Oct 17, 2006

More on Dickinson’s Spider

After thinking about the Emily Dickinson poem I quoted in my last blog entry, I came to the conclusion that though it is not a great poem, it is at the least not marred by Dickinson’s worst mannerisms, as Winters discussed at length in his essay on her in Maule’s Curse (In Defense of Reason). This poem employs a steady diction and a cool, sharp style that is close to her best work in her great poems. Thinking about these things brought to mind Dick Davis’s recent essay “Poetry, A Prognosis” from a 2003 number of The New Criterion:

I think it’s a fair bet that if you asked most people on this side of the Atlantic who claim to enjoy reading poetry who their favorite pre-twentieth-century English language poets are, they’d say “Donne and Emily Dickinson”: on the other side of the Atlantic the odds are they’d say “Donne and Hopkins.” Much as I like a lot of the verse of Donne, and a fair amount of Dickinson, and even a bit (a very little bit) of Hopkins, I think this indicates where the trouble with modern poetry lies. All three are eccentrics: their poems are hard to comprehend and seem to stand in need of explication, though their habitually excited tone makes even the uninitiated feel that some kind of genuine feeling must be there, even if we can’t quite paraphrase it; and their technique is to some extent both experimental and sui generis. They’re odd-balls, whose verses can be hard to paraphrase...
Does this seem true, too true, David's points about the attractiveness of eccentrics, to those who can be called Wintersians? (Judging from my casual surveys of literary culture over the past 25 years, the diversity of opinion in the world of poetry [and every area of human endeavor] is so astonishing that I don’t think there is any generalization one could make about people who like poetry. People “who claim to enjoy reading poetry” appear to come in every imaginable variety.) Davis has written some trenchant pieces studying what is happening in and to contemporary poetry. As Winters noticed so long ago (concerning a poet even as traditional as George Herbert), it is the eccentricities of poets that grab the attention of so many poets and readers of poetry. As part of the ascendancy of Romanticism across our literary culture, the writing and reading of poetry have become the pursuit of almost pure individuality, as shown, for example, in many poetry blogs on blogger.

How much does Dickinson’s little ditty on the spider exhibit the repeated eccentricities of her verse that remain in nearly unquestionable favor in our dominant literary culture? I think it winks at them, but it keeps its distance. Nonetheless, this poem is more obscure than it should be because, it appears, she chose not to say exactly what she means and adjust her tone properly to whatever it was she wished to say. Her once-unusual habit of playfully obfuscating her meaning has long become a common and highly praised practice of modern poetry, a matter which Winters discussed extensively in Primitivism and Decadence back in 1937.

No comments: