Sunday, September 20, 2009

Emily Dickinson's Poetry II

So how did Emily Dickinson critique conventional views of reality? (See previous blog post.) Numerous examples could be given of her challenges to the dominant religious world view and prevailing attitudes toward marriage, domesticity, gender, sexuality, and human psychology. However, her most influential challenge was perhaps to the poetic conventions of the 19th century.

For all of her poems she used a very standard four-line ballad stanza (4 beats, 3 beats, 4 beats, 3 beats), with second and fourth lines rhyming). This is also known as common meter, folk meter, and hymn meter. Most of her poems can be sung to the tune of almost any church hymn or folk song. Try it!

However, Dickinson experimented with multiple variations on this stanza, such that it is not always recognizable until you scan its meter and compare it to the standard form. She used a popular, conventional form and adapted it to some highly esoteric uses, thus inviting general readers in and then stretching them beyond their familiar expectations. Instead of relying on standard rhymes, she experimented with what is called slant rhyme, approximate rhyme, or off rhyme, to the point where, again, it is not always immediately recognizable. As one critic said, “For Emily Dickinson, the world didn’t rhyme.” Her variations on the ballad stanza and experimentation with rhyme served to reinforce in a formal way the questioning of conventional views that can be found in the content of the poems.

Dickinson is also known for her unconventional punctuation (liberal use of dashes) and capitalization. She did not use titles or standard grammar. Her use of ellipsis and grammatical truncation again reinforces the unconventional content, but also contributes to obscurity. These technical idiosyncrasies and her use of highly unusual imagery and metaphors often create a cryptic opaqueness, which almost defies interpretation. Her riddle poems (“I like to see it lap the miles,” “A narrow fellow in the Grass,” “A route of Evanescence”) are playful versions of her penchant for seeing the world as a cryptic mystery.

Her experimentation with persona, sometimes speaking as a child (“I’m Nobody!”), a male (“A narrow Fellow”), a wife (“I’m ‘wife’—I’ve finished that”), a male lover (“Wild nights--wild nights!”), a voice from the dead (“I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—“) further disrupts our conventional expectations of identity and social role-playing.

Along with Walt Whitman, Dickinson was the most experimental and technically innovative American poet of the 19th century.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Emily Dickinson's Poetry I

I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that Emily Dickinson introduced psychological realism into poetry. Earlier poetry elegized, lyricized, sentimentalized, gothicized, and romanticized psychological states. Dickinson unflinchingly confronted psychological suffering, exploring in depth the emotional experiences most of us seek to avoid: grief, sadness, fear, doubt, loss, instability, and psychic pain. The only negative emotion that she rarely expresses would be anger, though that too can be detected in some of her biting satire.

Yes, she wrote "happy," playful poems, but even they were tinged with negative notes: "I'm nobody!" She rejoiced in nature but was always alone. Her love poems were painful expressions of unrequited feelings, loss, or unsatisfied longing.

General readers and critics have pathologized her as suffering from some kind of mental illness: seasonal affective disorder, depression, agoraphobia, bipolar disorder, suicidal tendencies. Certainly she was eccentric; her fellow townspeople in Amherst (MA) referred to her as "the Myth." She was known for her solitary ways and for wearing white.

Truthfully, we don't know if she was mentally ill or not. We do know that our cultural environment stigmatizes mental illness, making it possible to dismiss her poems as "symptoms" of mental illness or neurosis and therefore less credible.

If she was mentally ill, perhaps that condition was a gift, an alternative consciousness which made possible her brilliant critique of conventional views of reality. On the other hand, perhaps she was a perfectly sane, if eccentric, pioneer of the psychic frontier, able to confront directly the mental states that we all experience but prefer to deny.

Poems like "There's a certain slant of light" (about seasonal sadness); "I felt a Funeral, in my brain" (about mental instability); "After great pain a formal feeling comes" (about grieving); "One need not be a Chamber to be Haunted" (about the frightening hidden self) all courageously explore the darkest recesses of the human psyche. The gothic poems of Edgar Allen Poe exaggerated this terrain in an appeal to popular sensationalism, but Dickinson showed realistic restraint, representing our psychic world in terms that we can all recognize as a part of our common human experience. Who has not felt "zero at the bone"?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Waiting for the Barbarians

Published in 1980, Waiting for the Barbarians by South African author J. M. Coetzee, could be read in the context of apartheid as a strong critique of white supremacy, racism, colonialism, and cultural imperialism. However, it is written as an allegory and could just as well be read in light of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the history of the British Empire, the current superpower status of the United States, or, perhaps, of any ruling political power. As an allegory of political oppression, it is no simple narrative of "boo Empire, yay Barbarians." I was not left with the impression that the arrival of the barbarians would usher in a new age of equality and justice. On the contrary, I was left with the impression of a Hobbesian world of perpetual power struggle, in which oppressor and oppressed just keep changing places--a dark, rather hopeless image of human destiny.

Embedded in the narrative is a psychological study of the protagonist, a magistrate in the Empire, and his relationship with a "barbarian" woman who has been taken prisoner. This relationship mirrors the whole "master-slave" parasitical dynamic in which oppressor and oppressed feed off each other. The woman exercises sexual and psychological power over her "master," to the point where he eventually risks his life to return her to her people. The power dynamic is represented as a complex interaction of social, psychological, and physical forces, in which the "master" becomes as much a prisoner of the system as the "slave."

The setting of the story is an imperial outpost in the midst of a desert wasteland, where lonely humans engage in a continuous struggle for survival, self-gratification, and dominance--an apocalyptic vision with no hope of renewal and rebirth.

The only hope this dystopic novel offers is the possibility that it will raise awareness of our desperate condition to the point we might take action to break the cycle of the power dynamic. If Coetzee's outlook is indeed entirely hopeless, why would he write the novel in the first place? Is he a modern Sisyphus engaged in a never-ending effort to push the boulder of awareness up a hill of futility, or does he hold out hope for us to redeem ourselves through an evolution of consciousness?