Thursday, February 25, 2016

Types of Literary Rebellion, Part 2: Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman

I used to think that Walt Whitman was the good guy of late nineteenth century U.S. poetry, and that Emily Dickinson was irrelevant. In what way did I think she was irrelevant? Irrelevant to the political, spiritual, and social revolutions that were churning at that time. 

Whitman, on the other hand, earned his living partly as an orator, making fiery speeches against slavery and in favor of populist American democracy. Emily Dickinson sat in a room in her father’s comfortable house in the little town of Amherst, Massachusetts and had almost nothing little to say publicly about the political storms of that period. To me, they seemed like polar opposites. Well, not exactly polar. Dickinson seemed like a frozen pond, and Whitman like a jungle during a sunshower.

Emily Dickinson
Then I read Richard Sewell’s The Life of Emily Dickinson. It’s entirely my fault that it took me so long to find this book, since I actually took a Shakespeare class with Professor Sewell when I was an undergraduate at Yale at the same time he was writing his biography of Dickinson. But I didn’t follow Sewell’s work after I finished the final paper for that class. I only read his book on Dickinson when I reluctantly prepared to teach her writing in an American poetry survey class about thirty years later.  

In his biography, Sewell reveals what a complex and interesting response the poet had to her time. He describes how Dickinson was more or less driven out of Mount Holyoke College (then called Mount Holyoke Female Seminary) because she was part of the group of students considered “hopeless” by the fundamentalists of the Second Great Awakening, which was then hurricaning through New England.

And when I read Dickinson’s poetry in that light, I started to see that she was profoundly rebellious as well:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

What more eloquent statement could there be of the individual’s right to communicate directly with the Spirit, and to see the divine directly in nature? And how similar to Whitman’s “The bull and the bug never worshipp'd half enough,” in “Song of Myself.”

Around this time I also read Adrienne Rich’s remarkable essay on Dickinson, “Vesuvius at Home.” Rich makes a convincing case that Dickinson understood the explosive nature of her rebellion, and that that Dickinson deliberately kept close to her home to protect the revelation of her poetry and her ideas. “I have a notion that genius knows itself;” writes Rich, “that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat, but a seclusion which included a wide range of people, of reading and correspondence.”

I think Rich is right that Dickinson’s reticence to share her poetry was not the withdrawal of a dry school marm but a savvy choice. Emily Dickinson's father was the local congressman. Dickinson had the shelter of his home as a writer’s retreat—so long as her work didn’t embarrass or disgrace her father and the family. Dickinson’s best choice for publishing and preserving her revolutionary poems was to turn them into a sort of time capsule. That way her poems could be read, understood, and appreciated in a future century—which they are.

Rich does not put much emphasis, though, on Dickinson’s love poems. Yes, Dickinson wrote love poems, and they can be quite sexy:

Is it too late to touch you, Dear?
We this moment knew—
Love Marine and Love terrene—
Love celestial too—

If Whitman had known that poem, I wonder if he would he have seen the parallel with one of his most sensual poems, “I Sing the Body Electric,” where he says, “If any thing is sacred the human body is sacred.”

Walt Whitman
I just wish that Emily could have met Walt, and they could have sat down together in a café in Brooklyn. I imagine that she would order Darjeeling tea and a lingonberry scone, and he would order coffee and pour some of a flask into the steaming cup. I think that if they could have bridged the enormous cultural gap between small town New England and the alleyways of Brooklyn where kids played deafening ballgames, Walt and Emily would have realized that they were both rebels in their own ways, and had more in common than they had differences.  

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Friday, February 19, 2016

Types of Literary Rebellion, Part 1

When I first began studying literature seriously in college in the early 1970s, I was drawn to the most openly rebellious voices. I loved the Beat Generation, the Surrealists, D.H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, William Blake, and the poets of the Black Arts Movement like my undergraduate mentor June Jordan. I still love them.

William Blake
During the period when I was a student, the New Left was at its peak. It was also the era when the movements against the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement flourished in the United States. The doctrine of many revolutionaries at that time was that anything less than total revolt was irrelevant and self-defeating: “Ceux qui font des révolutions à moitié n’ont fait que se creuser un tombeau.”—“Those who make revolutions halfway have only dug their own graves.” I first encountered those words of Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, the French revolutionary from the period of the Terror, when Jean-Luc Godard quoted them in a movie. Godard was my artistic idol at the time. That quote embodied much of what my friends and I were thinking then about politics and art.

But the New Left, with its stir fry of Maoism, Trotskyism, and anarchism, never came close to becoming a majority movement in the United States. Maybe that’s because the U.S. is generally allergic to isms. I came to realize that it was those who make revolutions all the way who only dig their own graves.

But what does all this have to do with literature? Well, the writers who openly declared themselves in revolt against the artistic and political establishment were clearly rebels to my adolescent or post-adolescent mind. Those were the writers whose stances I admired when I began my own literary attempts.

I’m not sure how I came to realize that there were actually many ways to express rebellion, dissent, and innovative ideas in literature, some of them bravely open, and some more subtle.

Maybe it was by reading the work of feminist writers, who often didn’t stand on a soapbox and declare their political viewpoints, writers such as Virginia Woolf. The slogan of the feminist writers of the 1980s, “The personal is political,” leant itself to a more nuanced aesthetic. If even the small moments in life have larger social significance, then a writer doesn’t have to scribble a manifesto to make a strong point. Understanding what is political in a poem by Sharon Olds isn’t like understanding the ideas of Mayakovsky or Amiri Baraka, where the writer is clearly waving a red flag.


Learning what is revolutionary about the more subtle rebels has been a lifelong study for me. In the next couple of blogs, I’ll talk about a couple of the writers where the social change implications of their work have only become clearer to me as I’ve read more.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer