Sun, Apr 1, 2018

I’ve set my mind to learning how to… read? experience? integrate?… poetry. Unlike most everything I’ve learned to date, there’s not a technique here that can be mastered and applied correctly or incorrectly. That much I know–though there are those who, I suppose, would claim otherwise–but finding a more positivie statement of my endeavor is difficult. Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric and several books by Helen Vendler have been of particular help. I had once relied on Harold Bloom for such understanding, but his endless ranking and hyperbole in the absence of any practical guidance on what one might do with a poem (as opposed to what one might do with what one has won from a poem) put me off.

I’ve been working my way through the complete poems of the recently deceased Ashbery and Ammons, finding guidance where I can. Their approximate contemporaneity, along with the lack of expected comprehension of an Ashbery poem from the start, have helped. You read and you do what you want with what you’ve read. These are the products of minds not greatly separated from my own in time, place, or inclinations. But as with any literature, they’re constantly referring back to a corpus of poetry, which is much more distant from my mind than it is from theirs. I know that Wallace Stevens is an immediate forebear to both, but I’m not ready for him yet. Further back are Whitman, who I have read (though, in some sense, as prose) and Dickinson. There, Helen Vendler’s Dickinson, her exegesis of about 150 of Dickinson’s poems, has been very helpful.

Yet there, I also find myself struggling with my greater distance from the knowledge with which Vendler is so clearly intimate. Much of that knowledge is contextual–I don’t know nearly as much about how Dickinson lived her life, what she read, what those around her read, or what was taken as given in her place and time. But even granting Vendler her vastly greater insight, I find some of her readings perverse in view of what actually appears on the page. I suspect some of this is the result of too great an allegiance to the more speculative, but still widely-held truisms regarding Dickinson’s life. It might just be the fourteen-year-old boy in me, but it really seems like so much of her poetry touches upon sex, with both men and women, told slant (and sometimes, not so slant at all). I understand that writers often express more than they write, consciously or not, but I think it’s still worth starting with what appears on the page.

Allow me to offer what I think is a straight-forward, if not terribly sexy, example. This is regarding the start of the second stanza of poem Number 252 (“I can wade Grief –”):

Power is only Pain –
Stranded – thro’ Discipline,
Till weights – will hang –

Quite an image of strength drawn, or extruded, from depression through will. And that, I’m certain, is the meaning of “Stranded” here. It isn’t trapped–it’s pain that has been pulled through discipline into strands from which the weights of life can hang. Here, on the other hand, is Vendler’s take on the word “Stranded” here:

…What can Dickinson be thinking of when she speaks of her Pain as “Stranded”? Grief has stranded her feet in Pools, lesser bodies of water, which, having no current, can never reach the sea, the normal goal of land water…