Notes from An Alien

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Tag Archives: December 10 1830

Why Is Some #Poetry So Hard to Understand?

Emily Dickinson

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson

I have two Most Favorite (“secular”) authors.

One writes fiction, the other wrote poetry.

Some might say the poet wrote fiction

C. J. Cherryh is my Most Favorite fiction author—and, she can be very hard for some folks to understand

Emily Dickinson is my Most Favorite poet—and, she can be very hard for some folks to understand

I find her much harder to understand than Cherryh—yet, I read her, over and over

If you should try to read her poetry, do, if at all possible, get The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson as it’s the most comprehensive and authoritative one out there.

I should add that many fans of Cherryh and Dickinson love them in spite of all the effort it can take to understand them

But, this post is more about Ms. Dickinson so I’ll give you my short-form reasons for why poetry (and, hers in particular) can be hard to understand.

First, here’s an example poem:

You cannot put a Fire out —
A Thing that can ignite
Can go, itself, without a Fan —
Upon the slowest Night —

You cannot fold a Flood —
And put it in a Drawer —
Because the Winds would find it out —
And tell your Cedar Floor —

It may appear simplistic to you…

It may seem nonsensical…

If you read it more than once, it may strike you as deeper than you first thought…

One hint at deeper meaning is that certain things are given qualities they don’t have in a mundane world.

Wind talking to the floor, for instance

When things like this happen in poetry, you can tell that the poet isn’t just talking mundanely—they’re using words in unique ways—they’re making words do two or three things at once

So, finally, my short-form reasons for why poetry can be hard to understand:

Poetry (the “best” poetry) is meant to be more than it seems.

Words are used in ways that defy strict rationality.

We’re challenged to think beyond the obvious and learn deep Truths about Life…

These reasons are more than likely why poetry never sells as well as genre-fiction—folks don’t seem to want to work hard to find deep Truths

I was prompted to write this post because of a new book about Emily, A Loaded Gun ~ Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century.

And, I found out about the book by reading a post at Longreads,
A Loaded Gun: The Real Emily Dickinson ~ She was less like a recluse, more like a bomb going off.

Just a few excerpts (the Longreads post is actually an excerpt from the new book…):

“…Emily Dickinson was not just ‘one more madwoman in the attic’, but rather a messianic modernist, a performance artist, a seductress, and ‘a woman maddened with rage—against a culture that had no place for a woman with her own fiercely independent mind and will’.”

“’She was the articulate inarticulate’, that lone voice out of the Puritan wilderness….her letters are every bit as bewildering as the poems, perhaps even more so…We soon come to realize that’s she’s wearing an assortment of masks—sometimes she’s Cleopatra and an insignificant mouse in the same letter.”

“The brutality of this belle of Amherst would stop a truck.”

“It’s as if she had a storm inside her head, an illumination, like a wizard or a mathematical genius.”

There is still much conjecture about Emily (and this book certainly raises many speculations).

We may never know the truth about her, except for the Utter Truths she wove into her poetry

A few more excerpts:

“I believe she suffered horrendously as a woman; dream brides drift in and out of her poems like a continual nightmare—yet she did not want to be ‘Bridalled’.”

“I believe that her rebellion against the culture of nineteenth-century Amherst was of another kind. She was promiscuous in her own fashion, deceiving everyone around her with the sly masks she wore. She was faithful to no one but her dog. Her white dress was one more bit of camouflage, to safeguard the witchery of her craft.”

“She wasn’t one more madwoman in the attic. She was the mistress of her own interior time and space…”

And, even though I have my own proof that she was extremely spiritual and even extraordinarily religious (so many folks really don’t know the meanings of spiritual and religious…), I’ll share one more quote that, for me, nails it for who this woman was:

“She met her first real antagonist, Mary Lyon, within the school’s walls. Lyon was a formidable foe. The founder and headmistress of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Lyon came from a much humbler background than the poet and believed in educating rich and poor alike as female soldiers in Christ. But no matter how wily she was, the headmistress in the severe white bonnet couldn’t get Dickinson to profess her faith, couldn’t rescue her soul. Emily Dickinson was one of the few ‘unsaved’ seminarians. The battle was less about God and the Devil than about two women with strong wills, one of them a sixteen-year-old girl whose father was almost as tyrannical as Mary Lyon. None of Lyon’s little Christian soldiers could persuade the poet. She learned whatever she wanted to learn, and discarded all the rest.”

If I’ve encouraged just one other person to dive into the Worlds created by Emily Dickinson, my life has more worth………
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