Created by Caroline Allen about 6 years ago
I agree with the above view of Dickinson’s work although it is possibly an understatement. In the poems I have studied by Dickinson, her approach to language and form is, to say the least, original. Her distinctive approach to poetry and, indeed, to life, results in startling and thought-provoking moments, which leave a lasting imprint on the reader’s imagination. Adrienne Rich once described Dickinson’s work as ‘jagged, personal and incontrollable’ and this is something I found very appealing, as well as original. Her distinctive use of punctuation, especially the dashes and capitalisation, create a jagged effect and make reading her poetry a very intense experience. The sense of mystery and uncertainty, which pervades her work, also contributes to the reader’s experience. This is evident in ‘The Soul has Bandaged moments - ’, a deeply disturbing and intriguing poem. An ordeal or trauma is described but we are never sure what this ordeal is. ‘Bandaged’ suggests wounds and pain but ‘Soul’ suggests that the intense suffering is of a psychological rather than a physical nature. The first stanza describes a state of terror and powerlessness:‘When too appalled to stir -She feels some ghastly Fright come upAnd stop to look at her - ’The dashes seem to break the flow of the lines and force time to slow down as some awful, unnameable creature looks at the soul. This is like a moment from a nightmare when a person is petrified but cannot move; time stands still and one feels helpless. The subject is so appalled by what she sees and feels that her hair is ‘freezing’ and the creature becomes increasingly sinister as it caresses with long fingers and hovers over her lips. The ‘Fright’, which cannot be named, is compared to both ‘Goblin’ and ‘Lover’ suggesting something both grotesque and intimate. What comes next in the poem is truly startling as the poet switches to a manic extreme in which:‘The soul has moments of Escape -When bursting all the doors -She dances like a Bomb, abroad,And swings upon the Hours’This sudden burst of energy and freedom is exciting and uplifting but it doesn’t last. The soul is quickly ‘retaken’ and imprisoned as ‘The Horror welcomes her, again’. As an exploration of extreme psychological states, this poem is thought-provoking and fascinating. Critics believe it speaks of a real crisis in Dickinson’s life but nobody really knows. The last line merely tells us that these moments ‘are not brayed of Tongue - ’. In other words, we do not speak publicly about these experiences. Dickinson’s approach is just as original and startling in ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ where she imagines her own death. Placing the funeral in the ‘brain’, as opposed to the mind, is original as it makes the experience both psychological and physical. In her religious, puritanical world, death would imply detachment from the body, yet she describes a sensory experience where she can hear the mourners ‘treading’ and the service ‘beating’ like a drum. Worse still, she can hear them:‘lift a BoxAnd creak across my SoulWith those same Boots of Lead, again’.This is a very eerie moment in which we imagine a person trapped inside a coffin during their own funeral. The sense of helplessness and powerlessness is tangible and disturbing. However, the moment becomes worse as reason and sense seem to abandon her: ‘And then a Plank in Reason, broke,And I dropped down, and down - And hit a World, at every plunge,And Finished knowing - then - ’ This is a startling moment, which is cut short with total uncertainty, much as life is cut short by death. The ending of this poem is very thought-provoking as it raises questions about Dickinson’s perception of death and the after-life. Her religious doctrine insists that death means new life and union with Christ, yet her vision of death offers no Christian comfort. The fact that she capitalises ‘Finished’ suggests that death is final and absolute. The dashes after ‘knowing’, suggest that we actually know nothing about death. If this is the case, it is an atheist’s view of death, which would have been very radical and original in her puritanical, Baptist world. Her approach to the topic remains thought-provoking as the fears and mystery that surround death are timeless.Despite common perceptions of Dickinson, her work is not merely concerned with death and darkness. ‘Hope is the thing with feathers -’ is an endearing poem, which is original and thought-provoking. Hope is portrayed as a little bird that sustains the poet during difficult times, ‘in the chillest land - /And on the strangest Sea’. It may not be startling but some readers may be surprised by its gentle warmth and optimism.A truly startling and original poem is ‘I taste a liquor never brewed -’ in which Dickinson describes a state of euphoria induced by the natural world. It is startling to think that someone could be so intoxicated by a liquor ‘never brewed’ yet Dickinson convinces us with her delightful images of ‘Tankards scooped in Pearl’, ‘endless summer days’ and ‘inns of Molten Blue’. Dickinson’s love of nature and her eye for microscopic detail is vividly portrayed and brought to life:‘When ‘Landlords’ turn the drunken BeeOut of the Foxglove’s door - When Butterflies - renounce their ‘drams’ - I shall but drink the more!’Dickinson is describing moments of drunkenness and excess in a tone that is reckless and irreverent. In contrast to other poems on the course, loss of control is a positive experience as ‘the little Tippler’ enjoys the sensation of ‘reeling’ like a drunkard or ‘debauchee’. The final stanza is one of reckless abandon as seraphs swing their halos and Saints run to windows; are they shocked by her behaviour or are they joining in on the fun? Dickinson’s sense of mischief and playfulness really add to the poem’s appeal. The final image of the poet leaning against the sun must have startled many of her Baptist readers as it may depict sloth or someone who is about to topple over! Once again, her approach to the topic of drunkenness remains original as few can experience this level of euphoria without alcohol or a chemical stimulant. The above poems clearly demonstrate the originality of Dickinson’s approach to language, form and subject matter in her work. From euphoria to terror, the moments depicted are frequently startling, thought-provoking and never predictable. For these reasons, I will return to her work with renewed enthusiasm and curiosity in the years to come.