Susan Howe’s recuperation of Emily Dickinson’s visual prosody marks a pivot point in American poetics, insofar as it calls attention to the long effaced but paradigmatically American enterprise of self-invention that Dickinson’s practice depicts. And in depicting her work, the picture is the work, hence the holograph images that for the most part replace block quotes in texts like Howe’s My Emily Dickinson and the essay from which I’ll cull this epigraph, “These Flames and Generosities of the Heart.”
This space is the poem’s space. Letters are sounds we see. Sounds leap to the eye. Word lists, crosses, blanks, and ruptured stanzas are points of contact and displacement. Line breaks and visual contrapuntal stresses represent an athematic compositional intention.
Howe, and by extension Dickinson, are reference points for discussing the work of Mark Booth, printmaker by training, a painter, who also works in sound and performance, but whose practice is in some sense reducible to writing.
“Future Tense,” a program hosted on Radio National by the Australian Broadcasting Company, features an exploration of MOOCs — a half-hour program that includes a discussion of one course, namely ModPo. For “Future Tense” program notes, go here. To listen to the recording of the broadcast directly (and to download it), go here.
A week before the 10-week ModPo course begins (current enrollment, as of this moment: 28,000 people worldwide) several thousand of those in the course are already talking in a Facebook group and on Twitter. We were discussing a poem by Emily Dickinson. People began saying things about the poem that in all my years of reading and teaching it I hadn't thought of. Then I posted this, above (apologies for the enthusiasm).
When Al Filreis and Charles Bernstein founded PennSound in 2003, one of their impetuses was purely pedagogical. They wanted to make a digital audio archive of free, downloadable files of poets reading their own work and of discussions about poetics available to teachers and learners looking to parse out poetic lineages and differences.
As Al Filreis explains in this 2007 podcast, PennSound is an archive for those seeking to make aesthetic connections between different poetic trends: a site of convergence for the reader (in this case, listener) and the poetic tradition. This makes PennSound a particularly useful resourse for teachers who are looking to demonstrate to their students the relationships between contemporary poetry and earlier poetic movements.
While I said I would write about nomadic poetry architectures, I got caught up reading some books I need to return to the library. One of them is Dan Beachy-Quick’s This Nest, Swift Passerine, a book-length meditation on love, sparrows, sight, orb spiders, language, self and other, in the transcendentalist tradition Beachy-Quick has made so particularly his own. It is also a thorough demonstration of poetic intertextuality as nesting. (In his previous collection, Mulberry, Beachy-Quick imagines writing poetry as a silkworm’s work, “the weaving back and forth, as the head moves almost unnoticeably left to right and right to left as one reads, of those leaves I had devoured, those pages I read.”) Into his own looping syntax, the poet weaves “Themes” from Charles C. Abbott, Martin Buber, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Meister Eckhart, Ronald Johnson, Edward Taylor, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Wordsworth, amongst others.
Each blank page a month Arctic this every January The sparrows minus zero In the leafless tree do not
My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun-- In Corners--till a Day The Owner passed--identified-- And carried Me away--
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods-- And now We hunt the Doe-- And every time I speak for Him-- The Mountains straight reply--
And do I smile, such cordial light Upon the Valley glow-- It is as a Vesuvian face Had let its pleasure through--
And when at Night--Our good Day done-- I guard My Master's Head-- 'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's Deep Pillow--to have shared--
To foe of His--I'm deadly foe-- None stir the second time-- On whom I lay a Yellow Eye-- Or an emphatic Thumb--
Though I than He--may longer live He longer must--than I-- For I have but the power to kill, Without--the power to die--
Attempts to read and understand the poem form a central analytical narrative, or, one is tempted to say, a viscerum in and through Susan Howe's bookMy Emily Dickinson. Our group not only took a cue from Howe's sense of the poem's centrality; we used the recording of Howe's reading of the poem--and several passages from her book--as our basis and starting point. The recording comes from Charles Bernstein's interview with Howe for his LineBreakseries; the entire series is available through PennSound.
Jen Scappettone's comments help us contemplate Howe's working out Dickinson's sense of the way war enters the details of domestic existence. Al presents the extended conceit (the woman is to the man as a gun is to its hunter-owner) and then the four proceed--immediately--to complicate it, aptly. The gendering, Marcella and Jessica remind us, is not at all straightforward. Among the many questions pondered here: How do we know for certain that the gun is gendered female?
Dickinson offered several variant words. One of these is "art," which might have replaced "power." "For 'art' you need an artist," Marcella notes, "the creative power. Can the gun be the artist? Do artists extend power? What was the role of the artist or writer in America?" We listen to Howe (reading from her book) say, "When I love a thing, I want it and I try to get it." Sounds to us, at least partly, like a predatory version of the subject-object dynamic. Jen adds: "Love brings the owner and the gun together, but also the predator and the prey." Jessica speaks surely for all of us at PoemTalk when she says, in her final word, that she's glad to return to this crucial poem over and over.