Possibly the only thing as remotely inspiring and awe-inspiring as an Emily Dickinson poem is a commentary on a Dickinson poem by Helen Vendler. Vendler, one of a handful of elite poetry critics in the United States, has written more than thirty books, including commentaries on all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, three hundred pages about the seven odes of John Keats, and two books and parts of two others on Wallace Stevens. Now she has produced a book dedicated to Dickinson, perhaps this country’s most enigmatic writer, which presents 150 poems accompanied by commentaries.
Vendler has been studying Dickinson for years: according to her introduction to the volume, she first memorized the poems at age twelve (though she memorized editions of poems that butchered the poet’s lines and punctuation—it wasn’t until 1955 that Thomas H. Johnson published the first scholarly edition of Dickinson’s work). Vendler’s book is filled with references to Dickinson’s letters and to multiple versions of her poems (including the seven printed in her lifetime), as well as the bowdlerized versions editors put together for the first editions after her death. In commenting on many of the poems, Vendler hears echoes of others in Dickinson’s oeuvre and quotes the lines from the sister poem (echoes of Shakespeare, Keats and Shelley also abound), She invites the reader to take in the whole of Dickinson, to behold her obsessions so they see beyond the images of spinning spiders, industrious bees, alabaster chambers, the death carriage in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” and the fly that buzzed when the speaker of one of her poems died. Doing so enables us to discover a mind racked by a paralyzing social awkwardness, but bewitching in its summaries of human feeling by way of muscular language, as in “After great pain, a formal feeling comes –” where the speaker queries on how to go on living after enduring incredible hurt, stating in the final stanza:
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
Part of the pleasure of this book is the evocative introduction, which emphasizes Dickinson’s protean language, her syntactical creations and her unmistakable punctuation. As Vendler alludes to Dickinson’s “enigmatic dashes,” she also contends that for first-time readers something “persuad[es] [them] to value [her] arrangement of words and sounds,” a something that is a recognizing or remembering of a human sentiment, as she also describes the beginning and the end of poems in general as “the most sensitive locations.” Vendler is interested in how “Dickinson’s ardor and grief found words, sentences, phrases, enigmas, proverbs, impersonations, scenarios, and strategies adequate to the sequence of human emotions, personal and impersonal.” This is accomplished through attention to her drafts that contain different words and word combinations, to rhyme and meter, to tense and point of view–such as, Dickinson’s use of the second person in “Twas Like a Maelstrom,” which “inflicts intimacy on the horror,” a memorable poetic phrase itself.
In “Of Bronze – and Blaze,” Vendler examines the last lines of a poem speaking elegiacally of the Northern Lights. The piece ends with the speaker imagining herself buried: “An Island in dishonored Grass – / Whom none but Daisies, know –”. Vendler notes that Dickinson considered two words for the noun in the last line, “Daisies” and “Beetles.” She then walks us through the history of how the line has been presented, noting the poet’s 1896 editors preferred “Daisies,” but the scholarly edition of Dickinson published in 1955 used “Beetles.” Dickinson had placed a comma after “Daisies,” but with “Beetles” she used a dash. A dash, signifying a pause, avoided the “grammatical disquiet” of the comma after “Daisies” as “normal grammar does not permit a comma between subject and predicate.” This inquisition into word choice and punctuation by one the masters of the English language is enlivening enough for grammarians, but it gives all readers insight into a woman who ached over every detail in every line of all her poems, as do a good dozen commentaries in which Vendler maps out lines of Dickinson in alternate ways in order to isolate meter, rhyme, stress, and grammar.
The value of having Vendler lead one through the poetry, with forays into Dickinson’s letters and drafts or fascicles (a collection of papers hinged on one side), is manifold. Because there is so much contrarian thought filling the lines, “I cannot live with You – / It would be Life –,” because one can go back again and again to these poems without tiring, there is much to be gleaned and much to miss. Vendler looks out for these details, and her commentaries cast the hallowed poems into grandiloquent light, which is especially helpful to a person just getting grounded in the world of a woman who took words and stretched them over the rack of her conscious while reconfiguring their meanings and reimagining their place in white space.
In explicating “They say that ‘Time Assuages” (whose second line is “Time never did assuage –”), Vendler branches into the biography of the canonical poet of grief, loss, and death. When Dickinson’s dog Carlo died, author Thomas Higginson (the man she first entrusted poems to before beginning a correspondence that lasted until her death) wrote expressing sympathy. Dickinson responded by quoting the second stanza of ‘They say that “Time Assuages”‘:
Time is a Test of Trouble –
But not a Remedy –
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no Malady –
More better known in her time as a gardener and botanist than as a poet, she added, “Still I have the Hill, my Gibraltar remnant. Nature, seems it to myself, plays without a friend.” Vendler tells us, “She never acquired another dog.”
Nature may play without a friend, but we in the face of great poetry need not: our friend is Helen Vendler, who leads us through the searing world of one of the most troubled, yet fecund artists in human history. Impassioned by poetics and the history of a tradition outfitting thought in lush, experimental, and precise language, Vendler places the poems between the twinned glass of her literary microscope, parsing the inexhaustible with ease and honor. It is a tribute well worth the mind’s attending.
Greg Gerke lives in Brooklyn. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Quarterly West, Mississippi Review, Puerto del Sol, Gargoyle, and Fourteen Hills. There’s Something Wrong with Sven, a book of short fiction, has been published by Blaze Vox Books. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His website is GregGerke.com
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