Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Dickinson-is-us



Just one wish on my bucket list now that I am retired is to read Emily Dickinson more closely to know her better, a woman who, some say, is the best of all American poets, a poet who seemed to know only that she was one, even if no one beside herself or even her loving sister-in-law ever recognized her ability, her art. 

Emily Dickinson was born of an stalwart Amherst, Massachusetts, family—her father a college administrator, her brother a lawyer. She was part of a family whose ancestral Calvinism may well have, long ago, lost its currency. Her father was  a cradle Calvinist, of such a temperament that it was said of him that he was to known to have smiled. . .once. The public righteousness of the family wasn’t matched by what went on behind closed doors, but inside that house, the spinster lived a reclusive life.

No matter. What does matter in her life and work is that her poetry’s often elusive content seems to cover just about all of the ground our own shared human consciousness and perceptions can. In that way, one might say, Dickinson is really everyone’s poet. Somehow, we’re all in Dickinson.

She's neither pious nor saccharine. If she has an enemy, it is the forces of cultural Christianity she found all around her—a Christianity she found in decay. The God those folks worship is fiercely not hers, to be sure; she measures God by a different yardstick than her neighbors. Occasionally—maybe even more than occasionally—she can be downright blasphemous.

As she is here, in one of her most famous poems, one that celebrates her own rebellion against the cultural character of religious practice around her:

I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol! 

She says she’s a drunkard, boozing it up on brew unlike any from a vat or barrel, not even the very best, what we might get from “vats upon the Rhine.” Little Miss Dickinson, the very height of propriety, so loves that idea of herself as a sop that she really can’t quit. 

Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue. 

This pub crawl that is her life means she’s drunk on air, on nature, on molten blue skies, stumbling along through a resplendent creation. She even associates with the creatures in her flower garden, who are, like good drinking buddies, similarly besmitten with the sheer beauty of the day: 

When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove's door,
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more! 

When flowers will admit no more voracious bees,-- when butterflies stop their boozing,-- she says, I will simply keep tipping my glass to the glory of a perfect day. 

Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun! 

And why quit now?—she asks herself. Till eternity itself, she says she'll keep drinking the loveliness of the world outside her window—the air, the sun, the sky--so that someday even angels—saints and seraphs in heaven--will waive their hats at this “little tippler,” pie-eyed, against the sun. All the way to heaven she’ll be drunk on the glory of a summer’s day. 

She’s pushing it, of course, as good poets do; we call that “poetic license.” Love poetry is all overstatement—“I’ll love you till the cows come home, till Ivory soap stops floating, till Niagara runs dry”--you know; and we might remember that Jesus himself wasn’t scared of a little hyperbole now and then. What Ms. Dickinson is trumpeting is her drunken joy in the beauty of the created world. Her exuberance is inebriated. She’s high with joy.

Maybe you’ve never felt that exuberance, but many have—the sheer splendor of a dawn, the exhilaration of a mountain top, the huge awe of a prairie vista that runs forever. She’s in love with the glories of this world.

Here’s my argument:  one of the reasons people claim Ms. Dickinson is such a fine poet—one of the reasons; there are others—is that she was capable of opening her arms for so many of us. These little tiny lines somehow open to what we know and feel.

Today, a kind of drunken ecstasy; tomorrow, not so.

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