Thursday, September 4, 2014

Emily Dickinson – Why such short poems?

What surprised (and still tends to surprise) readers was that Dickinson's mature poems were all so brief. Many of the writers admired by Dickinson had embarked ambitiously on epics, dramas, long narratives, sonnet sequences, and dramatic monologues, yet Dickinson never attempted such genres. Her tenacity in keeping to a miniature form caused some readers, even in the twentieth century, to patronize her work. She seems to have asked herself that fundamental question of the choice of size – why such short poems? – and answered it in a remarkable lyric, “Ashes denote that Fire was –“. Her poems, she says – defending their reduced form – are the Ashes of a previous conflagration that destroyed “the Departed Creature” now dead (although that Creature, at death, had briefly “hovered” over the Ashes of her former self). To understand the vanished Creature of whom the Ashes are the residue, one must become a Chemist, and deduce from the remaining Carbonates the nature of the person consumed by the Fire:

Ashes denote that Fire was 
Revere the Grayest Pile           
For the Departed Creature’s sake        
That hovered there awhile 

Fire exists the first in light
And then consolidates
Only the chemist can disclose 
Into what Carbonates 

The original Creature was first illuminated by the “light” of some revelation; the revelation then kindled into a fiery conflagration, and the conflagration ended in a consuming. What is left does not resemble the past earthly being of the Creature: the Fire has done its work, leaving only the Ashes, the cremated “Carbonates” that we find in the poet’s pages. (Dickinson may have borrowed her Ashes and her deathbed from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, recalling the fire “That on the ashes of his youth doeth lie.”) Dickinson calls on us, as the forensic Chemists of verse, to reconstruct from a small heap of Ashes – her poem – the self originally nourished and then consumed by the light of insight and the Fire of emotion.  Helen Vendler

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