The attentive reader — well, perhaps the attentive reader with a copy of the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme album — will immediately spot the disparity between my title and Paul Simon's, which is "For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her." But there's no confusing the two. Simon has said that he wasn't speaking of an actual Emily, and indeed, the only time I heard him mention the name was a couple of tracks earlier, in "The Dangling Conversation," in which the couple retire to their respective poets, he to Robert Frost, she to Emily Dickinson, and I've long suspected that he dropped those names, not because they were relevant to the narrative, but strictly for style points.

I, however, have a specific Emily in mind, and yes, it is Emily Dickinson, American poet and recluse, and for some reason, as I get older, she seems more relevant — hence "wherever," suggesting an influence both widespread and unavoidable. Wondering why this might be so, I plunged into a four-week reacquaintance with Dickinson, reading a recent biography — My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson by Albert Habegger (New York: Random House, 2001) — and visiting, sometimes revisiting, more than a hundred poems.

Not that I claim any particular inspiration from Dickinson, unless my tendency to throw in what seem to be Random Capitals — or my massive overuse of the dash — count toward that inspiration. Yet I see the occasional similarity in the paths we've taken: we both seem to communicate best by the written (or in my case, the typed) word; we're not exactly social butterflies, and we tend to mention that rather a lot; we don't have a whole lot of wardrobe variations. (I'm usually seen in a T-shirt and something resembling, but not as expensive as, Dockers pants; in her latter days, Dickinson took to wearing white almost exclusively, although she looked pretty good in black, if you ask me.) But one of the things I admire most in Dickinson's words is the sheer sparseness of them: she can say more in fewer syllables than almost anyone I've ever read, and this is indeed a trait I've tried to appropriate for myself, with occasional, if hardly consistent, success.

[Versions included below are from The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition (ed. Ralph W. Franklin, 1998). There is often no canonical version of a Dickinson poem, and the few that were published during her lifetime were generally "cleaned up" to contemporary standards, such as they were.]

The Heart asks Pleasure - first -
And then - excuse from Pain -
And then - those little Anodynes
That deaden suffering -

And then - to go to sleep -
And then - if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor
The privilege to die -

Not that I'd want to go on that particular trip, but from the realm of delight to the terror of the grave in eight short lines? I am awed by the language, even as I shudder at its implications. And the clincher is that repetition of "And then," which suggests the cycle is not only regular but inexorable.

On a somewhat more upbeat note:

I never saw a Moor.
I never saw the Sea -
Yet know I how the Heather looks
And what a Billow be -

I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven -
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given -

"Checks" of this sort, in Dickinson's time, were rail tickets, and therefore this is a question: are literary conceptions of the Firmament of Heaven as reliable as, say, the diaries of a traveler? The implication, to me anyway, is that the more down-to-earth the description, the more plausible it becomes.

This is not the whimsical Dickinson of "We like March, his shoes are purple," or the kindly Dickinson of "If I can stop one heart from breaking"; it's not the "girly" poet Paul Simon would have you believe while he runs off to dabble in Frost. It is, however, an authentic American voice, somewhere on the cusp between the transcendentalists and the modernists, just about the point where Ralph Waldo Emerson bleeds into T. S. Eliot, yet not really sounding like either. And for a role model, I could do a whole lot worse.

The Vent

  15 March 2011

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