285. (Emily Dickinson)

She is metaphysical in that her poetry seeks to resolve, and is a novel means for resolving, a fundamental tension of thought and being: presence and absence. Her poetry is a technique for detecting what is present and what will make itself present, which is, most often, a small sign of immensity. (Pettiness and grandiosity are the foes of the verse because the immense is crucially different from the latter, the small from the former).

Whereas for Hopkins, what is present is the creation, to be known sensuously, for Dickinson the present is temporal also: something becoming itself or becoming known as itself in time, even as time. The poems do not aim, as Hopkins’ might be said to do, to hold a presence before the mind, to attend; instead, they aim to force a presenting, not as epiphany or revelation, but as a recognition, apprehension, wisdom.

She is a poet of the nineteenth century, a poet conscious of accelerated time; she is, moreover, an American poet, whose restlessness is belied by her stationary life, and is felt instead in verses that move from present to present. Look at the word “News” in the poetry; look at the turns on “then,” or how even the poems in the past are in the past perfect, leading to the instant of utterance.

One of the complaints against the poems is that the arresting opening lines dissolve into forgettable closes; it is not an answer to that complaint to point out that the reason for it at least may be thought to be a function of her aim and matter: she begins by catching at what is suddenly there, at suddenness itself, and it cannot be held for the entire duration.

What is presence in the poetry? It is possibility: a possibility that is felt as actual, something that might be real. That is to say, the present in her poetry is a possibility in which she has sufficient faith for utterance, and possibility in her poetry is guarded and cherished as a presence without which life would lose meaning (“I dwell in possibility”–but look at chance throughout her poems for examples of any of what I’m claiming).

She shares much in common with Christina Rossetti, but not the striving after patience: Dickinson is impatient, and she pushed back with it, against those who do not immediately grasp. Rather than reticent, her poems should be felt to be affirmative, insistent on what is, and is in the “now” of the poetry. It makes some sense of the mystery of her barely publishing in her lifetime if the poetry is thought to be not shy (why not publish anonymously?) but serving its ends in the culmination of its being written; publication requires patience.

The presence that can be discerned in the human present is often, for her, divine: an eternity in which presence is all. That is the ultimate aim of her restlessness, and the state where that which is most enduringly, insistently present, the self, is reconciled with that which is other but identical, God, or Nature, or something already contained within—any of which are the presences the poetry makes possible or any of which are possibilities the poetry makes present.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s