Katha Pollitt

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Emily Dickinson Had The Worst Taste In Men
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I was so interested in what Amy Clampitt said about all women poets feeling influenced by Emily Dickinson, I have to enter a little demur there. There must be something wrong with me because I have never felt this way. Her poems were ruined for me in high school. I think, really, high school teachers have a lot to answer for, and one of the things they do is that they give you the worst poems! This woman wrote 1700 poems or something, and they manage to find the three that are really sacharine and sentitious..."There is no frigate like a book," "Children read more books," and the one I really hated as a young infidel: "I never saw a moor, I never saw the sea" and goes on to say I know these things exist and therefore I know God exists too. I thought what are you talking about? So I'm very grateful to Seton Hall because if it hadn't been for Seton Hall I never would have sat down and gotten to have a different relationship with Emily Dickinson who of course is a wonderful poet and a great genius. I find her a very interesting person. I was looking at that biography by Richard Sewall, and he has a whole appendix of popular poetry that was being published while Emily Dickinson, as you know, was having such a terrible time. I think Emily Dickinson had the worst taste in men that I've just ever seen, and she would pick these people to be her mentors who were very inappropriate figures who would all say, "Oh, don't publish, don't publish, this is all very strange." But they would kind of string her along by being very nice to her, and she would have these elaborate correspondences with them. And I found this just so depressing.

One of these people was Samuel Bowles, who was one of the candidates for the famous "Master" letters, and whom she does seem to have had very warm feelings toward. And he published a couple of her poems, but she sent him these things by the bushel and meanwhile, while he was refusing to publish her poems, he published a poem that was so much loved by his readers that they had to print it twice. And this was by Miss Nancy A. W. Priest of Hinsdale, New Hampshire. And I think it is interesting to see what Emily Dickinson was doing against the background of what her neighbors were doing --so it seems--much more successfully. And I'll just read you the first verse; it's called "Over the River."

Over the river they beckon to me
Loved ones who've crossed to the further side
The gleam of their snowy robes I see
But their voices are drowned in the rushing tide


There's one with ringlets of sunny gold
And eyes the reflection of Heaven's own blue
He crossed in twilight, gray and cold,
And the pale mist hid him from mortal view.


We saw not the angels who met him there
The gate of the city we could not see
Over the river, over the river
My brother stands waiting to welcome me.

And so on. Well, ah, the thing that is really amazing, and Richard Sewall who has written this, you know, 800 page biography just sort of falls to his knees in the mystery of this. He says one of the mysteries of Emily Dickinson from our point of view is how she could enjoy such stuff and yet write the way she did. Because the fact was, Emily Dickinson really liked these poems and at the same time as she was reading Shakespeare and the Bible and having a very serious relationship with literature, including many of, much of the contemporary literature of her own time. She would read The Springfield Republican and think, "Oh I really like that." I just don't understand this at all. I've wanted to, I thought it would be interesting to see two of her poems about death--which is, as you know, a big subject for her and for a lot of her contemporaries--against the background of this kind of poetry. This was one that The Springfield Republican did publish, although in a sort of conventionalized form--they gave it a little title, they fixed up the punctuation, they changed some of the language, too. And it's called "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers."

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers -
Untouched by Morning
And untouched by Noon -
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection -
Rafter of satin,
And Roof of stone.


Light laughs the breeze
In her Castle above them -
Babbles the Bee in a stolid Ear,
Pipe the Sweet Birds in ignorant cadende -
Ah, what sagacity perished here!


Safe in their Alabaster Chambers -
Untouched by Morning -
And untouched by Noon -
Lie the meek members of the Resurrection -
Rafter of Satin - and Roof of Stone!


Grand go the Years - in the Crescent - above them -
Worlds scoop their Arcs -
And Firmaments - row -
Diadems - drop - and Doges - surrender -
Soundless as dots - on a Disc of Snow -


(JP 216)

I've often thought Thomas Hardy could have written that poem if Emily Dickinson hadn't written it.

And here's another one which is about another very popular nineteenth century subject which is about watching at a deathbed, except Emily Dickinson gives it an odd twist.

The last Night that She lived
It was a Common Night
Except the Dying - this to Us
Made Nature different


We noticed smallest things -
Things overlooked before
By this great light upon our Minds
Italicized - as 'twere.


As We went out and in
Between Her final Room
And Rooms where Those to be alive
Tomorrow were, a Blame


That Others could exist
While She must finish quite
A Jealousy for Her arose
So nearly infinite -


We waited while She passed -
It was a narrow time -
Too Jostled were Our Souls to speak
At length the notice came.


She mentioned, and forgot -
Then lightly as a Reed
Bent to the Water, struggled scarce -
Consented, and was dead -


And We - We placed the Hair -
And drew the Head erect -
And then an awful leisure was
Belief to regulate -


(JP 1100)

I think the way--that last line is so wonderful--regulate is not the word you expect there and it's really great.

I'm going to read a couple of poems from my first book; my only book, actually. And then I'll read some new poems. The first poem I'll read is called "Archeology," and it has an epigraph from my friend Jonathan Galassi with whom I had had a conversation about to what extent is poetry or one's subject and the way you write determined by your character, and to what extent is it the mysterious workings of the imagination. He held out for the former, I for the latter, and I've since decided he was probably right. It's called "Archeology."

"Our real poems are already in us, and all we can do is dig."
-Jonathan Galassi


You knew the odds on failure from the start
that morning you first saw or thought you saw,
beneath the heatstruck plains of a second-rate country
the outline of buried cities. A thousand to one
you'd turn up nothing more than the rubbish heap
of a poor Near Eastern backwater:
a few chipped beads,
splinters of glass and pottery, broken tablets
whose secret lore, laboriously deciphered,
would prove to be only a collection of ancient grocery lists.
Still, the train moved away from the station without you.


How many lives ago
was that? How many choices?
Now that you've got your bushelful of shards
do you say, give me back my years
or wrap yourself in the distant
glitter of desert stars,
telling yourself it was foolish after all
to have dreamed of uncovering
some fluent vessel, the bronze head of a god?
Pack up your fragments. Let the simoom
flatten the digging site. Now come
the passionate midnights in the museum basement
when out of that random rubble you'll invent
the dusty market smelling of sheep and spices,
streets, palmy gardens, courtyards set with wells
to which, in the blue of evening, one by one
come strong veiled women, bearing their perfect jars.

The next poem I'll read is called "The Dancers." One poet whom I've thought a lot more about than I have about Emily Dickinson until now is T.S. Eliot because I really can't stand him. I mean I like some things and I think he wrote really -- he has a vein of sort of beautiful melancholy and despair that appeals to me very much, but I hate all his ideas profoundly. I think all this very reactionary politics and this real assumption sort of the life we all live in the twentieth century of a great deal of--what do you want to say?--of different peoples all mingling together in a very polyglot way, is a very bad thing and that we should all go back to purer traditions in which, I must say, I wouldn't have much part, according to him, as a Jewish person. So, naturally, I don't like all that, and so I wrote this poem that takes off--the first two lines are sort of little references to some of his anti-semitic and other characters. And it's called "The Dancers."

So what if Sweeney buys drinks for Rachel Rabinowitz
or Aunt Helen's footman dandles the second parlormaid?
At the rank-and-file Greek furworkers' dinner
at Dante Caterers in Astoria last night
the floor was covered with iridescent vinyl
and the chandeliers were plastic and everyone spoke bad English
and said what a beautiful party
while to the electrified mandolins
of Athanasios and his Ethnorhythmics
the heavy-breasted, lacquered and mascaraed women
arose in their nylon dresses
of chemical turquoise, orange, and shocking pink
and danced with their dapper husbands
the foxtrot, the rhumba, and the lovely dances of Sparta
and did not profane them.

Anyway, I don't usually write poems that have very much to do with politics, but that was one and here's another. Another person I really dislike is Carl Jung, and I really hate this sort of way of dividing things--besides men and women--into male and female, and seeing particular symbols--you know, the moon is female, the sun is masculine, all this animus, anima stuff--I really think that is not an interesting way to see either people or things that are not people. In this poem I propose that we just drop all that and think of some other things to say. And it's called "Metaphors of Women."

What if the moon
was never a beautiful woman?
Call it a shark shearing across black water.
An ear. A drum in a desert.
A window. A bone shoe.


What if the sea
was discovered to have no womb?
Let it be clouds, blue as the day they were born.
A ceremony of bells and questions.
A toothache. A lost twin.


What if a woman
is not the moon or the sea?
Say map of the air. Say green parabola.
Lichen and the stone that feeds it.
No rain. Rain.

Then I'd like to read the title poem from my book which is called To an Antarctic Traveler, which I wrote for my friend Catherine Bouton who is a reporter, and very intrepid, and she went to Antarctica, which was a place I had always wanted to go to but she's very brave and I'm not, so she got to go. All the things that I represent as happening to her really did. She really did have a mountain named after her, and she's on the map of the world. I just find this so amazing. I thought to myself, "God, that's fame," you know.

Anyway, "To an Antartic Traveler." It's in two parts.

When you return from the country of Refusal,
what will you think of us? Down there. No was final,
it had a glamor: so Pavlova turns,
narcissus-pale and utterly self-consumed,
from the claque, the hothouse roses; so the ice
perfects its own reflection, cold Versailles,
and does not want you, does not want even Scott,
grinding him out of his grave--Splash! off he goes,
into the ocean, comical, Edwardian,
a valentine thrown out. Afternoons
in the pastry shop, coffee and macaroons,
gossip's two-part intricat inventions
meshed in the sugary air like Down and Across
of an endless Sunday puzzle--
what will such small temporizations mean
to you now you've travelled half the world and seen
the ego glinting at the heart of things?
Oh, I'm not worried, I know you'll come back
full of adventures, anecdotes of penguins
and the pilot who let you fly the cargo--but
you'll never be wholly ours. As a green glass bottle
is mouthed and rolled and dragged by the sea until
it forgets its life entirely--wine, flowers, candles,
the castaway's save me meticulously
printed in eleven languages--and now
it rests on the beach-house mantel
opalescent, dumb:
you'll stand at the cocktail party
among the beige plush furniture and abstracts,
and listen politely, puzzled, a foreigner
anxious to respect our customs but not quite
sure of the local dialect, while guests
hold forth on their love of travel--
and all the time you hear
the waves beat on the shore for a million years
go away go away go away
and the hostess fills your glass and offers crackers.

They named a moutain after you down there.
Blank and shining, unclimable,
no different from a hundred nameless others,
it did not change as you called it from the helicopter
it was your name that changed
spinning away from you round and around and around
as children repeat a word
endlessly until at last it comes up pure
nonsense, hilarious. It smashed
and lay, a shattered mirror
smiling meaninglessly up at you from the unmarked snow.


More lasting than bronze is the monument I have raised
boasted Horace, not accurately, and yet
what else would we have him think? Or you,
that day you wrote yourself on the world itself
and as the pilot veered away forever
saw mist drift over your mountain almost immediately
and your name stayed behind
a testament of sorts, a proof of something
though only in the end white chalk
invisibly scribbled on a white tabula rasa.

I thought I would read that poem that our introducer mentioned, "Lives of the Nineteenth Century Poetesses." I should explain that I wasn't thinking of Emily Dickinson when I wrote this because I was thinking of women poets--I hate that word, poetesses, and use of it was sort of supposed to be a tip-off--these are women who would have maybe thought of themselves that way; not very good writers, much more conventional people than Emily Dickinson was, but who had something--they had something that was very hard for them to express, given that things were the way they were.



As girls they were awkward and peculiar,
wept in church or refused to go at all.
their mothers saw right away,
no man would marry them.
So they must live at the sufferance of others,
timid and queer, as governesses out of Chekhov,
malnourished on theology,
boiled eggs and tea,
but given to outbursts of cries
that embarrass everyone.


After the final quarrel,
the grand renunciation,
they retire upstairs to the attic,
or to the small room in the cheap off-season hotel,
and write, "Today I burned all your letters," or
"I dreamed the magnolia blazed like an avenging angel,
and when I woke, I knew I was in Hell."


No one is surprised when they die young,
having left their savings to a wastrel nephew,
to be remembered for a handful of minor but perfect lyrics,
a passion for jam or charades,
and a letter still preserved in the family archives:
"I send you here with the papers of your aunt,
who died last Tuesday in the odor of sanctity,
although a little troubled in her mind
by her habit, much disapproved of by the ignorant,
of writing down the secrets of her heart."

I seem to write rather a lot of poems that are about poetry in one way or another, and this one is about the unhappier side of one's relationship to poems--the poems that don't work out. It's called "Abandoned Poem."

It's awful how they look at you
Consumptive, all eyes in their white beds,
Coughing delicately into their handkerchiefs,
And feebly hissing,
"Don't leave us here, you bastard.
This is your fault."
What can you do but agree?


It's no use to harden your heart,
no use to explain why you had to save yourself,
still less to confess
how happy you are without them,
how already you see yourself under the trees in the park.
You read the paper;
you eat a ham sandwich,
then shake out the crumbs for the pigeons,
and walk on, savoring the mild autumnal air
of your new country,
the kingdom of health and silence.

This next poem is called "A Walk." Maybe not the best title I've ever thought of, but I couldn't do any better. And this sort of takes off from the Chinese poets who were so wonderful because they complained so much. I like that.

When I go for a walk
and see they're tearing down
some old red plush Rialto
for an office building,
and suddenly realize,
this was where Mama and I saw "Lovers of Terruelle"
three times in a single sitting,
and the drugstore where we went afterwards for ice creams, gone, too,
and Mama's gone,
and my ten-year-old self.


I admire more than ever,
the ancient Chinese poets,
who were comforted in exile
by thoughts of the transience of life,
how, yesterday, for instance,
quince bloomed in the emperor's courtyard,
but today wild geese fly south over ruined towers,
or, O full moon,
that shone on our scholarly wine parties,
do you see us now,
scattered on distant shores?
A melancholy restraint
is surely the proper approach to take in this world.
And so I walk on, recalling Soon Chee-Chee,
who, when old and full of sadness, wrote merely,
"A cool day,
a fine fall."

his next poem is called "The White Room." I think a lot of people have fantasies of being recluses or totally solitary, and this is about one of those fantasies. Possible to believe in a bearable sort of life,
in a white room in one of the tidy anonymous streets,
that flash by the elevated subway.
Picture it:
a blue chair for reading,
a gas ring for coffee,
the lamp in its cheap shade, casting its circle of light.
Outside, soot sifts down on the cornflowers in the vacant lot,
the tailor goes down to the corner for the paper,
the sandwich man stands in his doorway,
listening to the Saturday opera on the radio.
You pass and exchange grave nods with your neighbors,
fellow anchorites, proud, in your way,
to have chosen for a discipline,
a solitude you tell yourself
you probably would have come to anyway.

I want to read a poem called a epistleanium, which is a hymn for a marriage or a poem for a marriage. This poem is/what I like about it is it's in saphix it's not a meter you see too much of. "Epistleanium". And it's for the wedding of two friends of mine.

The boy who scribbled
"Smash the state" in icing
on his wedding cake
has two kids and a co-op
reads, although pretends not to,
the Living section,
and hopes for tenure.
Everything's changed since we played
Capture the red flag, between Harvard Yard and the river.
Which of us dreamed that history,
who grinds men up like meat,
would make us her next meal?
But here we are
in a kind of post-imperial, permanent February,
with offices and apartments,
Faulk latecomers out of a Stendhal novel,
our brave ambitions run out into sand,
into resaurants and movies,
to lie at the Cape,
where the major source of amusement
is watching middle-aged Freudians
snub only younger Marxist historians.
And yet, if it's true,
as I've read, that the starving body eats itself,
it's true, too, it eats the heart last.
We've lost our moment of grandeur,
but, come on, admit it,
aren't we happier?
And so, let's welcome the child
already beginning, who'll laugh,
but not cruelly, I hope,
at our comfy nostalgias,
and praise, friends, praise
this marriage of friends and lovers
made in a dark time.

Let's see, I've run out of time, so I'll read one more poem. This is a poem called "Atlantis." You all know that myth, I won't go through it.

Dreaming of our golden boulevards and temples,
our painted palaces set in torch-lit gardens,
our spires and minarets, our emerald harbor,
you won't want to hear about the city we knew,
the narrow neighborhoods of low white houses,
where workmen come home for lunch and an afternoon nap,
old women in sweat-stained, penitental black
ease thier backaches gratefully against doorways,
and the widow who keeps the corner grocery
anxiously watches her child dragging his toy,
who was sickly from birth, and everyone knows
must die soon.


You won't want to know how we lived,
the hot sun, the horse-traders
cheating each other out of boredom,
in the brothel, the prostitutes curling each others hair,
while the madam limps upstairs to feed the canary,
or the young louts, smoking in bare cafes
where old men play dominoes for glasses of cognac.
And how can we blame you?
We, too, were in love with something we never could name.
We never could let ourselves say
that the way the harbor flashed like bronze at sunset,
or the hill towns swam in the twilight like green stars,
were only tricks of the light and meant nothing.
We, too, believed that a moment would surely come
when our lives would stand hard and pure,
like marble statues.
And because we were, after all, only a poor city,
a city like others,
of sailors' bars and sunflowers,
we gave ourselves up to be only a name,
an image of temples and spires and jeweled gardens,
for which reason, we are envied of all peoples,
and even now could not say,
what life would have to be
for us to have chosen it.

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