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Poetry and Poetics

This site is an archive of commentaries on poems, and more extended essays on literary production, reception and form, written by English majors at New Hampshire’s public liberal arts institution, Keene State College.

Our goal is to create an educational forum to demonstrate that there is more to poetry than poems published in school anthologies, and that poetry and poetics is a living process. We are interested in sharing the excitement and controversies among readers and writers of poetry as they wrestle with broader questions about language, culture and imagination. To this end, we offer comments on both exemplary and representative poems of poets who have shaped the tradition of writers and readers, as well as discussions of the poems that have surfaced more recently as a result of archival and editorial work. We are also interested in poetics, including the critical and theoretical conversation concerned with American poetry, the historical and cultural contexts in which poetry has been written, and the diverse ways poems have been (and continue to be) read.

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“There’s a Certain Slant of Light”

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons—
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes—

Heavenly Hurt it gives us—
We can find no scar,
But Internal Difference—
Where the Meaning,s are—

None may teach it —Any—
‘Tis the Seal Despair —
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air—

When it comes, the Landscape listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
When it goes, ‘t is like the Distance
On the look of Death—

“There’s a Certain Slant of Light” was written in 1861 and was not published until 1890 by Dickinson’s friend and mentor, Thomas Higginson. Through four stanzas written with the rhyme scheme ABCB, Dickinson expresses the internal, spiritual melancholy she experiences while observing light slanting through a window on a winter afternoon.

Dickinson takes a surprising view on the light slanting through her window. Instead of marveling at the traditionally positive symbolism of light, Dickinson writes that the light “oppresses”, as if the direction of the slant makes it feel as though the light is pressing down on her. The feeling is so powerful that, “the Landscape listens,”and “Shadows -hold their breath.” The emotion is hard to describe and is as complicated as nature itself. That is why the effects of this feeling cannot be seen on the outside; “We can find no scar.” The experience is psychological, “Where the Meanings are.” It is “internal”, heavy like the “heft/ of Cathedral Tunes.” The oppressiveness she feels is sad; however, it is necessary for the speaker to evolve. The word “heft” means weight and significance, but it also suggests upward motion, as if overcoming the oppressive heaviness brings the speaker to “imperial” heights. (MK). All who suffer pain or grief must overcome their sadness to find meaning and grow from their suffering. Suffering “’tis the seal, despair/ An imperial affliction.” After the worthwhile transformation, the speaker feels as though she has moved further along on her journey through life, and is therefore closer to death, “tis like the Distance/ On the look of death.”

Dickinson’s view of God is exemplified in “There’s a certain Slant of Light”. At seventeen, “Dickinson quietly defied both official and peer pressure to experience a conversion to Christianity. Dickinson later admitted in a letter that she secretly worried that somehow she had willfully put herself beyond God’s grace by her rebellion” (Gale). This makes sense of the phrases, “Cathedral Tunes,” and “Heavenly Hurt.” Dickinson saw religion as oppressive and she chose not to align herself with it the way her peers did. Dickinson grew closer to God through experiences, “None may teach it.” The heaviness she speaks of in “There’s a certain Slant of Light”, embodies her personal thoughts on the fear of change necessary for transformation, overcoming grief, and perhaps indirectly, Dickinson’s relationship with the Church. Though the poem describes the oppressiveness Dickinson feels, it also leaves hope for an uplifting experience, despite the fact that in the end Dickinson is brought closer to death.

-Rose O’Callaghan

Bibliography and Further Reading Emily Dickinson and Thomas H. Johnson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. London [u.a.: Little, Brown, 1998. Print; Gale. “There’s a Certain Slant of Light.” Cengage (1999): Emily Dickinson Museum. Web.; MK, Rukhaya. “Literary Analysis: Emily Dickinson’s “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” Books, Literature, and Writing (2012) Hub Pages. Web; Museum, Emily Dicknson. “The Posthumous Discovery of Dickinson’s Poems.” Homestead and The Evergreens (2009): Emily Dickinson Museum. Web.

“The Soul selects her own Society”

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

Emily Dickinson’s “The Soul selects her own Society” was composed in 1862 and published posthumously in Poems by Emily Dickinson in 1890. The poem is composed in iambic trimeter with the occasional line in tetrameter, using dashes to interrupt flow and create dramatic pauses.

Dickinson’s characteristic use of seemingly out-of-place dashes and capital letters help to set the somber mood of the poem. The speaker of the poem starts out by saying that the, “Soul selects her own Society— / Then—shuts the Door” (Dickinson 143). Once the door is shut no one else is allowed through, not even “an Emperor be kneeling / Upon her Mat—.” This indicates that the speaker rejects larger society and creates her own society based on her individual self, indifferent to wealth or status. The speaker separates the individual from society, or the “divine Majority,” and “from an ample nation— / Chooses One.” In this way the speaker shuts people out her life. The “Valves of her attention,” like the valves of her heart, are “Like Stone—” to everyone except the “One”. It is open to interpretation whether the choice of whom the speaker lets in is made on whether they were deemed worthy enough, or perhaps that the speaker had no choice at all. Dickinson capitalizes “Soul” personifying it. This indicates that the speaker does not have conscious control over the “Soul.” It is as if the “Soul” makes choices of its own will. The “Soul” decides instead of the mind. Even if the speaker is missing out on great people, like an “Emperor,” it is too late to open the door.

Marijane Suttor reads “The Soul selects her own Society” in the context of Dickinson’s life. “This poem allows the reader a sense of her inner thoughts about her own reclusive nature.” It is known that during the 1860s Dickinson became reclusive. She withdrew from society and never left the family property, only interacting with her family members and close friends (UIC). Suttor writes that the poem “gives the sense that perhaps others were telling her that she needed to broaden her ‘society.’ It appears that this is Emily Dickinson responding to this type of observation from others indicating that who she accepted into her society was not her decision; instead it came from her soul.

In this reading “The Soul selects her own Society” registers Dickinson’s social anxiety.  During her lifetime she rarely published her writing. But when she did it was anonymous.  She only allowed those closest to her to read her work and experience her inner conciseness. The “One” that Dickinson chose might be interpreted as the “solitary, interior life of creativity and self-discovery” (High Beam).

—Rose O’Callaghan

Bibliography and Further Reading Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1960. Print; Gale. “Frequently-Asked Questions | Emily Dickinson Museum.” Emily Dickinson Museum: The Homestead and the Evergreens. Emily Dickinson Museum, 2009. Web; High Beam. “The Soul Selects Her Own Society.” Encyclopedia.com. HighBeam Research, 2013. Web; Marijane Suttor. “Poetry Analysis the Soul Selects Her Own Society by Emily Dickinson.” Poets and Poetry, 31 Dec. 2011. Web.; UIC. “Emily Dickinson.” Emily Dickinson. University of Illinois, n.d. Web.

“The Rose did caper on her cheek—”

The Rose did caper on her cheek—
Her Bodice rose and fell—
Her pretty speech—like drunken men—
Did stagger pitiful—

Her fingers fumbled at her work—
Her needle would not go—
What ailed so smart a little Maid—
It puzzled me to know—

Till opposite—I spied a cheek
That bore another Rose—
Just opposite—Another speech
That like the Drunkard goes—

A Vest that like her Bodice, danced—
To the immortal tune—
Till those two troubled—little Clocks
Ticked softly into one.

As with most of Emily Dickinson’s poetry this poem was introduced after her death in 1896 when it was included in the publication of The Poems of Emily Dickinson Series Two Boston by the Roberts Brothers. Dickinson introduces us into the world of youthful adulthood with their first taste of emotional and sexual feelings. She presents the poem in the traditional ballad or hymn form consisting of alternating iambic tetrameter.

She begins with the presentation of an abashed young woman speaking to a group of individuals but it is questioning as to why she blushes. Dickinson uses the term caper, to skip or dance, to represent the steady spreading of color across her cheeks. The Rose to which Dickinson refers is identifiable as the rosy color that appears in ones cheeks when embarrassed. She reinforces the female embodiment with the reference to the woman’s Bodice, which was the portion above the waist on a dress, and it’s rising and falling caused by heavy breathing. Dickinson continues to show the embarrassment of the woman by creating a comparison of her speech to that of drunken men. She writes “Her pretty speech – like drunken men – Did stagger pitiful.” She continues to represent her inability to maintain her speech by presenting the imagery of her needlework. She who is typically a smart maid, as told by Dickinson, “so smart a Little Maid,” begins to become unable to carefully guide her needle because of her quivering hands.

The overall question pertaining to this topic of embarrassment within the maid is the question of why. Dickinson creates a wonder as to what “ailed” the little maid, which in this instance pertains to one’s mind. Proceeding the asking of this question she turns her attention to the others gathered for the her speech. From the faces across the room, she encounters one, “That bore another Rose – Just opposite.” Using the connection of the Rose, she connects a young man who begins his own speech exactly opposite of the maid. This introduces the birth of young love becoming intertwined. Dickinson creates the same relationship of the young man’s speech to those of drunkards, similar with the maid.

She finalizes their relationship by speaking of the similar patterns of rising and falling of the Bodice to that of the young man’s Vest. Dickinson relates both their speeches and their connections to that of the dancing “To the immortal tune-.” Love is often depicted as immortal so it shows the shared embarrassment of their new found feelings, while showing that their dance will never end as Love is an immortal and every changing song. Dickinson then continues to bring in the component of time and love by the imagery of clocks. She labels the lovers as “two troubled – little Clocks.” and through this she shows that although their clocks may be set to different times, at some point through the progression of time their clocks will be in sync one day. She ends the poem by saying the two clocks “Ticked softly into one,” finalizing that these two were meant to be together. Their clocks will no longer be separate but as one clock counting down the remaining days of their physical relationship, and making their love eternal.

—Rose O’Callaghan

Bibliography and Further Reading Erin Mull. The Rose Did Caper (2012 Prezi. Web); Justin Thomas  and Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (London, Little Brown, 1998. Print); Susan Kornfeld. The Prowling Bee: The Rose did caper on her cheek- (March 2012 Web); Educational Technology Clearinghouse. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Series Two (2012 Web);

“The Mountains — grow unnoticed —”

The Mountains—grow unnoticed—
Their Purple figures rise
Without attempt—Exhaustion—
Assistance—or Applause—

In Their Eternal Faces
The Sun—with just delight
Looks long—and last—and golden—
For fellowship—at night—

“The Mountains—grow unnoticed —” was discovered and numbered in the 34th fascicle1 in 1926 and was first published in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1929 by Little Brown. Dickinson lived across from the Pelham Hills in Amherst, Massachusetts, most likely the great “Purple figures” who rise and grow without recognition.

The mountains do not require the attention of acknowledgment of others and it is something that could be said in relation to Dickinson’s feelings on recognition. The use of the word “Purple” suggests a similar growth of man. Purple during the times of Monarchy could only be worn by those of royal lineage which can be perceived as though the growth of mountains exceeds the significance of that of man. Also, unlike the average person, the mountains do not require the recognition which is usually in correlation with personal achievement. Individuals tend to require recognition for their deeds, while the mountains, “Their Purple figures rise / Without attempt — Exhaustion — / Assistance — or Applause —.” The same color can also pertain to different aspects of life as well, and purple is an important color to those who are concerned with spirituality because it is the color of infinite consciousness of yourself and everything around you. The major relation to this is Dickinson’s creation of the mountains “Eternal Faces.” The term eternal, meaning to last or exist forever; without an end or beginning, is a direct relation to the color purple and the concept of the infinite consciousness.

Dickinson continues to bring attention to the mountains, which can be viewed as deceitful because the mountains do not require attention. She brings in the power of the sun and its longing relationship to the mountains whose “eternal faces” in turn become illuminated. “The Sun — with just delight / Looks long — and last — and golden — / For fellowship — at night —.” The relationship between the sun and the mountains is opposite of the conventional. Instead of bringing life to the mountains, they themselves create and sustain the friendship which the sun seeks fellowship within.

—Shane Merritt

Note Dorothy Huff Oberhaus explains the use of the term “fascicles” when referring to Dickinson’s poems. “Although the poems of Emily Dickinson remained virtually unpublished during her lifetime, she did engage in a private kind of self-publication from about 1858 to 1864. During those years, she made copies of more than eight hundred of her poems, gathered them into forty groups, and bound each of these gatherings together with string to form booklets. While she sometimes sent a friend a copy of one of the poems from the booklets, there is no evidence that she showed them in their bound form to anyone.” See Emily Dickinson’s Fascicles: Method and Meaning (Pittsburgh: The Pennsylvania State UP, 1995). A critical discussion of the organization of the poems in the fascicles appears in Sharon Cameron, Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson’s Fascicles (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1993).

Bibliography and Further Reading Neeru Tandon. Thematic Patterns of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry (New Delhi, Atlantic & Distributors, 2008. Print); “The Publication Question” (Emily Dickinson Museum, 2013. Web).

“The Brain—is wider than the Sky—”

In Emily Dickinson’s vocabulary the word brain, mind, self, and soul are often used interchangeably. Dickinson draws distinctions between mind and heart, almost asserting that the mind without the heart is mindless weak and dead, “The Mind lives on the Heart / Life any Parasite-(1-2).” Elsewhere, she affirms, “The Heart is the Capital of the Mind” (1354). However, “brain” can be seen as an essence of glory for being alive. Dickinson’s poetry continually claims a reality for the interior world that is equal to or greater than that of the material world. In poem after poem, she asserts that life’s greatest riches—reality, free will, happiness, self-respect, and creativity, can only be found within.

“The Brain-is wider than the Sky— (623), from 1863, is both a celebration of human consciousness and the ability for the brain to “contain” the world outside within its structure of reference:

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—
The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

The first two stanzas lightheartedly develop two ways to compare and measure first brain and sky, then brain and sea. In both instances the brain is larger, and more voluminous and absorbing. In the final stanza, the poet turns her attention from the visible, natural world, to the transcendent reality of God. Here there’s another method of measurement, “Heft them—Pound for Pound— (10),”she finds that the brain is not greater, but equal to “just the weight of God— (9).” However, if the brain and God were to differ, their only differ would be, “As Syllable from Sound— (12).”

If God is Sound, the all-encompassing, undifferentiated element of which the shaping syllable of a human mind is made, then the brain is greater to God in its density, though unable to exist without God, the source. Nonetheless, what if God is the Syllable and the Brain is Sound? In John 1:1 it says, “In the beginning was the Word.” In this reading, the brain, as the “sound” that evolved from that first syllable, would be an echo of the divine. Thus, there is this syntactic ambiguity here.

Biographer Cynthia Griffin Wolff shares that, “Syllables are concocted from sound and contain them; the brain has been created by God, but nonetheless contains Him” (462). Charles Anderson reads the poem as contemplating that nature as a well as God may prevail only in the mind. For him, “The effect of the poem is not to minimize the importance of God, or nature, but to magnify the value of the consciousness” (300). Even between the two critics is this unknowing and this ever seeing syntactic ambiguity towards the poem and its true meaning.

—Melanie Murphy

Bibliography and Further Readings Charles Roberts Anderson. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry; Stairway of Surprise (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.Print); Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston, Mass: Little, Brown, 1960. Print); Sharon Leiter. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work (New York, NY: Facts on File, 2007. Print); Cynthia Griffin Wolff. Emily Dickinson (Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1988.Print).

“Rests at Night”

Rests at Night
The Sun from shining,
Nature–and some Men–
Rest at Noon–some Men–
While Nature
And the Sun–go on–

Emily Dickinson originally wrote Poem #714 around 1863. It is part of Fascicle 23, which includes 20 poems written in ink. It is also included in the Houghton Library, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Dickinson refers to nature and the sun as always continuing in a circular motion. The two never rest at the same time, but only appear to do so.  While the men of one region rest for the night and the nature and sun convince the men that the sun and nature are asleep, but in reality they are awake in another region. When the men of the first region awake, it appears that the sun and nature have slept alongside the men and are awaking together. This continuous circle allows the unconscious man to have his world at rest, while the awaken man lives on with the sun and nature until the next rotation of the sun and moon. As the world spins continuously, some men begin their day and end their night. The one thing that will always stay true is the wondrous rotation of the Earth from day to night and Emily Dickinson seems to highlight the beauty of that routinely manner.

Ashok Karra suggests that this poem is a hidden love romance story and calling the “rests” men who are in her words “lazy.” On the other hand, this is potentially be a romance poem with the “rests” merely the distances from man and woman. The poem suggests that “Some men” may live on the opposite side of the world in another hemisphere and therefore their sun and nature rest at night while in the other hemisphere their men, sun, and nature are resting at the other groups’ noon time.

–Emma Kash

Bibliography and Further Reading Ashok Karra. “Rethink.” Rethink. N.p., (23 Nov. 2010. Web.) 18 Nov. 2013; “Manuscript View for Houghton Library – (168a,b) “My Faith Is Larger than the Hills,” J766, Fr489; Rests at Night, J714, Fr490.” Emily Dickinson Archive. Manuscript View for Houghton Library – (168a,b) My Faith Is Larger than the Hills, J766, Fr489; Rests at Night, J714, Fr490. N.p.,( n.d. Web.) 18 Nov. 2013.

“Ourselves were wed one summer — dear —”

Ourselves were wed one summer — dear —
Your Vision — was in June —
And when Your little Lifetime failed,
I wearied — too — of mine —

And overtaken in the Dark —
Where You had put me down —
By Some one carrying a Light —
I — too — received the Sign.

‘Tis true — Our Futures different lay —
Your Cottage — faced the sun —
While Oceans — and the North must be —
On every side of mine

‘Tis true, Your Garden led the Bloom,
For mine — in Frosts — was sown —
And yet, one Summer, we were Queens —
But You — were crowned in June —

Emily Dickinson’s “Ourselves were wed one summer — dear —” (631)  was included in packet 84 and is believed to have been written around 1863. Readers have suggested that the poem registers Dickinson’s loss of her childhood friend Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, to the rigidness of her heterosexual marriage to Emily’s brother, William Austin Dickinson.

Sue’s “Vision” in June represents her faith and her marriage to Austin. Dickinson expresses her loss of Sue to both religion and marriage as a kind of death. While Dickinson avoids her own experience of death by yielding herself not to man or God, but to the “light” and her poetic muse:

And overtaken in the Dark —
Where You had put me down —
By Some one carrying a Light —
I — too — received the Sign.

After receiving the poetic “Sign,” Dickinson goes on to describe how both her and Sue’s lives will be forever different:

‘Tis true — Our Futures different lay —
Your Cottage — faced the sun —
While Oceans — and the North must be —
On every side of mine

‘Tis true, Your Garden led the Bloom,
For mine — in Frosts — was sown —
And yet, one Summer, we were Queens —
But You — were crowned in June —

Sue’s life will include daily social rounds of a cottage, while Dickinson will face the openness of the oceans and the north. Sue is associated with the creativity and bloom of a garden, but it is a garden circumscribed by the round of male order signified by sun, or even son. Dickenson sows her own garden, her own poems, with the “Frost” suggesting her cold separation from Sue. Dickinson gives birth to poetry and Sue gives birth to children. Nevertheless, both women have lost the primal bonds that they posed when the two were “Queens,” but Sue greatly wreaks the loss of primal bonds when she subdued to the “crown,” the limits, the blows, and the thorns. “Crown” offers an imagery of Christ, a sort of restriction, i.e. marriage.

This poem has a representation of these comparing and contrasting roles. Sue is a sun-filled, domestic fate, while Dickinson is surrounded by the vast “Ocean.” For Vivian Pollak, the imagery evoking the speaker’s fate, “symbolized a lesser triumph over sterility, because she never effectively renounced her love for Sue, transferred her affection to anyone else, or recovered from Sue’s betrayal of her” (142). While Sue’s lifelong companionship for the poet is questionable, at least in this poem, she continues to dominate Dickinson’s consciousness. There is a lingering anguish towards the loss of Sue even at the end of the poem, once more, the summer when they were “Queens” and the June when Sue was “crowned” both women were dethroned.

—Melanie Murphy

Bibliography and Further Readings Betsy Erkkila. The wicked sisters: women poets, literary history, and discord (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Print); Betsy Erkkila. The complete poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, 1960. Print); Sharon Leiter. Critical companion to Emily Dickinson: a literary reference to her life and work (New York, NY: Facts on File, 2007. Print).