, and wasn’t impressed at the time.  All I recall is a man coming back from war and going fishing.  Yet  the mood of that story has stuck with me as if it were one of my own memories.  The complete silence.  The disconnect between Nick Adams and his surroundings.  I didn’t realize in high school what it was about.  But Hemingway’s writing was powerful enough that years later, without picking up the book again, I remembered and finally understood.

2.  Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner – He is the greatest Southern writer, living or dead  (sorry Cormac!)  and remains to this day my favorite author of all time.  Flannery O’Connor put it best:

The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.

3.  Franny & Zooey by J.D. Salinger – Is it pretentious to quote yourself?  Probably. “If Holden Caulfield was someone I could relate to in my teenage years, reading about the Glass family guided me through my 20’s and helped me discover who I wanted to become.  I can’t really explain why, other than that they were smart and good and all spoke like actors in pre-code Hollywood films.”

4.  A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro – This book is a Japanese watercolor in literary form, and is in my opinion his most thoughtful novel.  Ishiguro’s  continuous exploration of three themes – our choices, the resulting regrets and how/what we remember – is an incredibly accurate portrayal of a character processing the life she has led.

Steinbeck & Charlie

5.  Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder – If in my 20’s I wanted to grow up to be Franny Glass, up until my tweens my role model was Laura Ingalls Wilder.  There’s something about finding an empty piece of land, building a house and making everything from scratch – that kind of survivalist lifestyle has always appealed to me.  Well, in theory at least.

6.  Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck – Kerouac may have crisscrossed the country on Route 66, but Steinbeck actually stopped to look around.

7.  A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe – Defoe’s chronicle of the bubonic plague in 17th century London captured my imagination.  Because of it, there is an entire shelf in my library devoted to epidemics.  His language is startlingly modern.  In a way, A Journal of the Plague Year is the prequel to every Zombie movie (and book)  ever made.

8.  Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

But then, in a sense, all poetry is positional:  to try to express one’s position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness, is an immemorial urge… Vivian Bloodmark, a philosophical friend of mine, in later years, used to say that while the scientist sees everything that happens in one point of space, the poet feels everything that happens in one point in time.  Lost in thought, he taps his knee with his wandlike pencil, and at the same instant a car (New York license plate) passes along the road, a child bangs the screen door of a neighboring porch, an old man yawns in a misty Turkestan orchard, a granule of cinder-gray sand is rolled by the wind on Venus, a Docteur Jacques Hirsch in Grenoble puts on his reading glasses,  and trillions of other such trifles occur – all forming an instantaneous and transparent organism of events, of which the poet (sitting in a lawn chair, at Ithaca, N.Y.) is the nucleus.

9.  Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

10. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver opened up an entire continent and began a fascination with African culture and history that I still holds me to this day.  It has led me to Peter Forbath’s  The River Congo: The Discovery, Exploration & Exploitation of the World’s Most Dramatic River, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Alexander McCall Smith and countless others.  For years I’ve been slowly working my way across a continent I’ve never set foot on.   The gift of secondhand experiences.

And finally…..

(drumroll, please)….

Lucky Numbers 11!

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence:  Selected Prose 1966-1978 by Adrienne Rich and Writings by Agnes Martin – These books have so much to say that they’ll eventually get their own reviews.  But I couldn’t have a list of books that had influenced my world view and not include them.  Consider this a teaser.

Yeah, I know.  I cheated.

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