Emily Dickinson’s Utopian Tongue

How Her Poems Revitalize Language

By Lisa Williams on 10.07.09

Emily Dickinson’s poems are a paradise for words. I say this because it was her poetry that sparked my awareness of what language can be. In this language utopia, words are not fixed entities but facets of conception. Other facets are hinted at in the suggestion of homonyms, synonyms, puns: a world of words beyond those seen. Even though one word has been chosen, others hover in the air around it, “Invisible as Music / but positive on Sound” (#501) as if the text were a ghostly palimpsest. Thus, a Dickinson poem “is not Conclusion”: a reader often has the freedom to see one word yet hear and imagine others, not just because a reader imposes the (contemporary) subjective approach to a poem while reading Dickinson, but because Dickinson’s poems were written with that sort of multi-verse in mind.

I remember the first poem of Dickinson’s that cracked language open for me. A late bloomer, I came to Dickinson when I was almost thirty, proceeding from the beginning of the Thomas Johnson edition—from the juvenilia—forward. I wanted to see the messier, younger, more developmental poems, then make my way to the later mind-blowing work. It was important to me to connect with what was human in the poet before approach what is divine.

Art by baskervillain on Flickr

It happened late one night. I was propped up in bed, head against wall, one lamp on, darkness all around, my windows open, crickets shuddering, the air heaving with their rhythms as if it breathed. I reached poem #130: These are the days when Birds come back. The first few lines recalled Shakespeare’s sonnet #73, which I had recently read. They also recalled another early favorite of mine, William Carlos Williams’ “These.” My fondness for both of these other poems likely contributed, at least initially, to #130’s appeal. I found myself gripped by its first imagistic stanza (remarkably modern for the 19th-century), and then moving into a second that both embraces and destabilizes cliché. What on earth were “sophistries of June” and how could skies “put on” those, “a blue and gold mistake”? I’d never seen such intrepid mingling of abstract and concrete, intellection and perception, poetic and colloquial (surely to speak of “skies” that “put on” sophistries shows a lexical flexing unusual for the time?). Dickinson gives us “fraud” in a sentence with “Bee,” “plausibility,” and “belief”; “seeds” with “witness” and “leaf,” ideas and objects interspersed so that they call attention to their mingling. If the poem is spiritual, it is not conventionally pious; it’s “in a Haze.”

But one of the words that jolted me—and I’d been steeped in poetry for almost a decade by then—can be found in stanza four. It was the word “altered.” Of course Dickinson meant “changed” air, but she meant “altared,” too, didn’t she? It hovers there because of the ceremonial nature of the poem. That alternate word is (to my mind) one of the “species” that “stands beyond…positive as Sound” (#501). A reader who had entered the world of the poem would recognize it. Dickinson must have been pleased when she lit upon the one word that would evoke both worlds—that of the physical season, and that of the sacred ritual—so definitively. It must have felt like a discovery for her too.

I have seen puns and homonyms before. They were funny and clever. They were hard to get away with (these days) without drawing undue attention. But this wasn’t funny or sarcastic or sexual, as the puns I knew tended to be. This was a pun not for tonal inflection, but for the opening of the world of the poem. The one word, with its implication of the other, allowed “altered” to be the crux for both. I got it. Something closed heaved open.

Certainly this must be something like what Gerard Manley Hopkins meant when he described poetry as language heightened and intensified (for the writer, for the reader). Certainly, too, if you’re not used to reading poetry, it may be something you miss, this careful, close, intimate paying of attention to words in terms of their lexical and tonal suggestiveness. You have to pay attention to a poem the way you might parse the e-mail of someone you’re in love with but not sure of: for clues, with a passionate attention. That may seem reductive, but it’s a little bit accurate to. Paying attention to a poem like that. —A poem which is, of course, a human voice. It still astonishes me that, out of the darkness, so to speak, a human being who is either far away or dead can speak to a reader with a living voice in this way.

The other poem that struck me early in my reading of Dickinson was #510. In this magnificent poem, the speaker describes an indescribable state as being like a time when “Grisly frosts—first Autumn morns / Repeal the Beating Ground.” I understood “repeal” meant to recall, to withdraw, but it also (among other things) suggested “re-peel.” Painful and accurate. In so many ways, the words Dickinson picks for a poem involve the abstract and the concrete: the intellectual and the physical. Her metaphorical terms often physicalize concepts: she can “wade grief…whole pools of it” (#252); she wants to “moor tonight…in thee” (#249); she defines “mirth” as “the mail of anguish” (#165), “hope” as a “thing…that perches in the soul.” In poem #510, to say that something is “repealed” is to make an intellectual judgment about it. To say that it has been “re-peeled” is immediate, physical, and brutal to imagine—especially when the ground is (as she describes it in the poem) “beating”—as if it is, or wants to stay, alive. The frost re-peels that warmer, more optimistic season, which has come to an end but still lingers. Correcting it. Flaying it. Again.

We know, from the fascicles (the actual written copies of Dickinson’s poems), that there were often several choices of words—a little constellation of them—written around the presumed selection. To look at these other facets is fascinating; Dickinson seemed to like words that allowed her to suspend meaning slightly, to retain not simply ambiguity, but a spectrum of connotation and denotation. She would not be “shut up” in “prose” (#613). We are lucky that, in having these fascicles, we can get a glimpse of her brain going around. If you look at them you can be overwhelmed by the dizzing outreaching of her mind, as if one word (or line) of a poem were sending out shoots in many different directions. Which to choose? Why should she have to (“because they liked me “still”“? #613).

Once you are deep into Dickinson, it is (to borrow from her) like having the top of your head lifted off: a cosmos pours in, messy and starry. Fixed relations in the mind are surrounded and stirred. The lid is taken off language; the lid is taken off the mind. Words shake off their determining chains, flex their possibilities. Some may say this is silly: I’m being too dramatic here. But if you have not experienced this unlidding after having been closed up, you can’t know what it’s like, being spoken to for the first time—or is it that for the first time you’re truly listening? Both. If “The Brain—is wider than the Sky” (#632), the poem is wider than its words. Like a horizon that may admit many dawns, a poem by Emily Dickinson often transcends the physical limits of language printed on a page.

Related: In April 2009, Robert Pinsky read three poems by Emily Dickinson for Poems Out Loud: #249, #883, and #303. Listen to him read them here.

topics: Columnists