Friday, June 10, 2005

Emily Echoes North of the Border

A meditation on Emily Dickinson and Djuana99


Djuana99 is an internet poetess in Canada. In typical homespun internet fashion (we invent the rules as we go), her screen name, “Djuana99,” is a combination of a misspelling of the first name of the 20th century avant-garde woman writer and artist Djuna Barnes, and the “99” appended no doubt to comply with some internet screening software’s directive that some other poor soul out there had already grabbed and tenaciously claimed the pure name “Djuana” for him or herself, as well as “Djuana1,” “Djuana1,” and so forth, all the way to 98. But as I indicate below, none of those 98 other Djs write as poetically as our favorite, Dj #99.

As is so often the case with poets, she speaks most clearly and, in a sense, most as herself, in her poems. This is the first corollary to Emily D.

DJ does not have a day job. This is the second corollary. Freed from the drudgery of work and the need to express homicidal tendencies toward obstreperous supervisors, Dj is left with the vast calms and silences of the middle parts of the weekdays when everyone else is working or watching TV or taking health walks at the mall, for her abstruse exploration. The results are a delicate play of affective subtleties, poems reminiscent of Dickinson in their attunement to the smallest and subtlest of changes in interior and exterior weather, at their best leaving trails through the reader’s consciousness like those of snowflakes on air:

Divided by, not tethered to
a February sleep
in the deep blindness
of sun refracting off snow,
boot heel trudging into

the space/is it open
all along the river edge
the ducks, the colour white, whitest

in some dream that sleep remembers . . .


(DJ, from “Wintering”). The delicacy here is of someone whose perceptive and reflective filters are very sensitive. This is the kind of sensibility, precisely, that gets crushed and collapsed-back in the workplace. I mean this in all seriousness. Clearly the sensibility here is “oversensitive” by conventional measure. The kind of narrowing of the emotional scansions, the sort of bluntness and “thick skin” required by the rough-and-tumble of many or most jobs, is absent in Dj’s sensibility, as it comes across on the internet pixel-page. This is a beautiful thing and a tribute to her partner Yves, really, as much as her, since it is their life partnership which, I suspect, allows her lyrical flower to fully flourish. He protects her, like the big family protected Dickinson. (Likewise, Dj protects Yves from becoming too blunted by the world; Dickinson protected those in her family she was close to, in the same way). Indeed, we see much of the same delicate openness of perception and sensation found in Dj, in Dickinson, and the older poet describes what it is like to be like that, very well in this poem:

I taste a liquor never brewed—
From tankards scooped in Pearl—
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of Air—am I—
And Debauchee of Dew—
Reeling—thro endless summer days—
From inns of Molten Blue—

When "Landlords" turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove's door—
When butterflies—renounce their "drams"—
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats—
And saints—to windows run—
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the Sun—


Dickinson did not need the crudity of actual “liquor” to get her drunk; mere “dew” did the trick. She is a case study in what by normal societal terms would be called hyper- or oversensitivity. One recalls the anecdote that when friends came to visit, in the later years, she would receive them by speaking in hushed tones from behind a door, without even letting them see her. For someone who has become extremely sensitive, even the pressure of eyesight can be too much.

Someone of “normal” sensitivity must travel somewhere away from his everyday situation to get special stimulation. One effect of prolonged immersion in the workaday world of phone calls and clients and deadlines is that once we leave the office, the surrounding world seems flat and pale and dull and empty. Our senses are too hardened, too buffered, to receive the subtler and finer stimuli. So we go to the sportsbar, go to the loud bigscreen movie, go to the teeming circus of the mall, in order that we may feel something. The emptiness of a quiet room, a backyard, is too silent for us. Our hearing has been adjusted so that anything quieter than the ringing of a telephone doesn’t register. We have grown thick-skinned to survive our day jobs.

The quiet situation of simply sitting in a room looking out the window, simply walking down a quiet snowcovered sidewalk, is not enough for most of us, hardened as we are by work. We need big sounds, bright colors, release. We need to be “taken somewhere.” We insist in huge action-adventures for our movies. Our airport novels project us into exotic locales. We watch TV shows like “Lost” and “Survivor.” We need to be lifted and taken away; we need a journey in order to feel the air rush by. The subtler air of standing in one place, cannot be felt.

It is different for a Dickinson, a Dj. For their sort of sensibility, there is already projection, movement, release, right where they are sitting. This has both a good and a bad aspect. It is good in the sense that what would seem for most of us to be a minimal environment, may be an adventurous one, plenteous with incident, for them. It is bad in the sense that they may not be able to find “peace and quiet,” i.e., the withdrawal of sensory phenomenae, as easily as the rest of us. Remember that for them, what seems to us to be a peaceful, quiet, boring scene, may be full of sensory and perceptive vectors, incursions. What for us seems plain stability, for them might swirl with flux. We hear silence; they hear the buzzing of a fly. We hear “just” the buzzing of a fly; Dickinson hears all the exquisite, furthest, sometimes dangerous implications of that buzzing, that mortal progress:

I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air—
Between the Heaves of Storm—

The Eyes around—had wrung them dry—
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset—when the King
Be witnessed—in the Room—

I willed my Keepsakes—Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable—and then it was
There interposed a Fly—

With Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz—
Between the light—and me—
And then the Windows failed— and then
I could not see to see—


Notice the sensory shifting of the “blue” buzz. One thing that happens when the senses grow hyperacute, is that phenomenae may blend into two senses at once, or one sense might cut across and open up into another. This phenomenon is known as synesthesia and can be expressed in neutral, positive or negative terms. A neutral definition would be that synesthesia is where one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of a color. A more positive definition would be that in poetic terms, synesthesia allows mysterious cross-references between the senses, as in Dickinson’s “blue” buzz above (which to me, mysteriously connotes the blue tinge to a window sill, window glass which a fly buzzes against), or as in this example from Basho:

The ocean black
The cry of the teal
Faintly white


And, a more negative definition of synesthesia would be that it represents a psychological condition in which a person has difficulty distinguishing between various sensory inputs. In other words, the zone we are speaking of is not only a zone of potential lyricism, but also one of potential psychopathology.

I have noted above how less-sensitive people, people of “normal” sensory filters and inputs, in our society, seem to require that they be taken somewhere, in their experiences, in order to really deeply feel. They love action-adventures, movies with titles like “Swept Away.” By contrast, someone whose sensory apparatus is set up more like Dickinson or Dj does not require this, and indeed may be averse to it, because their ordinary, default, daily situation, is already plenteous, even perhaps dangerously overflowing, with movement. As Dj writes:

I don't go looking
for Heaven in a lacy bonnet
or Hell fittingly horned
in windy Gideon's Bible.

(from “Reading Material”). She doesn’t “go looking”: i.e., there is already movement, flux, potential travel, in her existing situation. Likewise Dickinson:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—
I keep it, staying at Home—
With a Bobolink for a Chorister—
And an Orchard, for a Dome—

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice—
I just wear my Wings—
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton—sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman—
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at least—
I'm going, all along.

Thus, what others do by “going,” she does by “staying.” This collapse of travel into the initial situation, of movement back into the initial position, leaves the poet in a situation both mystical and vertiginous. There is both an influx indicative of immanence, of a scene not fixed because it is bursting with presence; and an indeterminacy indicative of dissolution, breaking-down, void. Instead of seeing the overlay of fixed appearances which we project upon the world to freeze its flux and make it manageable, a person of hypersensitive perception touches the flux more directly. Instead of starting from a fixed, motionless position, from which they travel, from which they are “getting to Heaven,” the person in Dickinson’s position is “going, all along” – i.e., becoming has seeped back into their initial position, or to put it negatively, being is in danger of erasure by becoming.

You can see this ambiguous, both reviving and destabilizing, in its incursion of movement into an area of immobility, in this excerpt from Dj:

Exchanging looks, the not looking kind,
at a Provost Street bus stop
with a wavering woman
parcel-clutching & stiff.

I feel her as if
she's breathing on my neck
though she stands a good 3 metres to my right
purse lipped & almost
drenched to the bone she must be,
squeaky sneakered, red cheeked,
a good twenty years my senior.

Drops beat down
on my crooked umbrella. The bus doesn't come.

(from “Weather”). The poem’s simple description of a scene of waiting for a bus becomes something both more refreshing and more heroic, even fraught, than would be the case in a normal or more prosaic, empathetically blunted report. In this sense Dj’s personality is inherently lyrical, I would argue. Notice how the other person in this poem, the older woman, is both “wavering” and “stiff.” This is the fundamental ambiguity of what the initial position feels like for a poet whose sensitivity registers the becoming which underlies being.

Fixed appearance, the interpretation in which things are a certain way (instead of changing), is what grounds and allows for normal social interaction. We reduce the surrounding landscape, and other people, into fixed ciphers, summaries, caricatures of sorts, in order to efficiently and effectively deal with them. Those of us who work in offices or factories engage in this reductionism every day. For example, business men may speak of other “players” in a deal who are “good guys” i.e., allies in the deal, and “bad guys,” i.e. inimical, competitors. This is a severe reduction and a closure of empathy, but helps to simplify so as to get the job done. It makes it possible to deal with others. A more extreme example would be with soldiers. The phenomenae get reduced still further – hostiles and friendlies, hard targets and soft targets, etc. We reduce and distill the ever-changing landscape of becoming, into the fixed and abstracted landscape of being, which is, a map, in order to more efficiently get around in it. A loss occurs, but also, a practicality emerges. One can travel – but is travel always good; isn’t it a shame when we don’t have the sensitivity to sit in one place and be a “mental travelers”? Whereas, from Dj’s position, the senses are more rich and shifting, but also, more in danger of overfilling, overflowing, as in her tenuous dialectic with the other woman in her poem above, whom she senses to be “breathing on my neck,” whom even with the first line she interprets in a double manner, looks of the “not looking” kind. Sensory overflow, oversensitivity, can flood the filters, as with the deer frozen in the headlights. All of us in our more exquisitely self-conscious moments have felt this way. I would suggest that this way of feeling, of overfeeling, is both elemental to the lyrical position of a Dickinson or a Dj, and, is antithetical to the reduced sensibility that allows us to thrive in the loud crass mercantile workplace, where, in Wordsworth’s words, “getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

I believe that for a person like Dickinson, or Dj, even a simple excursion to the grocery store can be a draining experience, but also one productive of insights most of us never reach. I can think back to periods of time when I did not have to work, when my senses became more refined and exquisite, when I had more periods of time in quietness and solitude alone, and in those times of my life, indeed, to yank myself out of that quiescence and plunge into the mall or main street or the grocery store could be both a perplexing and an invigorating experience. Remember, the contours of our contemporary landscape have been molded and terraformed, throughout, so as to most comfortably accommodate the average, most common or “normal” sensibility. The shopping megamall does not strike the normal person as a raucous, almost unbearably swirling cacophony. This is because the average person has a mind and a sensibility which has had to deal with the clatter of a keyboard or the pinging and ringing of faxes and phones or the tiresome shuffling of files or the anxious harassment of production deadlines or the beep/beep/beep of the loader backing up, every day, 5 days a week (and then screaming kids on the weekends). So the landscape of our suburbs and highways, billboards and downtowns, has been inherently designed with that sort of sensibility in mind. For a Dickinson or a Dj, therefore, a simple trip to the food store can become an intricate and singular experience, because for someone with their sensibility, it is a trip, in a sense, into an alien environment, that is, into an environment designed by and for somewhat alien sensibilities:

Plain colours on Wednesday
pin down a willow of a day that tastes
of New York movies and your latest obsessions held onto
as the slip of a grocery list you hold while waiting for the light at the corner
flutters into a crater of a puddle
& slips away.

Something to eat, that’s what’s needed
before you take on the veggies isle
where the purple cabbage & the speckled zucchini
wait in sync with meals of a thousand hues
shorn up by steak & chicken.

To the left of the market there’s the noodle shop.

Standing in line you eye
the green of the walls, the red tiles, the Asian blue-black hair.
You like the way urban clash & fusion tease each other.
Your hunger moves through shyness to bulging curiosity.
Next door, through the dirty window, purple winks
at the gray the town insists upon.

(Dj, “Puddle Planing”). See how she registers microphenomenae: the shopping list falling into the puddle. See, again, the synesthesia or blending of senses, also a metaphorical blending: “a willow of a day that tastes of New York movies” – a wonderful turn of phrase that swirls through delicate associations. See the hyperseen “purple cabbage and speckled zucchini.” The poem closes with a wonderful balancing of the speaker’s sense of things, against the default sense of things: “purple winks at the gray the town insists upon.”

I cannot emphasize too much how difficult it can be for a poet working out of this initial situation to communicate. Her input is less filtered and less controlled than for the rest of us with our vulgar buffers. There is always a lurking danger that her subjectivity could effectively disintegrate in the face of the surrounding scene. There is always a lurking danger that she will not be able to say, to speak to us, because of the dissolution of the speaker, the “she,” in the face of overwhelming double-, triple- and quadruple-ambiguities, multi-interpretations, the schizophrenic influx of dissociative input. (I would argue we see this process at work in the later poems of Holderlin).

Dickinson, or Dj, arguably negotiates and survives this situation via form, via lyric. She is sane in a way no schizoaffect can touch, due to poetry. In this sense, she is living in, because of, poetry; or, living a life of the mind that is communicable, because of the availability of poetry. This same thing occurs for many poets in the context of bipolar circumstances, as Kay Redfield Jamison has noted. Robert Lowell, for example, worked a conversion of bipolar, manic-depressive forces, into his lyric. I think that some amount of at least potential mental peculiarity or DSM-IV diagnosis is necessary for the lyric, or for one sort of lyric, because it allows for the otherness of speech we seek in poetry. Poetry ideally combines otherness with connection. Poetry is organic to Dj at a very intimate level because it is her way of connecting to herself, to the world, to nature. Most of us never feel sufficient otherness. She senses more than enough. But she is not swept off into silence: her hardy, handy, hand-crafted, do-it-yourself poetics, allows her to survive. She is to me an example of the do-it-yourself spirit on the internet. The dynamics of internet textuality work for her. Her voice is alive on the internet. It is a natural format for her. The internet is both closer and more distant than prior, bookbound textuality. Pixels on a screen are both more vivid, and more amorphous, than inkprint on a page. This situation suits her. This is the flipside of her unique sensitivity/sensibility: just as the loud shopping mall which is normal for us might be too much for her, so too, by necessary corollary, an environment which is too much for us, is more organic for her.

As I noted, she is aware of the flux that exists in place of the apparent solidity of reality which most of us take for granted. We more easily hold, but we more easily misinterpret. It is harder for her to hold, even in words, but what she does manage to capture in her net of words, lives more fully, lives less trapped. In Blake’s words, she touches the joy as it flies. We more readily control, but we don’t know as well as she does what we control. She controls less; which means, she more readily exposes to us the otherness of motive and intend that lies in the swirling multiform of life outside of our control. For Dj, the difficulty of holding, controlling, is more of a given, and likewise, she is less in danger of losing her sense of awe and her sense of multiple possibilities. There is a pathos to this situation, because it is like the situation we are all in when we stop to think of how we want to save and shelter and freeze in time what we love, but what we love is always moving and subject to the laws of transience:

I’ve held you
transformative as a daring colour
flecked with bits of nudging grey
left over from the splinter movements
of a day tacked hurriedly together –

held you in my mind & then arms
longingly, imaginatively,
taking in all you say & might say

(from “Getting The Day Right”). That is a beautiful piece of love poetry, and captures perfectly and in an idiosyncratic manner the sense of holding-what-is-going, holding-the-unholdable, that any lover feels. Further, what makes Dj remarkable as a poet is her ability to say, to poetically form, these perceptions and intuitions, which are extremely difficult to form and say, because, precisely, of their flux. It is a tribute to her skill and technique that she is able to sketch these breezes and slants of light, to catch the dust from the wing of a flying moth.

The ducks bite down,
snapping spines among the stems
of river flora, November-freighted
like me stopped on the shore,
chewing spearmint gum & godly flight
of the gulls & light licking the river’s bulk.

Such a warring plethora of surfaces –
me, the oily ducks, slant sun, climbing gull,
the churning dark below, by mysterious rote
limbering up.

(from “Constitutional”). Look at how a simple walk down to the duck-stream becomes something much more peculiar and evocative. What an interesting perception of what the ducks are doing, to start the passage. Look at the delicacy of how the speaker moves the focus over to show the reader her, chewing her stick of gum, and then flies back out against over to the gulls, the light on the water. The interchange, or blending, or inherent unity, of inner and outer worlds, is remarkably felt, here, and still more remarkably, expressed via communicable form. And then, in the next stanza above, a recognition and presentation of the “warring plethora of surfaces” – the flux-sense I have been emphasizing throughout this essay. Only the flexibility and formal suppleness of lyric poetry allows her to fully express this typical way she naturally sees things. In this sense, a natural poet, and one who would not fully live (in terms of the life of the mind), except for poetry.

Everyone has a point in speech, communication, where they speak most as themselves, where they exist the most. For Donald Trump, it would be in business negotiations, business-prose, but certainly not poetry. For a baseball pitcher, it might be in the way they throw a fastball. For a seagull, perhaps the squawk, perhaps the flight. For Dj, it is the poems.

Of course, as we talk about flux and becoming, we are reminded of the interrogations of Nietzsche and Heraclitus on these issues. Although Nietzsche’s approach is certainly more negative and less lyrical than Dj, I will point to a few of his comments which I think are in accordance with my notes here:

Profound aversion to reposing once and for all in any one total view of the world. Fascination of the opposing point of view: refusal to be deprived of the stimulus of the enigmatic.

Critique of modern philosophy: erroneous starting point, as if there existed "facts of consciousness"--and no phenomenalism in introspection.

"Consciousness"--to what extent the idea of an idea, the idea of will, the idea of a feeling (known to ourselves alone) are totally superficial! Our inner world, too, "appearance"!

I maintain the phenomenality of the inner world, too: everything of which we become conscious is arranged, simplified, schematized, interpreted through and through--the actual process of inner "perception," the causal connection between thoughts, feelings, desires, between subject and object, are absolutely hidden from us--and are perhaps purely imaginary.

Against positivism, which halts at phenomena--"There are only facts"--I would say: No, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations. . .

"Everything is subjective," you say; but even this is interpretation. The "subject" is not something given, it is something added and invented and projected behind what there is.--Finally, is it necessary to posit an interpreter behind the interpretation? Even this is invention, hypothesis.

In so far as the word "knowledge" has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings.--"Perspectivism."

(from “The Will to Power”). In Nietzsche, there is always a dissatisfied, strident note, which only very rarely dissolves into wonder, calm or pleasure. He is more a polemicist than a poet. He aptly describes the circumstances of how “there are no facts, only interpretations,” but does so in a very acute and sharp prose style which shows us someone recognizing or delineating this condition, in a somewhat irritated way, as opposed to actually speaking out from within this condition, as a poet might do, more happily and organically. It is as if he fears what he is describing. What we seek in poets who work from within the existential position that Nietzsche sketches, is some reassurance that for life to be this way does not have to be some nasty and scary thing. In Dj’s poems, as with Dickinson’s, we always see the inherent “fascination of the opposing point of view,” the other possible interpretations of any particular scene; but with Dj it is a natural, organic thing, not a deliberate “refusal” to be deprived of multiple interpretations. For her, the ambiguous “phenomenalism of introspection” is a given, a starting point; her challenge is to deploy poetic form and the rules of lyric, to deploy a poetic method, a style, which allows her to speak to us, to communicate with the other, in a way that is clear, that can be heard and recognized. Her core paradox or tension is between the desire to be accurate to the innumerable tracings of multiple interpretations and phenomena in flux; and at the same time, to speak clearly and in a way that can be heard. For words cannot be flux: poetry must be written in a logical series of frozen, fixed words. In a sense, she must choose from the unchoosable, select from the infinite. But that is where style comes in. If the use of words, their deployment, the subtle ringing and clang of one against the other, is clever and subtle enough, then the connotations, the reverberances of those words, may bring into the reader’s mind the sense of multiplicity and flux, which the author started from. So clarity occurs. But the words themselves are of necessity fixed into one and only one linear pattern: this is the mystery of poetry and the precise place where, over time, as I have tracked Dj through the years, I believe there has been substantial formal development. She has refined her style, her ability to say the breeze, freeze it, such that, in the reader’s mind, it melts and blows again. For most people, battered about and beaten down by necessity and upbringing, by the buffeting and buffering of day jobs, kids to feed and bills to pay, it is indeed the case, through and through, as Nietzsche says, that “everything of which we become conscious is arranged, simplified, schematized, interpreted through and through.” But things are different for Dj, and in this difference lies the heart of her poetics.

In recent months, Dj’s poems have seemed to take more note of the objective sense of the world, deploying objective sense-images in a more controlled format. I think this approach helps for purposes of connecting with the reader; the reader is more likely, sometimes, to be able to meet the poet on the common ground of objective correlatives, than in the amorphous regions of personal subjectivity:

In panties & lavender tank
she stays inside away from the weather.

Bare essentials in the unflappable back room:
turned down bed, shuttered open window, speedy ceiling fan,

side table with lamp, book & brimming water glass. Under
the bed, flip-flops, dust & cat hair. She stays there

not moving, sweat pooling in the crevices behind her knees:
drip, drip – left hand, then, flat against protruding hipbone forming

right angle triangle, an odd lapse in a bad mood. She is not aware
her foot has gone to sleep. She is not thirsty enough to drink, bored enough to read.

When the phone down the hall begins to ring
she moves onto her side, swipes damp hair out of her eyes. Listens.

The phone stops soon enough. The fan whirs. Hot.
Flat on her back again, she thinks about being hot.

She pictures tubes of sunscreen, parasols. Ice cubes, swimming holes.
Mostly she thinks about weather.

(Dj, “Away from the Weather”). I would also note her musical sense. When she chooses, she can inject flute-like notes and conga-drum echoes. A few examples:

A spate of faces,
a drawn frown.

(from “After Walking By The Freezing River”).

fringed in watery
pink & raspberry
of flimsy calico

(from “Over in a Looting of Colour”).

angel cobweb
tumbledown itsy bitsy

flag-breath
bruhaha

bottle-cap
ether

moth-proof
Mote

(from “Blink”). In passages like these, we can see how she turns her hypersensitive and, in the Nietzschean sense, more authentic (more aware of flux) perception, to the words themselves. The little whiffs and vectors and fragrances of the words, their constituent components, their syllable-sounds, their peculiar and isolate connotations, can resonate with her, in a way far different from the way that words are usually used in the various media of our lives. At the limit where these peculiar whiffs and fragrances of the words are let to wholly dominate, we reach an asymptote or vanishing-point at which the presence of the word is fully exposed, but the word is overfull, means too much one might say, and ceases to communicate, ceases to have practical communicative value. The poem becomes opaque at its point of maximum exposure. At this limit, someone in Dj’s or Dickinson’s position becomes merely a case of verbal psychopathology, because any potential richness of vision blinks out, incommunicado. One sees that happen from time to time in the Collected Dickinson – in those squiblets and jukes where we read and say, “huh?” Likewise, with Dj, take the language of the “Blink” poem above too much further, and you might have what psychologists call “word salad”, i.e., words flooded and made illegible by too much richness, too much interconnection, words splintering too many directions at once, too-muchness.

On the other hand, there is another limit, where the words are completely stripped of their peculiar whiffs and fragrances, and are brutalized and forced into the mass slavery of business-speak and politician-talk, of CNN and USA Today banality, of the instantly forgettable, fungible nature of workplace emails, packing lists, inventories, sales presentations, cold calls, advertisements, political speeches. This zone, where so much of society’s use of words functions, represents another, opposite pole or vanishing-point, where words are overly empty, where all they do is communicate but they say nothing, where words have far too much practical communicative value, and have lost all of that value we associate with the beautiful, the truthful, the poetic. This pole is the pole of society’s madness. In Emily’s words:

Much madness is divinest Sense—
To a discerning Eye—
Much Sense—the starkest Madness—
'Tis the Majority—
In this, as All, prevail—
Assent—and you are sane—
Demur—you're straightway dangerous—
And handled with a Chain—

Fortunately for us, there are poets like Dj out there who are able and allowed to “demur,” with the help and support of their loving partners such as Yves, to the benefit and interest of us all. And I would further argue that the presence of such voices as Dj’s is more organic and natural to the internet than it was to the prior print era. For on the internet, all you need is a home computer, to get your work into cyberspace; by contrast, in the print era, you needed to engage in the tedious commerce of editors, publishers. The social requirements of the print era left masters like Dickinson confined to their bureau drawer and letters to intimate friends, as the repositories for their poems; the gap between Dickinson’s sensibility and that of someone able to weather and enjoy the workaday discourse of editing and publishing, such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was simply too great. Dickinson tried to reach Higginson, writing to him out of the blue, knowing him to be an important editor and man-of-letters of his time. Higginson even tried to reciprocate, coming to visit her at home in person. But he was never able to “get” Emily, to understand her and what her poems were about; likewise, Emily was only able to approach and speak to Higginson through a mask of eccentricity—she could not find a way to “be normal” long enough to really connect with him, explain herself to him. Consider how forbiddingly odd this letter would have struck a man of normal 19th-century consciousness:

15 April 1862

Mr Higginson,

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

The Mind is so near itself--it cannot see, distinctly--and I have none to ask-

Should you think it breathed--and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude-

If I make the mistake-that you dared to tell me-would give me sincerer honor--toward you--

I enclose my name--asking you, if you please—Sir--to tell me what is true?

That you will not betray me--it is needless to ask--since Honor is it's own pawn--

(Dickinson letter to TWH). It is easy enough for you or me to read this today, with the benefit of a hundred-odd years of collective scholarship and adjustment of the canon to accommodate Emily, and say, “he should have understood her.” Think of this: right now, today, around us, there are voices as akimbo and eccentric to our time, as Emily’s was to hers – and have we heard them?

In any event, Higginson was Dickinson’s best shot at publication in her lifetime, and that shot failed. So she died with her poems “self-published” in her little hand-stitched “packets.” That was her version of blogging: the best she could do, with the technology of the time. But in our time, you only need to come out of your shyness and compromise with the mainstream long enough to set up a blog or post to a board, to get your work online. Thus, our contemporary internet setting provides more of an opportunity for someone of Dickinson’s reclusive and hypersensitive sensibility, to be heard. And so, if you search carefully through the boards and blogs of our time, you will find various writers of the Dj variety, who in print culture would have been marginalized and frozen out.

One of the reasons why an internet outlet like the MiPo project is so important and crucial for poetry today is for precisely this reason. MiPo provides a forum and an outlet for forms of poetic discourse than have for whatever reason been to a greater or lesser extent frozen out of print literary culture. I believe the balance of power is shifting to the internet because of internet textuality's greater fecundity. As an example, I would challenge anyone to point me to a current issue of a print publication with greater weight, pleasure for the reader, and variety, than the latest MiPo issue put together by Gudding, Kemel and Didi. But that is just my opinion.

1 comment:

21k said...

I am winding my way through this, haven't read it all by any means, but the bits i've latched on to are curious and intriguing.

deirdre