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Monday, May 17, 2010

The Outlaw of Amherst

Yes, your Head Trucker likes poetry - you got a problem with that, bud?

Holland Cotter's excellent reflections in the NYT on what Emily Dickinson meant to him as a gay teen resonate deeply with me.
Patterson attributed Dickinson’s seclusion and poetry to a thwarted romance. But she proposed that the love object was a woman.

The revelation, true or not, was explosive for a teenager who knew he was gay and was still isolated in that knowledge. As always, I went immediately back to Dickinson’s poetry and discovered there a dynamic I had sensed but hadn’t been able to name: fluidity of gender.

She spoke as a woman, a man, a little girl, a little boy, a lover active and passive. Suddenly she was throwing out a power-of-example lifeline. Not only was she an outsider, she was also, so it seemed, an outlaw, on the margins, where I felt I was too. . . .

The one power Dickinson trusted was the power of language, which she loved. And that love is, I think, the main thing I’ve gained from her, even if I’ve put it to lesser uses. By her own account she experienced an acute physical reaction to words, a euphoric shock.

I know exactly what she meant, because her poetry has that effect. Ambush is its strategy. It knocks the breath out of you and leaves you giddy, like a nanosecond-long roller coaster ride. If you visit the Dickinson show at the New York Botanical Garden, which I recommend, and watch people’s faces as they read the poems posted around the grounds, you may see that power in action.

It’s a power she acquired in part by being, in some essential way, an outsider, but also from seeing that identity, not as a disability, but as a saving grace, and one that carries responsibilities:

               The Province of the Saved
               Should be the Art — to save
Emily has been one of my very favorites since way back in junior high.  Something about the intensity, the flashes of insight, the particular view she took of things, drew me in, fascinated.  When I was in college, I dug around in the library and found her entire collected poems, the scholarly edition:  there are 1,775 of them, if I recollect right.  And I sat right down and read through most of them; delicious, like a fruited table in a walled garden.

And was she gay?  I don't know, I doubt that anyone can ever know for certain.  But it was a wonderful life, whatever the case may be, to produce such sparkling gems of words and thought that still speak to the heart of those who don't fit in with the crowd, who see the world from another perspective than the ordinary:  who march to a different drum.

A favorite that I know by heart:
          Much madness is divinest sense
          To a discerning eye;
          Much sense the starkest madness.
          ’Tis the majority
          In this, as all, prevails.
          Assent, and you are sane;
          Demur,—you’re straightway dangerous,
          And handled with a chain.
Browse more of Emily's poems here.  It's okay:  I won't tell anyone at the Eagle if you won't.


dave said...

Really? You promise you won't tell the guys?! LOL

Russ Manley said...

Mum's the word bro. If you and me swap spit or poems, ain't nobody else's business . . . .

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