Annie Finch

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Dickinson As A Poetess

One tone of voice in Dickinson's poems--strangely accessible, self-consciously contrived, even, unexpectedly, conventional--has always felt to me as if it did not come from the Romantic tradition. This voice moves from the little rhymes about the frog or the butterfly or the bird, to other little poems about corpses conversing, a fly buzzing around a body, the carriage Death drove. Dickinson pulls off both of these tones, the grim simplicity and the simple childishness, with the equanimity of one who has the support of a tradition. Every source available to me as a young poet said that she did not, that she was a hermit with no community, self-made or at least miraculously born like Athena. One might still imagine, reading the critical discussion of Dickinson, that her claim that she "never had a mother" is true in the poetic as well as in the psycho-personal sense. But I have never felt it to be true, at least poetically, and this feeling has been important to me as a developing poet.

The more my poetry has matured, the more I have valued not the idiosyncratic Dickinsonian individualism so important to writers nourished on Romanticism and Modernism, but rather another set of qualities which I believe Dickinson learned from the tradition of sentimental women poets. I call these writers "poetesses," a reclaimed name, to underscore the difference between them and the archetypal Romantic "poet." I use the term un-ironically, somewhat as Mary Daly uses the term "crone," or as gay activists have reclaimed the term "queer." By "poetess" I mean a poet, usually female, using a particular group of poetic strategies that distinguish her work from the romantic tradition. By this definition a poet such as Sara Teasdale is a poetess; Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who adopted many of the strategies of romanticism, is not; and Dickinson falls somewhere in between.

Clearly none of the poetesses can match Dickinson's utterly distinct and precious voice, and ostensibly that is the reason for her canonization and their abnegation. The best of the poetesses, however, are no worse poets than many non-sentimental poets who have been salvaged, more or less, from the nineteenth century; Jackson, Sigourney, and Frances Osgood are no less accomplished as poets than Whittier or Bryant. Sexism combined with tokenism, of course, provides a ready explanation for the disparity, so ready that it has perhaps obscured what is I think a more significant reason: the poetesses embodied the sentimental world-view--based on diffuse lyric subjectivity, the acceptance of nature's separateness, communal values, and a self-consciously artificial aesthetic--with great consistency. Dickinson, on the other hand, while incorporating many aspects of the sentimental aesthetic, combined them with elements of Romanticism--a strong central lyric self, routine metaphorization of nature, an individualistic outlook, and a transparent, "natural" poetic voice. This admixture rendered the sentimental elements palatable to those who expected a poem to provide the romantic fix provided by Keats, Wordsworth, or Emerson--or even Bryant or Whittier. Dickinson, so to speak, smuggled in her sentimentality.

When I grew old enough to discover that Dickinson had read other women poets and admired them, I found that she had written many of her poems for friends, and that Helen Hunt Jackson (whose poems Dickinson said were "stronger than any written by women since Mrs. Browning" 1) had begged her to publish. I couldn't find the poems of Helen Hunt Jackson, nor those of Maria Lowell and most of the other women poets Dickinson had enjoyed. All I found in print were Barrett Browning's sonnets, and they were derivative enough of well-known sonnets, different enough from Dickinson's odd little ballad-fragments, to re-emphasize yet more deeply for me the American's heroic solitude. I struggled along with the process of forming my poetic voice, like most poets of my generation, with only the Romantics and the Modernists available for inspiration. The poets of the Renaissance and the eighteenth century were too public, and too stylized within the boundaries of their own cultures, for me to take seriously yet as models.

Working in the Romantic tradition, I wanted to write poems that were compelling in the mode of "Ode to a Nightingale" or "Four Quartets." Nonetheless, I found the assumption of the requisite lyric stance at the center of a poem extremely difficult--in fact, impossible. It felt not only awkward but morally questionable to place my poetic "self" in the sole subject position and to present the rest of the objects in the poem, whether natural or human, from that perspective. I coped, temporarily, by writing poems without clear subjective centers, or poems without pronouns, and finally by writing verse plays where I assumed many voices. Around this time, a poet who was one of my teachers made a comment that turned out to be invaluable for me. "Look," he remarked after our poetry workshop, "why can't you just marry the world?" Though I said nothing, wondering at how simple it seemed to him (I soon wrote the poem "Diving Past Violets," included in this book, in response), I became, almost in that instant, self-conscious about my practice as I had not been before. I saw from his exasperation that there was a logic to my flailing, and that I might be able to investigate the way that poets created subjectivity. Ultimately, after my searches led me to read carefully the work of the poetesses, I understood an unfamiliar subjectivity as the source of that mysterious sound in Dickinson: she was carrying traces of a tradition that was not concerned with marrying the world.

When I discovered the work of Dickinson's precedessor, the popular early sentimental poetess Lydia Sigourney, I finally appreciated the extent of Dickinson's differentness. Sigourney rarely personifies or even metaphorizes natural objects in order to make statements about her own feelings. Her poems are not organized around a central poetic subject or ego, but instead attribute an independent subjectivity, often conventionalized, to nature: "Then the sea answer'd--"spoils are mine / From many an argosy, / And pearl-drops sleep in my bosom deep, / But naught have I there for thee." They lend to natural objects voices and identities separate from that of the speaker, who may even address them directly: "Yes, we have need of thee; / thanks, tree of sympathy." There is no one subjective center to a Sentimentalist poem. Whether all subjectivities are equally objectified in relation to God, as is frequent in an early poetess like Sigourney, or whether the poetess asserts her own subjectivity while undercutting or contradicting it, as in a later, less religious poetess like Helen Hunt Jackson, a reader takes away from these poems only a sense of that which Dickinson might call "Circumference": a world of endless and equal entities in which the poetic "I" is not necessarily more privileged than any other.

The tension between the romantic and sentimental aesthetics may be the source of much that is unique and exciting in Dickinson. The vulnerability of a precariously attained subjectivity is expressed, for instance, in Johnson poem 889:

Let an instant push
Or an Atom press
Or a Circle hesitate
In Circumference

It - may jolt the Hand
That adjusts the Hair
That secures Eternity
From presenting- Here -

This poem's magnification of the distinction between subject and object may be illuminated in the context of nineteenth-century magazines like Godey's that were uniformly obsessed, on the subtlest verbal level as well as in pictures, advice, and exemplary tales, with the importance of women becoming the proper kinds of objects in the perceptions of others. Like the poetesses, Dickinson here develops in response a poetics of the object, though hers is a precarious object-hood. In the world of this poem, if a circle hesitates in circumference--if the world is too much objectified within the poet's mind--the feminine hand, adjusting its hair for the sake of others' vision of her, might shake and a dreaded "Eternity" of subjectivity suddenly center itself within the poet.

In other poems, it is only an initiation into object-hood which then allows the poet to objectify nature in her turn. During the course of the mysterious poem "I started Early - Took My Dog - "(JP 520), the poet is gradually objectified by the sea:

But no Man moved Me - till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe -
And past my Apron - and my Belt
And past my Boddice - too -

And made as He would eat me up -
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion's Sleeve -

The tide, moving past the trappings of her humanity and her clothing (and perhaps past even the conventional objectification of the female body by male eyes), threatens to metaphorize the speaker into the most insubstantial of natural objects. Only after this point does the speaker seem to feel entitled to personify the tide specifically as a man with a "Silver Heel" who is "bowing - with a Mighty look -." The same process of self-objectification occurs more naturalistically in the early poem ending,

The Maple wears a gayer scarf -
The field a scarlet gown -
Lest I sh'd be old fashioned
I'll put a trinket on.

Such compensation resembles the strategy of sentimental poems such as Helen Hunt Jackson's "Covert," where the speaker, having startled a bird out of its nest, finally compensates for the process of metaphorization by describing her own heart as if it were a bird. One of the techniques that Dickinson must have learned from the poetesses is the stated or implied question, emphasizing the speaker's inability ever to understand nature fully: "The tidy Breezes, with their Brooms / Sweep vale --and hill--and tree! / Prithee, My pretty Housewives! / Who may expected be?" writes Dickinson. "O helpless body of hickory tree,/What do I burn, in burning thee?'" asks Helen Hunt Jackson. Sigourney asks the stream, "Stream! why is thy rushing step delayed?" And Dickinson: "What tenements of clover / are fitting for the bee." A sentimentalist poem does not answer its own rhetorical questions or treat them as statements the way a romantic lyric might (as, for example, when Keats follows the question "what pipes and timbrels?" with the implied answering definition, ". . . those unheard / are sweeter" in "Ode on a Grecian Urn"). Dickinson adds indirect unanswered questions, certainly more mysterious and unique than those of the poetesses, but sharing in their spirit: "An ignorance a Sunset / confer upon the Eye--" or "He, the best Logician, / Refers my clumsy eye -- / To just vibrating Blossoms! / An Exquisite Reply! "

Not surprisingly, female personifications of nature are the most easily maintained in Dickinson's poems, as in poem 790, an extended conceit about Mother Nature, ending when the speaker pushes the process of metaphorization to its utmost by making the moon an embodiment of the romantic sublime who "seemed engrossed to Absolute - /With shining - and the Sky -." At this moment of heightened confrontation between the subjective poet and the objectified, romanticized moon, the poem switches into its conclusion:

The privilege to scrutinize
Was scarce upon my Eyes
When, with a Silver practise -
She vaulted out of Gaze -

And next - I met her on a Cloud -
Myself too far below
To follow her superior Road -
Or its advantage - Blue -
(JP 790)

With the speaker having taken the "privilege" with which the moon entered the poem, its otherness and independence, and transformed it into the "privilege to scrutinize," to objectify, the moon rebels. The speaker's concluding admission that she is unable to follow the moon or to perceive the blue that surrounds it performs the same movement as the ending of Helen Hunt Jackson's "Flower on the Ruins of Rome," drawing the poem back from its personifying subjectivity.

In other poems, of course, Dickinson personifies nature with no such compensations. JP 986, "A narrow fellow in the grass," and JP 1379, "His mansion in the Pool," for instance, carry their metaphorical conceits through unmodified. Yet in a way these poems are the most obvious correlates of the sentimental tradition in Dickinson's work, because they treat language and the poetic process as conventionalized artifacts: "A Lily said to a threatening Cloud, / that in sternest garb array'd him . . . " (Sigourney); "A Bee his burnished Carriage / Drove boldly to a Rose . . ." (Dickinson). The awed parallel voice of Dickinson's metaphysical fantasies is even audible among the poetesses as well, as in this passage from Jackson:

Though I was dead, I died again for shame;
Lonely, to flee from heaven again I turned;
The ranks of angels looked away from me
(Beneath my feet the golden pavements burned).

Like Jackson, Dickinson is deeply involved in such metaphysical realities, as much the domain of imagination as of theology. Perhaps it is this exuberant, unself-conscious fancifulness of the poetesses that brings me back to their work, repeatedly and with increasing courage and openmindedness. Perhaps it is their accessibility, their interest in communal values, their vision of divinity embodied in nature--all oddly familiar values in the late 1990s. Perhaps it is simply curiosity. Whatever the reasons for my interest, the sentimental tradition, through Dickinson, provided me a life-line to a different way of configuring myself as a poet. My appreciation for Dickinson only increases the more I become aware of how much of the sentimental tradition she has carried out of the shadows.


Like me, you used to write while baking bread,
propping a sheet of paper by the bins
of salt and flour, so if your kneading led
to words, you'd take them, looping their thin shins
in your black writing, as they sang to be free.
You captured those quick birds relentlessly,
yet kept a slow, sure mercy in your deeds,
leaving them room to peck and hunt their seeds
in the white cages your vast iron art
had made by moving books, and lives, and creeds.
I take from you as you take me apart.


When I cut words you might have never said
out in fresh patterns, pierced in place with pins,
ready to hold them down with my own thread,
they change and twist sometimes, their color spins
loose, and a spider's generosity
lends them from language that will never be
free of you after all. My sampler reads,
"called back." It says, "she scribbled out these screeds."
It says, "she left this trace, and now we start,"
in stitched directions following the leads
I take from you, as you take me apart.




These words and I don't see you, though we charge
like horses past your tumid living stems,
stepping behind our braided forelocks, down
the paths your stems make, rooting underground.


Our tails move last into the mossy dirt,
swishing the last ray of daylight off.
How else could we approach? I knew I'd end
     with winding, deep inside such patient caves.



     "You'll find--it when you try to die--"
          --Emily Dickinson


When there are no words left to live,
I have elected hers


to haunt me till my margins give
around me, web and bone.


Her voice has vanished through my own.
She makes me like a stone


the falling leaves will sink and stay
not over, but upon.

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