Notes on Emily and Writing
A writer pursues a basic thesis. It runs through the work, and makes the work worth study, at least to the intellectual satisfaction of figuring out a puzzle.
Writing is physical work. It comes from within. It comes from the body. It comes as physical energy. It rises from the deepest parts of the self, which are located in the body. Perhaps it is too obvious to say that writing is meditation, but it can be forgotten that words arise not so much from the cold logic of the intellect, but from a path within that seems to have a way to make sense of things, just like meditation’s point is a kind of energetic calm, a flow of breath that opens and fills both body and spirit. It bears to mention those concepts that come out of yoga, the centers of energy placed at, if you will, different levels in the body, called the chakras. It’s worth a quick brushing up on the idea of tantric energy. It’s worth remembering too, not to embarrass anyone, that the root of spiritual energy is sexual energy. Margo Anand has written a fine welcoming introduction to the subject of tantric sexual energy to leave us Westerners un-intimidated about such arcane matters, The Art of Sexual Ecstasy. There is probably a lot of stuff out there worth a read, both within the yoga tradition and without, one would imagine. As we deal culturally with an odd mix of brazenness and shame toward such energies, it doesn’t hurt to read a bit about a different take, about the spiritual/sexual interface, about the benefits of such explorations.
My mother had the being-in-the-right-place-at-the-right- time kind of luck to take a class taught by Ted Hughes at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst the year his wife Sylvia Plath returned to Smith to teach. She read Wordsworth with him. She remembers a tall brooding gentleman with a long English overcoat, miserable to be spending his creative powers teaching poetry to a bunch of U-Mees, sweeping flakes of snow from his dark hair when he came in through the door frame. While not knowing what it was, my mom and probably every other girl knew the raw magnificent energy of the poet teaching them English poetry to be the raw unbridled force of sexual energy. It makes just as much sense to regard his powers in such a way, obviously entwined with his character and the personal life, as the biography will tell, as to say anything else about them. Not that we necessarily need to read his poems in such a way as to look for nothing else but sexual metaphor, as the natural world flows through them heavily, fox cub, owl, crow, hawk in the rain. Just to acknowledge in the poet, a power, and powers having their sources.
Donne’s poems crackle with the energy more boldly suggested, more self-reflectively. Shakespeare’s tragedies hint, perhaps, of erotic longing and craving sentiments, as to know what would make the person whole again, less broken by slings and arrows.
Now what may we say, fairly, about the poetry of Emily Dickinson? Fair to call her transcendental? She was her own phenomenon, who bravely made up her own rules of how to communicate most highly. (Susan Howe renders this well in her book about ED.) Being a fan of hers, I think it fair to say that there was energy flowing powerfully in her. In her poems she finds a way to the same thing, oddly Jesus was accused of, ‘speaking with authority.’ Here is someone who with delicacy, boldness and her own self-knowledge and authority of all things inside of her and therefore outside of her but taken in through the senses and the mind, channels the ecstatic energy of the sexual up to the highest levels the mind may attain, seeing and knowing. And here, when we read here, I think we don’t just go, “good poem,” or “that line sounds good.” We have to acknowledge that there is something to her, that her way of viewing stuff is correct. She not only knew how to write, how to feel each word within, then sort them out and get them down on the special paper of her little books, how to put a poem together that sounds right, for She is Right. She was, her poems reveal, not a house divided against herself. "I find ecstasy in living; the mere sense of living is joy enough." She says it herself, and Linscott edition of her selected poems and letters puts that on its first page.
I wonder how people feel about reading such a person. Here is someone who nailed the marketplace of the popular reader for what it is, an admiring bog fascinated with contemporary glitter. Of course that is a sweeping overstatement, inaccurate for the million varieties of exceptions, each of these with millions of examples. Here was someone who was content to remain in her little place and simply let her own beautiful energies rise. Like all things in nature, her writing would take care of itself if she took care of it. But maybe many a reader would chose to disagree with her authority, and keep on the track of their own comfortable settled opinions about how to get through life comfortably. Everyone being their own cleric over what they read, she might indeed strike many as being a blasphemy for claiming to know all she does.
Whether it is worth commenting on her erotic isolation we assume from the best we know of her, whether that keenly felt lacking, if it was that, and we might imagine so, was part of the engine driving her powers, one can't know. And maybe too one doesn't feel comfortable suggesting 'the self-pleasuring ritual' in association with her careful history and life, though various relationship stuff has been suggested. We all want her to have a happy life, a fulfilled personal life. Maybe some would in their own minds dismiss her as a freakish nervous spinster who would have been fine if she had got some attentions. But reading her, I think one must disagree, in that there is a magnificent majestic rewarded contentment that comes of the page, someone who has found the right sort of work, the soul in the perfect body for it and living the perfect life for that talent to bloom, though still we all wish for her to find her eternal charming Prince of great light and kindly love for her. Maybe on the other side of the firmament, in that place one is called back to, we hope. There, her white dress to be pulled off.
A reader is left to be amazed by her, to care for her, to feel in touch with her, and maybe too to sense that she was a wonderful lover very skilled in all its arts. She preserves and protects all the tensions of desire, and perhaps the very stuff leads her work upward into the deepest matters of the soul and the nature of reality. Which is, after all, why we write.
The image we have of her, from the daguerreotype photo, seems to leave a lot of people with the sense of her as a plain jane. I've even heard the word ugly. But just as easily to get from this one image, is a young woman of poise, of a quiet sensual energy, her breathing and posture both correct and relaxed, rising above a firm shapely comfortable base.
Amherst College keeps a little lock of her hair under glass, along with a white dress of her style. Her hair, it may surprise, is just as she said once, in a letter to Higginson, 'bold as the chestnut bur.' (An ornithological note would have worked too, though the sound of her own choice is highly agreeable.) It deserves the adjectives of observation coppery, golden, a dancing red with lively shine, though words are not adequate to capture the energetic glow of nature within the fresh colors of the lock and all its gemstone hues. It fairly speaks her name when you bend to examine it more carefully, and one is not surprised when tears come, as they do to lovers. One can’t help but walk away weakly, with a terrible crush, and with the heart’s feeling of having found someone who is one's perfect match.
But writers entertain such silly notions.