Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Confessions of an Emily Dickinson Hater

It is with extreme reluctance that I confess to a deep and abiding dislike of Emily Dickinson's poetry. I know that it's considered the best thing since movable type. I know that our very own textbook says, and I quote, "Her poems shed the unmistakable light of greatness." I know that as a teacher of literature I'm supposed to oooh and ahhh and marvel at her origniality in using dashes instead of punctuation and capitalizing weirdly.

I can't do it.

Where other people see a mysterious recluse, abiding by the rules of her own genius, I see a drama queen, hiding behind doors because she has realized that the best way to get lots of attention is to be hysterical most of the time. Her publisher, Thomas Higginson, met her in person twice, and afterward said he thanked God he didn't have to do it more often.

Emily took a toll on people. Her letters, such of them that survive, are punctuated with the same dashes as her verse, and they give her a breathless, schoolgirl quality. She doesn't speak directly, but in a series of ellipses, designed to convey that she feels something very powerfully, but declines to specify what. No wonder she became the darling of postmodernism; she could be saying anything.

And then there's the matter of slant rhyme. When the late Julia A. Moore used it, people rightly decided that she had a tin ear. When Emily Dickinson does it, it's genius. The only difference I can see is that Emily chooses better subject matter.

Here's the crux of my belief about Emily Dickinson. I think that her poems were "discovered" at exactly the right time. Her idiosyncratic style fit perfectly with the 20th Century's rejection of traditional poetic forms. Furthermore, since she was dead and was not, even when alive, all that communicative about her poetry, people could read into it, and her, whatever they wanted. Her singular lack of metric variation, her slant rhyme, her missing punctuation, could all be marks of genius, or they could be personal tics. We'll never know.

Yes, her poems are short. Yes, they're unconventional (for a given value of unconventional). Yes, her images are usually clear. Yes, she occasionally creates a striking phrase. I dont' care. I've tried to care, and I can't. You can sing most of her poems to the tune of the theme song for Gilligan's Island. She is as preoccupied with death as E.A. Poe, and as narrow as Anne Bradstreet, possibly even narrower. She wades in pools of grief and enjoys the expression of agony on other people's faces. She feels funerals in her brain, hears flies buzzing when she dies, and goes for buggy rides with Death. Frost beheads playful flowers, houses bustle when someone dies, and brains run smoothly in their grooves. She could be Ezra Pound's mother.

Naturally, I do not wish, by so exposing my own bias, to discourage anyone from going into transports of delight at Dickinson's poetry and strewing boquets about. The appreciation of poetry is largely a matter of taste, and as E.D. herself said, "I taste a liquor never brewed." I don't think we mean the same thing.

In the interest of fair play, here is a blogger who has brought Emily into a different, and better light, and if you want to read a positive review, check this out. You'll like it. Be advised, there's some dropping of the f-bomb in this blog, along with some other "strong" language.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Civil Disobedience?

And just like this poor feline, most people who attempt civil disobedience in America learn that the leash is pretty strong, and so is the arm that holds it. Is that Thoreau's point in his essay "Civil Disobedience?"


Thoreau was quite unhappy about slavery and about the Mexican War. (This would be the war that "freed" Texas from Mexico. The problem wasn't exactly the war, but what kind of state Texas would be if and when it was admitted to the Union. Would it be slave or free? And what were we doing slugging it out with Mexico over Mexico's own territory? Can you just invade a sovereign nation and grab the land because you want to? Lots of people were unhappy about the Iraq --oops -- Mexican war.)

Thoreau was so unhappy, he declined to pay his taxes, for which offense he spent a night in jail. While there, he discovered that his body could be locked up, but his mind was free to ramble, and it rambled right on over to considering who has the right to tell him what to do. The government, he decided, does not have the right to govern him in ways contrary to his own conscience. It must respect him as an individual; he does not owe it respect as a government, unless it keeps its end of the bargain.

In case you purged everything that came earlier in the semester, remember that this is straight out of Rousseau, who believed that the only legitimate government is the one that supports the rights of the individual. Further, Rousseau asserted that individuals who are NOT so supported can choose to opt out of being governed. Rousseau, remember, believed that people were basically good. It was only governments that were bad. Thoreau saw the obvious problem with this and decided to say that government attracts to itself people who are not as good, as intelligent, or as "able" as most people. It's a kind of idiot farm, really. And as such, nobody has to pay any attention to it if they don't want.

Does this seem simplistic? It's a little naive, for sure, because Thoreau was operating on the basic principal that people would, left to their own devices, treat each other well and do the right things. Obviously he had never heard of Enron. And too, he was living in Concord, not in a slum in New York or Philadelphia, where he might have been less charitable about his landlord.

At any rate, he wants to refuse to support the government the only way he can, which is to withhold his taxes. Not content with that, however, he reminds his neighbors that they, too, are acting immorally when they pay taxes to a corrupt government. Further, he reminds us that merely "voting right" is slactivism of the worst kind; it does nothing to better the condition of one's fellow man. Even further, he says that in a society that imprisons men unjustly (and he implies that he was himself unjustly jailed), the only place for a truly just person is in jail right alongside them.

To "opt out" of government may seem like a great idea, but there are problems. For one, even in Thoreau's time, the taxes did more than pay for wars; they built roads, schools, and provided courts and law enforcement. In our own time, we might complain about taxes, but we do not have the money ourselves to pave our own highways, build our own schools, or hire bodyguards to replace public police.

Another problem is that governments do, in fact, offer us a kind of protection and legitimacy that we take for granted because they are invisible. We are free to travel about the world as American citizens, and if we get into trouble abroad, the embassies are there to back us up (sometimes). Not having citizenship can be a real problem -- just ask the Palestinians.

A third problem is what to do with those who decide not to be governed. Do they have to live in a special no-service area? Do they have to pay to use roads and schools? To whom do they resign, anyway: "Dear Congress, I hereby declare that you don't govern me"?

Thoreau resigned from paying the mandatory tithe in Massachusetts by saying that he does not wish to be enrolled in any organization that he never joined in the first place. It seems simple enough. It's only when we apply that idea to citizenship itself that it becomes quite a thorny issue.