“Writing should always be exploratory,” writes Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping, Gilead) in her NY Times essay, “Toward Essentials.”
“There shouldn’t be the assumption that you know ahead of time what you want to express. When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express.”
I couldn’t agree with or love this idea more. One writes to understand, to deepen understanding, to discover. But, like “wrestling with an angel,” it isn’t easy. It takes discipline, curiosity, creativity, time.
It’s no surprise, then, that Robinson’s essay begins with a reference to Emily Dickinson, whose poetry is known for its rigorous compression of language and simultaneously sublime expansion of meaning.
Living in the 19th century with her family in Amherst, Dickinson stripped everything but what she felt was absolutely essential from her poetry, including conventions such as punctuation marks and proper nouns, while at the same time adding quirky signatures such as the dash and capital letters, additions that built layers of meaning into her sparse lines.
It is astonishing to think that, in the throes of inspiration, Dickinson jotted these poems on the flaps of envelopes and the backs of shopping lists found in the flotsam of her daily life (the “gorgeous nothings“).
Robinson cites Dickinson’s poem, “The Brain – is wider than the Sky.” I looked it up and reread it, having forgotten it. It’s just one of hundreds of astonishingly sly and intelligent poems that she wrote in her lifetime.
The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—
The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—
Comparing the brain to the sky, the sea, and to God, in well under 100 words, Dickinson makes a clever argument in which the human mind is greater than natural and divine wonders, while also dependent upon both. If the brain had nothing to contemplate, it would be as dull as the world around it. Syllables and sounds may differ, but they don’t exist without one another.
Did Dickinson set out to write a poem comparing humanity to skies, seas, Gods and sounds? Doubtful. But through writing, and wrestling, and dancing with words, she did.
As a fellow Emily fan, #632 has long been one of my faves to share with kids — of any age! — because it is so amazingly simple, but still breathtakingly irreducible. I love the way that the final two lines refuse to offer the closure we can’t stop ourselves from seeking. Emily is simply and irreducibly one of a kind.
Also, thanks for the tip on “The Gorgeous Nothings” — I’m going to get Karen Oldham to buy a copy for the library! 🙂
I love the idea that lines of poetry can refuse us. Thank you for reading! And, in our next life time where we actually teach a class together, we can title it Gorgeous Nothings and fill it with whatever we like.