A Certain Slant of Light

At the end of my hall at work is a picture window and, beyond the window, a leafy tree (still leafy, even though it’s November).  Larkin Street is just below this window.  If you walk up Larkin, you’ll find porn theaters, guys selling watches and drugs, and good Vietnamese food.  The superior court is just across Larkin from the picture window and most days you see lawyers in wrinkled suits going in and out.  People hang around outside the court arguing with each other about child custody, child support, traffic tickets and their obligation to perform jury duty.  It’s a sad street most days, desperate and tawdry.  The light today doesn’t make it look anything other than what it is.

When I looked down the hall today, it struck me that the light is lower in the sky than it was just a week ago — it’s somehow become late in the year, and even this early in the afternoon (it’s 1:00 here), things seem to be ending .   

And that is when I found myself thinking about Emily Dickinson, a woman who knew all about that kind of light. 

 There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings, are.

None may teach it anything,
‘T is the seal, despair,
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ‘t is like the distance
On the look of death.

This was a Poet —

Many readers grow stone cold when they see lines arranged on the page in the form of a poem. This might be because so few of us have had the experience of reading poetry with pleasure. And that is why Cam’s recent questions about poetry, questions answered just a day or so ago by litlove, make me think about what creates a poetry lover rather than a person who breaks out in hives at the first line break. I do like poetry, and as you’ll see from these questions, I think it’s because I was pretty much kept in ignorance of it for so long that, by the time I got to it, I felt like it belonged to me and wasn’t brussells sprouts I was forced to eat by some earnest parental person who just knew they’d be good for me.

1. The first poem I remember reading/hearing/reacting to was :

Before college, I had almost no exposure to poetry beyond nursery rhymes. Which isn’t as bad as it sounds, because no one ruined it for me by telling me it was good for me. Oh, there is something. Just this moment I realized that when I was about thirteen, I sat through six and a half showings of Romeo and Juliet (the Zefferelli movie). And then I went out and bought the play, and pored endlessly over the balcony scene where Juliet (who was actually Olivia Hussey, which is a nice name for a Juliet) says to Romeo (who was unfortunately named Leonard Whiting) “my bounty is as boundless as the sea…” At thirteen, I found that pretty racy, but it had to come with costumes and nice looking boys and a little bit of soft focus making out to really work.

The first poem that really reached me both intellectually and emotionally was Wallace Stevens’s Tea at the Palaz of Hoon, which ends: “I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw/Or heard or felt came not but from myself;/And there I found myself more truly and more strange.” 

At the time, and still, this seems like as good a description of the poet as you could want.

2. I was forced to memorize (name of poem) in school and…….. The schools I went to as a child didn’t force you to do anything, which might be why I was woefully unprepared when I arrived at college and blissfully unaware that I wasn’t actually the smartest person on the planet. In college, I was required to memorize the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, which I loved, and part of Milton’s Lycidas, which I also loved. I don’t think I ever minded being asked to memorize anything poetic. But then I never had to memorize anything really stupid.

3. I read poetry because…. its power is different from anything else created with words. A good poem can get to you in a very short amount of time. Put another way, poetry is to prose as vodka is to wine.

4. A poem I’m likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem is ……. Wallace Stevens’s Sunday Morning.

5. I write/don’t write poetry, but………….. I haven’t written a poem in about two years. But when I was writing poetry, for a few years, I wrote a poem about polar exploration that I’m pretty fond of and one about cigars, which I also rather like. One thing I liked about writing poems was getting down a sensation, or an idea, or a moment using poetry as the medium.

6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature….. poetry is both easier and more difficult to read than other types of literature. It is easier only because a good poem reaches you more quickly than a novel. It is harder because I often can’t read more than a few poems at a time. Poetry is relentless in a way prose is not in much the same way that vodka kicks you in the gut a lot sooner than wine does.

7. I find poetry….. in Poetry magazine, in my writing workshop, in all the books I saved from college and graduate school, and the many more I’ve acquired since then, in the New Yorker, on advertising panels on the bus, and sometimes in my head.

8. The last time I heard poetry…. was at my Thursday writing workshop where there are several really talented poets.

9. I think poetry is like…. well, the alcohol thing has been made quite clear, I think. But here’s another good description, which also relies on the distillation metaphor, but perfume (not booze) is the end product of all that distilling. That’s because the metaphor belongs to Emily Dickinson, who probably wouldn’t have been drinking vodka. With anybody. Ever.

This was a Poet–It is That
Distills amazing sense
From ordinary Meanings–
And Attar so immense

From the familiar species
That perished by the Door–
We wonder it was not Ourselves
Arrested it–before–

Of Pictures, the Discloser–
The Poet–it is He–
Entitles Us–by Contrast–
To ceaseless Poverty–

Of Portion –so unconscious–
The Robbing–could not harm–
Himself–to Him–a Fortune–
Exterior–to Time–

One last thing:  I think these are very interesting questions, and ones that are helpful in thinking about how an understanding of poetry evolves (or doesn’t).  If you are listed over to the right —— or you are reading this post (you know who you are!) and want to post about it, or leave a comment about your own experience, it would be lovely to hear your thoughts.

A Loaded Gun

“My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun” is not greeting card Emily Dickinson, nor is it the murmuring of the sweet, reclusive poetess you might have been told she was.

It’s a shocking poem, really. Within the regular scheme of alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter, (you can learn a lot about the iambic line from this poem) lies an image of the loaded gun that is a woman who knew her power as a poet.

There are few better poems about the force of words (none stir the second time/on whom I fix my Yellow eye).

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–