American Women's Poetry
& Dickinson's Legacy
The Inaugural Lecture of the Emily Dickinson Lectureship in American Poetry, Pennsylvania State University, October 1999. Endowed by George & Barbara Kelly.
By Martha Nell Smith
I am deeply honored to have been asked to give this inaugural lecture of the Emily Dickinson Lectureship in American poetry. I'd like especially to thank the Kellys - Barbara & George Robin Schulze, who graciously extended the invitation and made the arrangements and my trip to State College all the easier and more comfortable. This is only the second time I have been on the Penn State campus, and I'm delighted to be here at such splendidly sunlit time of the year.
This talk is in tribute to George and Barbara Kelly, and their generosity at making such face-to-face exchanges possible. And I feel confident they will not only not mind but will in fact take pleasure in sharing that honor with our late friend Louis Forsdale. Though I only knew him online, I became familiar enough with his character so that I was not at all surprised to learn that, before retiring to Santa Fe, he had taught at the Teacher's College of Columbia University for 40 years. A committed and dedicated student, a conscientious, thorough, gentle yet forceful teacher he remained to the end of his days.
When I pondered what I wanted to talked about for this lectureship series in American poetry, I knew that Emily Dickinson's work would play a major role. And it does. But I want to consider some of her work's reverberations in contemporary American poetry, and I do so because I want to think out loud about the role of poetry in United States' culture, society, and for its readers at the end of the twentieth century. Mulling over the present state of Dickinson Studies, which is a very rich field indeed, but one rife with ad feminam arguments, served to launch my musings, which will lead, I hope, to conversations extending well beyond our intercourse today. These remarks are an extension of what I first imagined as a book interacting with televisual interviews, a volume to be named "Titanic Operas: Dickinson & American Women's Poetry." In collaboration with Professor John Harrington of Seton Hall University, I had imagined that book after I attended the marvelous centennial tribute he organized there in South Orange, New Jersey. That tribute featured contemporary women poets reading hour after hour, from morning until night "to commemorate the centenary of the death of Emily Dickinson," which occurred on May 15, 1886. Adrienne Rich, Ruth Stone, Amy Clampitt, Katha Pollitt, Sharon Olds, Marilyn Hacker, Carolyn Kizer, Toi Derricotte, Maxine Kumin, Mary Oliver, Joyce Carol Oates, Sandra Gilbert, Alicia Ostriker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Denise Levertov were all there-- "Poetry-in-the-Round" it was called, an apt descriptor not only because of the shape of the theater in which the readings took place, but because of the taking turns, the offerings making their way around a range of our contemporary poets who have at least two things in common with Emily Dickinson--they are each and all women, and poets. Though it is not a volume, in the sense that it is not a book one can hold in her hand, that collection of poetic responses to Dickinson's legacy goes by the same name and is now an online publication available at the Dickinson Electronic Archives.
This contribution to Dickinson studies has not received nearly the attention that some of my other work has. To reflect upon this ever growing, ever changing online venture, I want to place firmly in our minds a sense of what poet Alice Fulton has called a "Poetry of inconvenient knowledge," which captures so well what I think is important about much women's poetry and why I believe poetry itself to be a crucial force for mapping our educational ways over the next few years. Much that is in Titanic Operas meets the criteria for poetry that Fulton celebrates, that of "inconvenient knowledge." Fulton writes, "I refer to the poem's content. In an effort to distance myself from naive or literal readings, I (and other poets) often go to some lengths to avoid beginning a sentence 'This poem is about. . . .' After years of circumlocution, perhaps it's time to admit that yes, poems are about something. Because of the engagement entailed in creating an aesthetic, all poems worthy of the name evince a praxis that amounts to meaning, however embedded. What poems are saying--and what they are failing to say--is an issue of considerable complexity" (40).
Since for more than a decade I've had the idea of the publication now realized online, in a new materiality, I've drafted it more than a couple of times. As far as working on it goes, one might say that I've been working on it all along, and it's been working on me, as I've been working on other Dickinson related projects--Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson (1992), Comic Power in Emily Dickinson (with Suzanne Juhasz and Cristanne Miller; 1993), the Dickinson Electronic Archives Project (1994 to the present at http://www.emilydickinson.org/), Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson (with Ellen Louise Hart; 1998). Titanic Operas has needed this kind of long-lived attention, and the online edition is by no means the culmination of my thinking about American women's poetry, women poets, and their complex, contradictory, always inspiring responses to the nineteenth- century American poet Emily Dickinson. Let's begin by mulling over perhaps Dickinson's most famous response to a contemporary woman poet, a British sister who was one half of the most celebrated couple in all of poetry written in English -- Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning:
I think I was Enchanted
When first a +sombre Girl -
I read that Foreign Lady -
The Dark - felt beautiful -
And whether it was Noon
at Night -
Or only Heaven - at Noon -
For very Lunacy of Light
I had not power to tell -
The Bees - became as
The Butterflies - as +Swans -
Approached - and spurned
the narrow Grass -
And just the +meanest Tunes
That Nature murmured to
To keep herself in Cheer -
I took for Giants - practising
Titanic Opera -
The Days - to Mighty Metres
The Homeliest - adorned
As if unto a + Jubilee
'Twere suddenly + Confirmed -
I could not have defined the
Conversion of the Mind
Like Sanctifying in the Soul -
Is witnessed - not Explained -
'Twas a Divine Insanity -
The + Danger to be Sane
Should I again Experience -
'Tis Antidote to turn -
To Tomes of Solid Witchcraft -
Magicians be asleep -
But Magic - hath an Element
Like Deity - to keep -
+ little Girl + As Moons -
lit up the low - inferior Grass -
+ Common Tunes - faintest -
+ Sacrament + Ordained + Sorrow
(F 29; P 593)
As it was for her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson (also a poet), for Emily Dickinson poetry was a serious business, so serious that it was gleeful, silly, a revelry, as well as a sacrament. Poetry was, in Susan's words, their sermon - their hope - their solace - their life.1
In May 1986, I attended the aforementioned event in New Jersey--state of Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Joyce Kilmer, Allen Ginsberg, and Bruce Springsteen--two days of contemporary women poets talking about some of hers and reading their own poems "in tribute to Emily Dickinson." As a Dickinson scholar, I was particularly interested in the many centennials held to commemorate the poet ten decades after her death, and, of all the festivals, this one-- featuring women whose primary identification is as poets and not as critics, biographers, textual scholars, or literary theorists--was arguably the most celebratory, astutely critical, and boldly theoretical as writer after writer mused on Dickinson's poetic project and its continuing meanings for her readers. The two points that struck me most those sultry spring afternoons more than a decade ago has impressed me time and again since as I have listened to, talked with, and read contemporary women poets speaking about Dickinson as influence, as forebear, as foremother, as wicked stepmother, as daughter, as sister, as inspiration, as irritation, as model, as rival.
The two points--one about gender and one about connectedness--are embodied by a series of remarks that I'll recount for you. From one of the earliest reviews of her work, specifically in the London Times--that Dickinson's writing is "immeasurably obscure"--to judgments rendered by prominent poet/critics like R.P. Blackmur--that she wrote a happenstance body of nearly 2,000 lyrics instead of knitting antimacassars--to recent widely admired (including by me) criticism--that her incomprehensibility was proto-modernist. Whatever the reading of her literary practices and her personality, Emily Dickinson is seen as solitary, as a single soul selecting its own society, itself. Almost all critics say with great confidence, as if it is an indisputable fact and as if they know her--Dickinson worked alone. Christopher Benfey concludes that, after consulting with Susan Dickinson, Emily Dickinson sent a copy of "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" to Thomas W. Higginson because she was "frustrated with Susan's response." Committed to the "Emily Dickinson wrote alone, always" school, Benfey states in a The New York Review of Books review essay, as if he knows it to be a fact, that Dickinson turned to Higginson because sharing her work with Susan turned out to be a failed experiment. He has no way of knowing this, however. Nor does he have a way of knowing whether Emily decided to contact Higginson all by herself or whether she did this in further consultation with Susan. The fact that Susan sent some of Emily's poems to some editors certainly suggests that forwarding this poem to the prominent editor widely regarded for his championing of the rights of women and blacks would likely have been discussed by Emily with her. But Benfey cannot imagine that Emily could be anything but disappointed with Susan, so it does not even occur to him that, after not being able to come to agreement on which was the better version of the poem, or, through dialogue and exchange about the poem, its different stanzas, and what might be its best configuration, Emily and Susan, together, decide to send the poem as one of the first four by which Emily could introduce herself to Higginson. In turn, they could well have decided that the second stanza beginning "Grand go the Years" is most likely to resonate with him. Unless new evidence surfaces, no reader can ever be entirely certain what motivated Emily and who knew aobut it. But other pieces of knowledge are within our grasp, and are valuable to claim.
As Josephine Jacobsen observes, for most literary women throughout time, and even within the past couple of hundred years, making a profession of poetry, "being a poet was not a practical, emotional, or mental option" (53). For Emily, intense preoccupation with writing poetry, working over draft after draft, proved a practical option, an emotional option, a mental option. And Susan proved a most appreciative reader. We can know that. "'The Poems' will ever be to me marvellous whether in manuscript or type" (December 1890 letter quoted by Bingham in AB 86- 87). From Susan's obituary of Emily Dickinson, one sees the writer, constantly at work, known and admired as such:
Her talk and writing were like no one's else, and although she never published a line, now and then some enthusiastic literary friend would turn love to larceny, and cause a few verses surreptitiously obtained to be printed. Thus, and through other natural ways, many saw and admired her verses, and in consequence frequently notable persons paid her visits, hoping to overcome the protest of her own nature and gain a promise of occasional contributions, at least, to various magazines. . . . (WSD online).
Susan is thinking about Emily as a poet, and encouraging readers to own what they can know about that. A century later, women poets are preoccupied with much the same thing.
In Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich sees a woman writer who was compelled to make the writing of poetry practical, a woman of a class and circumstance to afford the care and feeding of her inspiring obsession with language, with making meaning; for Rich, Dickinson is a woman:
for whom the word was more
than a symptom--
a condition of being.
(Necessities of Life 33)
As Betsy Erkkila has pointed out, with her 1975 essay, "Vesuvius at Home," Rich mothered "a whole new level of discourse" in Dickinson study. Rich writes:
The poet's relationship to her poetry has, it seems to me--and I am not speaking only of Emily Dickinson--a twofold nature. Poetic language--the poem on paper--is a concentration of the poetry of the world at large, the self, and the forces within the self; and those forces are rescued from the formlessness, lucidified, and integrated in the act of writing poems. But there is a more ancient concept of the poet, which is that she is endowed to speak for those who do not have the gift of language, or to see for those who--for whatever reasons--are less conscious of what they are living through. It is as though the risks of the poet's existence can be put to some use beyond her own survival ("Vesuvius" 181).
83-year-old Ruth Stone likewise sets about reclaiming and renaming the poet, her work, her practicalities, her putting her risk to uses beyond her own survival:
When I read Emily Dickinson's poems, these original hard as steel poems, and I feel the intensity in every word, words used in new ways, beat to her will, then I think she was self-sufficient, an artist whose mind was never asleep, whose concentration recreated, made fresh, all that she saw and felt, as though she saw through the ordinary barriers not as a visionary but as a laser beam. But when I think of how little recognition she received in her lifetime, and how devastated she must have felt, though her fierce pride concealed it, then I am angry and sad. Yes, a great artist knows and can work in almost total isolation, but it is a terrible thing to have to do. The original mind seems eccentric, even crazy sometimes. In her cryptic inventions, she broke the tiresome mold of American poetry. We still stand among those shards and splinters.
Similarly, the late Amy Clampitt noted: "The moral world as a great, splendid, terrible auditorium- -this was the vision by which, it would appear, she staved off a greater terror, that of vanishing without notice" (Precessors, Et Cetera 54). Louise Bogan proclaimed that Dickinson's "power to say the un-sayable--to hint of the unknowable--is the power of the seer, in this woman equipped with an ironic intelligence and great courage of spirit." In a letter to Bryher, H.D. writes: "Dickinson is a great value for the mind and conscience."
After proclaiming that to write of Dickinson "is almost hopeless, because Emily and I are absolutely different in the details of our lives," Gwendolyn Brooks states her admiration for Dickinson's "putting common words together so they make a new magic" and confidently observes, "I'm sure that Dickinson would have felt this way if she had lived into this most challenging time":
SPEECH TO THE YOUNG
SPEECH TO THE PROGRESS-TOWARD
Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
"Even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night."
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.
Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.
Toi Derricotte, another African-American woman poet, grinned and said that in preparing to say something about Emily Dickinson she had gone to the back of The Complete Poems "where her first lines are arranged in alphabetical order" and that "it felt a little like standing in line at the A&P and reading the headlines of the National Inquirer: 'I felt a funeral in my brain'; 'It was not Death for I stood up'; 'Before I got my eye put out.'" She then went on to say that she and other poets had been debating about poetry, about politics, and about how they are related, and what the politics of feminism have to do with Dickinson's work. Therein lies the significance of the two main points made by women poets over and over about Dickinson and her work, and the point that I wish to make about their relevance to us as scholars, teachers, writers, poets, thinkers, friends, humans.
Another quotation, from an unprofessional woman writer who knew Emily Dickinson very intimately, seems necessary. In a 26 March 1904 letter to the editors of the Boston Woman's Journal Dickinson's beloved Louise Norcross makes it plain that she knew all along about her cousin's literary work and provides a rare portrait of the woman poet at work, writing amid the duties of housekeeping:
Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her most wonderful sentences on slips of paper held against the kitchen wall while she was hovering over culinary formations. And I know that Emily Dickinson wrote most emphatic things in the pantry, so cool and quiet, while she skimmed the milk; because I sat on the footstool behind the door, in delight, as she read them to me. The blinds were closed, but through the green slats she saw all those fascinating ups and downs going on outside that she wrote about.2
Here "Loo" promotes her cousin by placing her in the company of the nineteenth century's most widely read American author. Her description of the poet at work is gendered, nestled as it is among recounting a woman's daily works, and thereby recognizing that, until very recently, most women have had to write in their pantries, not their studies. She also depicts an enthusiastic contemporary female audience for Dickinson's work. And it was Dickinson's sister, not her brother, who made sure that the treasure of poems cached in the drawer were not destroyed, but were printed. To say that women have tended to be Dickinson's best readers is a tempting, but much too easy and offensive conclusion to draw from remarks such as these; nevertheless, something of a tradition of responses has evolved among women readers, particularly women writers.
Like cousin "Loo," and all of the women mentioned above, they have, from their various perspectives, emphasized the two things I've been remarking upon: 1. As Maxine Kumin makes so clear in the prose poem "The Uses of Emily," no matter how a woman considers herself (as a poet, an artist, like Elizabeth Bishop, not wanting to be sullied by the fact of gender), much of her audience thinks of a woman writer first as a female, and, however mysterious, somehow knowable. No matter how a woman writer exposes the myth of male supremacy and exceeds the social expectations ascribed by the fantasy behind the category "woman," her womanhood is at least to some degree fetishized. Kumin writes, "Emily the doomed, refusing Christ as your personal savior - no wonder father snatched you out of algebra and astronomy - and sat you down at home - anyone could clearly see these intellectual wizardies were weakening the womb." As recently as 1983 a critic argued that many, even most, of Dickinson's excruciating poems about pain and death are about an 1861 abortion he supposes she had. The same critic attaches letter-poems she wrote her sister-in-law after the death of Susan's little eight-year-old son Gilbert to his own desires--"The Vision of Immortal Life has been fulfilled - / How simply at the last the Fathom comes / The Passenger and not the Sea, we find surprises us - / Now my ascended Playmate / must instruct me. / Show us, prattling Preceptor, / but the way to thee! / He knew no niggard moment - / his Life was full of Boon - / The Playthings of the Dervish / were not so wild as his -" Though written in the wake of the Dickinson households' loss of their sprite that had come to bless them, the critic claims these lines utter her grief over the minister he argues impregnated her, saying "If some of the epithets and reflections seem too weighty for a small boy, the poem may contain elegiac speculations that relate to other recent deaths that saddened Dickinson, such as that of the Reverend Charles Wadsworth."3 Whether the woman writing wants it to be or not, gender is a factor in readers' responses, and all of these women in Titanic Operas, as well as those who like Mary Oliver who do not wish to appear in anthologies of women poets, have remarked upon that.
Contemporary women poets repeatedly observe that Emily Dickinson was able to practice the unadulterated, unprostituted art Virginia Woolf dreams about in A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. They make this observation even though an obvious fact about Emily Dickinson's staggering rate of literary production and reproduction goes generally unremarked--here was a poet in her early thirties, a time in the life cycle when most settle securely into and commit themselves to their lives' occupations, and she responded by copying out more than 1,200, or two-thirds of her nearly 1,800 known poems between 1858-1865, her late twenties to mid-thirties. Still, as anyone who haunts any of the three Dickinson online discussion lists know, a version of the lovelorn, half-mad poet is still offered as an explanation for her artistic production. Many readers who are becoming familiar with the poems of Susan Dickinson--by and large unpublished until our critical edition on the Dickinson Electronic Archives--are beginning to wonder aloud about another obvious explanation regarding Susan's restrained rate of production that likewise goes generally unremarked but is worth noting if one is to consider gender and poetic praxes. How much did Susan's obligations as wife and mother cut into her work as writer, silence her by forcing her into other daily habits. How much are her silences the unnatural ones that Tillie Olsen decries, the silences begat by "the relationship of circumstances--including class, color, sex; the times, climate into which one is born--to the creation of literature" (xi).
Now the second observation that these women poets repeatedly have made is pertinent to current developments and stases in our culture in general, literary criticism and theory in general and feminist criticism and theory in particular and is the point that could help move us out of critical cul de sacs. 2. All of these women poets talk of the importance of a poet's connectedness, of, as Alice Fulton put it, poems being about something. They each see Emily Dickinson as did Amy Clampitt, who asserted that Dickinson's greatest fear was to pass and leave no trace, and as audience-oriented, as connected to the world, as fascinated by the goings-up and goings-down in the world outside. Ruminating on her, so familiar in literary tradition as the idolized isolata, all emphasized a poet's responsibility to others, the importance of what it is now fashionable and presumably sophisticated to discuss as quaint, naive--the importance of claiming/reclaiming a sisterhood and more--a humanhood. Violence and anxiety are not absent from these responses, but they are not seen as "necessary," "inevitable," the "most complex," or something to champion, even when profound anger is voiced. Like Gwendolyn Brooks exhorting the young, these women, in their various voices and different ways, urge others to beware the "harmony-hushers," for harmony's the "hard home-run." I have been one of those feminist critics who has urged others not to believe in naive sisterhood, who has wondered if it is not sexist in the most traditional of orders for women to urge a faith, a commitment to such connectedness. But these women poets keep reminding me to think, to work harder, to strive for that "hard home-run." Connectedness is not necessarily consensus. Harmony is not the same tune, but melodies blended. Theirs is not touchy-feely sentiment. These women are all valiant and tough-minded. All seem on a quest to reclaim a four-letter word: LOVE.
This seems especially important at a time when dissensus, disagreement, disputation, difference, contention, anxiety, and angst are equated with critical sophistication and with excitement: things are much more interesting, it is assumed, in struggle and fierce debate. Most seem unquestioningly to concur with Willa Cather that "Success is never so interesting as struggle--not even to the successful." But when he wrote of Dickinson that she had "a mind so powerful and original that we scarcely have begun, even now to catch up with her," Harold Bloom, who popularized the phrase "the anxiety of influence" and the theoretical paradigm privileging fret, unwittingly echoed Ruth Stone's "In her cryptic inventions, she broke the tiresome mold of American poetry. We still stand among those shards and splinters." As we shall see, this powerful and original mind was committed to love and connectedness to the very end, and I am trying to learn and think harder about that.
Contributing to Titanic Operas, Sharon Olds has written:
When I think of the power of poetry, I keep thinking about Emily and women, Emily and her mother, Emily as a mother of us all. . . .I think Emily Dickinson would have been political today--I think she is political, intensely political. And I think in other times and in other circumstances, the kind of astonishing action she took in doing that writing would have found expression perhaps in other ways, as well. She would have acted, refused silence.
To make her point, Olds recalls "Despisals," by Muriel Rukeyser:
In the human cities
never again to despise the backside
of the city, the ghetto. Or build it
again as we build the despised backsides
of houses. Look at your own building.
You are the city.
among our secrecies
not to despise our jews, that is
ourselves, or our darkness, our blacks
or in our sexuality wherever it takes us
and we now know we are productive, too
productive, too reproductive for our present
never to despise the homosexual
who goes building another with touch with touch
not to despise any touch.
Each like himself like herself each
you are this
In the body's ghetto
never to go despising the asshole
nor the useful shit that is our clean clue
to what we need. Never to despise
the clitoris in her least speech.
Never to despise in myself what I have been taught
to despise. Nor to despise the other.
Not to despise the it. To make this relation
with the it: to know that I am it.
Thinking of Dickinson's legacy, Olds remembers the often-neglected Rukeyser, and in spotlighting and reclaiming the latter, asks audiences to remember the importance of connectedness.
So what can be learned here? What all these women poets participating in Titanic Operas--however different from one another--insist upon is that we turn to her words first, not to others' words about Dickinson. Like her "astonishing action" of turning to words, our turning to hers will be a profoundly political act. It's a political act to refuse to join what Gwendolyn Brooks calls the "self-crowned" editors "in the seduced arena," the "harmony-hushers," those who determine the worth of words according to supply and demand and official sanction. Rich ends her last poetic address to Dickinson, "The Spirit of Place," with a song of loving kindness:
this is my third and last address to you
with the hands of a daughter I would cover you
from all intrusion even my own
saying rest to your ghost
with the hands of a sister I would leave your hands
open or closed as they prefer to lie
and ask no more of who or why or wherefore
with the hands of a mother I would close the door
on the rooms you've left behind
and silently pick up my fallen work
All those various voices of those woman poets made me look at Emily Dickinson and my reading of her, made me look at a poem I had taken much for granted, one that I had read right over, again. They encouraged me to spend time--not adoring her or them--but to spend time reading her words, even the words of this poem which I had called cloying and dismissed as smarmy sentiment. And let me tell you that I do still agree with Rich's assertion that this poem could have been written by almost any nineteenth-century poetess. In fact, that she wrote this poem was one reason I concluded that she could have written, she was capable of writing, the sappy kind of poem that turned out to be a forgery--"That God cannot be understood" (FP A14-7). So I ask--is its sentimentality a reason to ignore it? Need we scorn it? The poem I want to dwell upon is one Hallmark has popularized, the only poem Dolly Parton mentions in her autobiography. Dickinson's poem is one that she thought enough of to copy out near the culmination of her career, when she was approaching her 40s:
If I can stop one
Heart from breaking
I shall not live
If I can ease one
Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain
Or help One fainting
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live
in vain (Set 7; P 919)
As Emily Dickinson said of reading Barrett Browning, there is something in a poet that transforms our vision, our very sense of being, our very sense of feeling, our very sense of what it means to know. As Brooks said when musing upon Emily Dickinson, "Even if you are not ready for Day / It cannot always be night." In trying to heed the call of all these women poets to think harder, I have concluded that it is much too easy to dismiss "If I can stop one / Heart from breaking," still not one of my favorites, as "too sweet." And to move feminist criticism and theory to a stage where we all acknowledge that sisterhood, that humanhood, do not come easy has been of vital importance, has been necessary. But those themes of rivalry, contention, and anxiety are well- worn now, and we need to move on. Once again, I suspect that the poets are ahead of the critics, that poets are the most profound, sophisticated theorists. Dickinson most certainly was, still is.
To ponder that, I close by offering some commentary from Alicia Ostriker, and what she calls Dickinson's "hermeneutics [or the methodological principles] of indeterminacy." And I ask you to think with me about what Ostriker says, what is true for Dickinson, and how one might receive the next person who claims to know exactly what she meant, exactly what her motives were. Tracking Dickinson's interpretations of the bible, Ostriker writes:
. . .there is something else to Dickinson's method, which I will call a hermeneutics of indeterminacy. . . .What I mean is that we are aware, when reading any of Dickinson's readings of a biblical text, that an act of interpretation is occurring which may be immediately persuasive yet retains an irreducible element of the wilful, the made thing, the playful poetic fiction: interpretation never collapses itself back into text, never makes what the philosophers call 'truth claims'. Further, when we read Dickinson's poetry at large, we see something larger: that she never worries about contradicting herself, that terms such as 'God', 'Jesus', 'heaven', and so forth, have an abundant variety of meanings, some of them highly ambiguous, many of them mutually incompatible, yet all of them convincing within the local perimeters of the poem. To read Dickinson on God (etcetera), then, is to divest oneself of the desire for a fixed and unitary eternal truth and to accept a plurality of contingent truths. (66-67)
Among Dickinson's most famous poetic pronouncements is that Truth cannot be told straightforwardly. Sometimes truth appears to contradict itself--"Just so, Jesus raps," writes the Dickinson who writes "Of course I prayed, and did God care?"--and sometimes truth's straightforward unto embarrassing--"If I can stop one heart. . . ." Tell all of it, and you'd better tell it "slant," indirectly. Poems connected to the world, poems that are about something, and the truths they utter bulge with inconvenient knowledge.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes.
If that is the case, then after great happiness
Should a feeling come that is somehow informal?
Wisely, Dickinson's poem fails to say, a silence of considerable complexity. Besides urging us to turn to her words, these women poets also encourage knowing her silences. The next time you hear someone who knows what she means or exactly how she was or what motivated her, I urge you to consider, and urge myself to consider, whether the knowledge proffered by her silence, however inconvenient, is being refused.