Friday, May 08, 2009

`A Liquor of More Body'

I proctored an English literature exam for 25 high-school students and envied them the labor. The essay portion of the test laid out poems and prose like corpses awaiting autopsy while the students sat with scalpels poised. For one essay they were told to discuss a passage from Boswell’s Life of Johnson contrasting the prose styles of Addison and Johnson. Boswell uses a favorite metaphor – alcohol:

“Addison’s style, like a light wine, pleases everybody from the first. Johnson’s, like a liquor of more body, seems too strong at first, but, by degrees, is highly relished…”

Next they were given Emily Dickinson’s “The last Night that She lived,” a poem that reads from the first stanza like a highly compacted short story:

“The last Night that She lived
It was a Common Night
Except the Dying—this to Us
Made Nature different”

Has any great poet ever written with such concerted oddness? I thought of a stray remark by Geoffrey Hill in his essay “Alienated Majesty: Ralph W. Emerson”: “She knew that Amherst society is mildly prurient and that she is herself regarded by these strangely respectable folk as a fey reclusive creature.” Now read the second of Dickinson’s six stanzas:

“We noticed smallest things—
Things overlooked before
By this great light upon our Minds
Italicized—as 'twere.”

That last line floors me. When the students turned in their finished essays I noticed one boy had responded to Dickinson’s poem with a single sentence: “Death, in general, is viewed as bad.” The passive voice speaks, as they say, volumes. It’s difficult to imagine life without Dickinson, that strange woman gifted with one of my favorite senses of humor. If I could write poetry worth reading I would wish most to write like Dickinson.

At home I found Dave Lull had sent me a link to an excellent review by Daniel E. Pritchard of Geoffrey Hill’s Selected Poems. Ten of Hill’s books sit on my desk. He sustains me, like Dickinson, a trusted friend. Read the entire review with Dickinson in mind, in particular Pritchard’s summation:

“…more than any other poet writing today, Hill’s vision of poetry is powerful, meaningful to every edge and nook of our society, and idiosyncratic: that radical atonement of emotion, intellect, history, and language, is an unparalleled achievement in our time.”

1 comment:

elberry said...

i once wrote bad wannabee Emily D poems. She impressed me, she seemed utterly the thing itself without calculation or come-hither looks. i 'trust' her as i don't some other poets - i trust her to write what she feels is right without caring about an audience. That chest in her bedroom where she locked her poems away - that's why i trust her.