I’ve said before in this space and I’ll say it again: the single most important element of literature to me is language. Plot is circular: everything that happens has happened will happen; there’s nothing new under the sun, etc. Invention only goes so far. Character has been somewhat set ever since Shakespeare invented it. (Cue wink and nod to Harold Bloom.) But LANGUAGE. What sets fire to my brain is a different way of saying. A different way of telling. The same story with the inventive spark of language laid over it, braided through it, making me think and rethink the old themes and tropes. I like the kind of story, novel, or poem where I have to eat the words slowly, salivate over them, chew, swallow hard. Digest slowly.
So of course Emily Dickinson is and has long been one of my favorite poets. As she herself says, “Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant”. In that poem*, she explains that the truth is too dazzling for humans to confront head on, so it must be slanted, approached from the side, introduced gradually. A new way of saying. And her way of saying…oh, yes please. She is quite possibly, with the exception of Shakespeare, the most inventive and original poets to ever twist the English language round her pen. Her poems are brilliant little mysteries, smoky gems, and she is one of the handful of writers (Shakespeare, Nabokov, Stevens, Beckett) whose work I come back to again and again and again. There are always new angles, new puzzles to solve. New language to decode.
That’s why I’ve been loving Helen Vendler’s Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries lately. Vendler, the longtime poetry critic, gives a close reading of many of Dickinson’s poems: some well-known, some much more obscure. Just like she did before with Shakespeare’s sonnets, Vendler plumbs the poems’ depths in wonderful, thoughtful deconstructions of meter and rhyme and punctuation and above all, language. These readings reflect not just Vendler’s knowledge and experience, but also her love and appreciation for the marvel that is Dickinson’s language.
Vendler constantly draws upon on her vast scholarship of Dickinson to provide tidbits like this one, digging into the stanza “A still – Volcano – Life -/ That flickered in the night -/ When it was dark enough to do/ Without erasing sight – “:
Many of those who knew Dickinson remarked on her extraordinary power of language in everyday life. She herself was puzzled by the incomprehension of her neighbors: in August of 1862, she wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “All men say ‘What’ to me.” We can imagine the interchanges. To a cryptic remark issuing from Dickinson’s mouth: “What?” To a bizarre metaphor: “What?” To an unorthodox opinion: “What?” No wonder her father invited in a clergyman to discuss her beliefs with her…She liked thinking of herself as a Volcano, but as one curbing her power to dismiss, to wound, to hurt, to “erase.” She had a moral objection to words designed to hurt…
Vendler also discusses Dickinson’s critique of Christianity and how it’s reflected in her poetry, as well as the changes her first editors made and how they often affected the understanding of the poems for years to come. (For instance, her first editors titled her poems, which significantly removed much of the mystery and simplified them, sometimes to a false, pat understanding.) She also does something which I find particularly rewarding: she discusses Dickinson’s work in the context of other poets and writers we know she either read, or must have read. At the same time, Vendler is careful to give credit where credit is due; she describes how Dickinson must have worked to distinguish herself from her influences and contemporaries, and indeed, she writes that:
Dickinson succeeded brilliantly in outstripping her American poetic contemporaries (with the exception of Whitman) in writing of both nature and death; as for her defiant critique of Christianity and her uninhibited scrutiny of its concepts, it is unequaled among other poets of her day.
It is her scholarship, her extraordinary knowledge, her close and careful eye and ear, that make this book such a vital and necessary read for any Dickinson fan. But more than that, most of all, it is Vendler’s clear and shining admiration for the poetry and the writer that illuminates this entire text. As she says in the introduction:
I hope, by focusing here on Dickinson the writer–inventor of a new form of poetry on the page–to emphasize, more than thematic studies can do, Dickinson as a master of a revolutionary verse-language of immediacy and power.
Vendler’s Dickinson is Dickinson the revolutionary, placed in the proper context in the poetic canon at last. Without her, our poetic history, our language, would be a much flatter place. We can be glad that although “The Poets light but Lamps -/ Themselves – go out -“, our poet lit that lamp in the first place and illuminated a new path through poetry in the English language. Anyone who feels the same way, who owes a debt to Dickinson, should get their hands on a copy of Vendler’s book.