Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Emily Dickinson

A public animal

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The real problem of writing by dictation [is] I’m finding it extraordinarily difficult to sound like myself. It’s paralyzing to have to formulate each sentence out loud. It’s so public and official. How do you brood your way into a sentence that you have to spell out for someone else, perhaps literally spell half the words? What are those lines of Emily Dickinson’s—”How dreary to be somebody / How public like a frog?” I don’t particularly think of a frog as a public animal, but imagine being a poet with impaired vision and having to dictate those lines. You say, “How public like a frog,” and the secretary stops and says, “What was that you just said? ‘So public like a fog?'” And you say, “No, not fog. Frog.” “Oh,” her voice sinks. “Public like a—frog. F-r-o-g?”…I guess I could have tried to write one word on a page, ten words on a page. I always wanted to write by hand, the way Edith Wharton did, sitting in bed with stacks of paper and tossing the written pages onto the floor for a secretary to pick up and type while she went down to lunch with Henry James

It’s a serious and complicated matter. It’s hard enough to be the controlled person that I am—so much controlled, I mean, by logic and reason—without in addition having the free flow of feeling and idea impeded by the cold presence of another person. I once had an exchange with Robert Lowell—it was about the student uprisings at Columbia—and in it he called me a “housekeeping goddess of reason.” He had a point there…Who knows—at this stage of my life, perhaps if I were alone at my typewriter, my fingers would flit over the keys in some vagrant fashion and I would write all sorts of unexpected things, unreasonable things, things that defy logic…Dictating is the dullest possible occasion for the triumph of the superego.

Diana Trilling, in an interview with Stephen Koch

Written by nevalalee

October 1, 2017 at 7:30 am

Dickinson’s dispatches

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Emily Dickinson's envelope poems

Last week, the poet Dan Chiasson published an article on Emily Dickinson in The New Yorker that moved me for reasons that I had trouble explaining. It buzzes with the intensity of one probing critical mind confronting an even vaster intelligence, and it’s loaded with striking insights. On Dickinson’s use of dashes and plus signs, which she used while jotting down her poems on whatever pieces of paper were available, Chiasson says:

Her idiosyncratic punctuation sometimes feels like triage for the emergency conditions of her muse…Time, on these little scraps, is a function of space: both run out at the same instant.

And here he is on the enormous fact of her long, uneventful residence in the same house in Amherst, Massachusetts:

But Dickinson’s genius always kept a fixed address. She was a scholar of passing time, and the big house on Main Street was the best place to study it. Because her subject was longitudinal change across the span of hours, days, and years, she needed to set her spatial position in order to see time move across the proscenium of her subjective imagination.

After reading these lines again, however, I’ve realized that I really like them for two reasons. One is the picture that they present of Dickinson as basically a scientist, which is how I’ve always liked to imagine her. The other is the contrasting models of poetic time that they present. On the one hand, Dickinson is always on the alert, ready to record impressions as they arrive, and fully aware that a lost idea may never return. (Chiasson writes: “The makeshift nature of the scraps gives us a vivid idea of what composition must have felt like for a woman whose thoughts raced far ahead of her ability to capture them. Who knows how many of Dickinson’s lines were forgotten before the poet had a chance to write them down?”) On the other, you’ve got a woman who was willing to sit still for years, even decades, to absorb the raw data that she needed. But both pictures ring true. War has been described as consisting of stretches of utter boredom alternating with instants of sheer terror, and you could say much the same of the creative process: nothing happens for a long time, and then everything explodes into action so suddenly that you’ve got to scramble to keep up. It’s a little like nature photography. Watching the footage from the new season of Planet Earth, you ask how they ever could have captured these moments, and the simple answer is that they set up the camera and filmed for months to get a few unforgettable seconds. And it helps to have a clever editor.

Envelope poem by Emily Dickinson

That’s how Dickinson worked, too. Much of Chiasson’s essay is devoted to her envelope poems, which are now widely available to be viewed online. As Chiasson describes them:

It sometimes feels as though Dickinson’s sojourn in print, so fraught from its inception, was a temporary measure, now nearing its end as it’s replaced by a better technology. To write this paragraph, I looked hard at an envelope: what a mercurial object it is, more like origami than like a sheet of paper. If you use the back of a closed envelope…you get three squat triangles, like faces of a flattened jewel. She wrote within, and occasionally across, the folds and creases of this complex surface. To read the lines, you have to turn the image counterclockwise. The vertical column of the first panel then becomes a broad horizon, which, when the poet runs out of space, picks up on the third blank panel.

In other words, Dickinson engaged with the physical qualities of the pieces of paper—“the flap of a manila envelope, the backs of letters, chocolate wrappers, bits of newspaper”—that she kept in her pockets with a pencil stub. And at first, this might seem to conflict with the idea of these notes as makeshift dispatches that she wrote down before they could be forgotten.

But I think that it hints at something important about why such scraps have always played such an important role in creative thinking. I’ve written elsewhere about the appeal of napkins and tablecloths as a surface for thought, and they seem particularly attractive to workers in science and mathematics. (One of my friends, a math professor at Indiana University, recently told me how much he likes writing on paper tablecloths.) In my post on the subject, I guessed that it had something to do with the disposability of the medium and its tactile pleasures: “[A napkin’s] folds, like those of an envelope, add an appealing sense of three-dimensionality: I’ve found that a blank piece of paper immediately becomes a more attractive medium for notes when it’s simply folded in half.” Yet I suspect that the real reason, which we glimpse in Dickinson’s envelopes, has something to do with the role of a scrap of paper as a conduit between the fleeting and the eternal. A thought flashes forth, and we scribble it down on whatever is closest at hand. Once we’ve caught it like a butterfly in a killing jar, we can scrutinize it, look at it from different angles, and even take cues from the properties of the surface on which it happens to have been captured. We’ve safely gotten hold of the essential, which frees us to play with it, following the folds of the envelope or the seemingly endless plane of the tablecloth. The envelope poems are Dickinson’s field notes, and in them, we see the instantaneous meeting the infinite, as we follow her handwriting, like “fossil bird-tracks,” racing across the page.

Written by nevalalee

December 9, 2016 at 9:39 am

Quote of the Day

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If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?

Emily Dickinson

Written by nevalalee

August 17, 2012 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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As Margaret Mead never said…

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Earlier this morning, when I posted my quote of the day, I wanted to make sure that I’d transcribed it correctly. When I looked it up online, I saw that it was, in fact, correct. I also found, much to my surprise, that it had been said by Emily Dickinson, at least according to more than 8,000 web pages. Which is a little strange, because I was pretty sure that the quote was by T.S. Eliot.

Needless to say, the quote is, in fact, by Eliot, from his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Here’s a bit more from the original passage:

There is a great deal, in the writing of poetry, which must be conscious and deliberate. In fact, the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him “personal.” Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things. [Italics mine.]

So why do so many web pages insist that the quote is by Emily Dickinson? It isn’t hard to understand: Eliot, while a great poet and essayist, was a less than lovable human being, while Dickinson is a fascinating figure whose life makes us wish that she’d said something like this. The quote is simply more interesting, in a superficial way, when attributed to Dickinson, much as a vague platitude from an unknown author becomes a moral gem when attributed to, say, Thoreau or Mark Twain. Which brings us to the following Rule of Internet Quotation:

An appealing quote attributed to a famous dead person on the Internet is almost certainly bogus.

Corollary 1: This is especially the case if the alleged source is a famous dead author more admired than read.

Corollary 2: The more a quote seems to justify the reader’s cherished personal, political, or spiritual beliefs, the more bogus it probably is.

And I’ve run into this issue before. A few weeks ago, I wanted to quote what is perhaps the most famous writing aphorism of all time: “You must murder all your darlings.” I was pretty sure that Faulkner had said it, but when I checked, it turned out that the line had been variously attributed to Faulkner, Orwell, Twain, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and countless others. The actual source, not surprisingly, is none of the above: it’s the much less famous Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Here’s the original quote, from his book On the Art of Writing:

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetuate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press: Murder your darlings.

This is incredibly useful advice. Every writer should hang it above his or her desk. But it’s a lot less interesting coming from Sir Arthur than, say, from Hemingway. (Or Dickinson.)

Which brings us to what is possibly the most widely cited quotation on the entire Internet. If you don’t have it as your email signature, you almost certainly have a friend who does. It is, of course, the famous quote by Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Now, that’s one hell of a good quotation. There’s only one problem: Margaret Mead never said it. At least, no one can prove that she has—which is, or should be, almost the same thing. It doesn’t appear in any of her published books, letters, speeches, or interviews. Even Mead’s own institute, which has the quote on its masthead, admits it has no idea where it comes from. The most The Quote Verifier can say is that the quote is “possibly Margaret Mead, in conversation or a speech.” But no original source has ever been found.

In the absence of a real, verified source, the Margaret Mead quotation needs to be retired as apocryphal, however appealing its sentiments might be. (It’s also worth pointing out that the second sentence, which doesn’t always appear in the quoted text, is demonstrably false.) Bottom line: If words matter, then who said them matters, too. So always verify your quotes. Because you should never doubt that a large group of well-meaning people on the Internet can mangle a quotation. (Though it’s far from the only thing that ever has.)

(Addendum: It appears that a similar process is already taking place, in record time, with regard to Richard C. Holbrooke’s last words.)

Written by nevalalee

December 15, 2010 at 10:48 am

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