Tag Archives: Reading

Pablo Neruda’s ‘Walking Around’


Pablo Neruda

My exposure to Pablo Neruda first came through Robert Bly, who deemed him a ‘wild romantic’ whose ‘love of life never falters.’ Yet his poetry is full of what seem like immediate contradictions to this sentiment. One of his more famous poems ‘Walking Around’ begins: ‘It so happens I am sick of being a man.’ This is Bly’s translation, though in several readings of the poem he prefers the translation of ‘man’ to ‘human being’, adding a particularly darker telos to the poem.

This poem encroaches on Whitman’s operatic line but never truly approaches it. Instead, it’s immediate Whitmanian likeness is its engagement in catalogue but with two important differences: the poet is having a negative response to the litany and there is no redemption through metaphysical unity or the more human notion of simple fraternity.

Here the litany acts as negation, a desire to opt into unseeing. His desire ‘to lie still like stones or wool’, already a kind of sensory erasure, is corrected and redoubled by the lines that end the stanza. ‘The only thing I want is to see no more stores’, etc. He seems put off by the notion of utility that stones, wool, stores, spectacles, and elevators have; in the Aristotelian sense, he is put off by the intrinsic telos of these objects, their existence as a means to an end.

The poem goes on in this realm of dark action: ‘it would be marvelous /… to kill a nun.’


Robert Bly

This kind of action, a violence antithetical to the Whitmanian ethos, is one bereft of utility. But the poem takes an interesting turn. While impish to the point of murder, it comes to confirm a love of life, though through a back door. He states, ‘I don’t want so much misery. / I don’t want to go on as a root and a tomb, / alone under the ground…’ Death becomes rendered as a new kind of telos, it is this ‘go[ing] on’, presumably for infinity, that gives the poet his desire to live, with purpose or no. This desire to live necessitates an acute, poetic vision, however grotesque.

That’s why Monday…
pushes me into certain corners, into some moist houses,
into hospitals where the bones fly out the window,
into shoeshops that smell like vinegar,
and certain streets hideous as cracks in the skin.

There are sulphur-colored birds, and hideous intestines
hanging over the doors of houses that I hate,
and there are false teeth forgotten in a coffeepot,
there are mirrors
that ought to have wept from shame and terror,
there are umbrellas everywhere, and venoms, and umbilical cords.

On the surface, this poem seems to be functioning in opposition to his odes, and I believe Neruda wants to initially convince the reader of that. The colloquial, somewhat affected nature of ‘It so happens’ seems to be in direct response to an interlocutor. Perhaps it is a response to Bly’s assertion that he is a poet whose ‘love of life never falters.’ Or perhaps it is an attempt to get out from under the shadow of Whitman in the Bloomian sense. Neruda does seem to engage in an agon with Whitman. Maybe this is why, superficially, the litanies do not have a Whitmanian resolve; we do not end up in the ocean or some terrestrial, metaphorical equivalent, as so often happens in his odes. But I think that, thankfully, neither Neruda nor the poem can escape Whitman and life is affirmed.

Here’s the poem:

It so happens I am sick of being a man.
And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie houses
dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt
steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.

The smell of barbershops makes me break into hoarse sobs.
The only thing I want is to lie still like stones or wool.
The only thing I want is to see no more stores, no gardens,
no more goods, no spectacles, no elevators.

It so happens I am sick of my feet and my nails
and my hair and my shadow.
It so happens I am sick of being a man.

Still it would be marvelous
to terrify a law clerk with a cut lily,
or kill a nun with a blow on the ear.

It would be great
to go through the streets with a green knife
letting out yells until I died of the cold.

I don’t want to go on being a root in the dark,
insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,
going on down, into the moist guts of the earth,
taking in and thinking, eating every day.

I don’t want so much misery.
I don’t want to go on as a root and a tomb,
alone under the ground, a warehouse with corpses,
half frozen, dying of grief.

That’s why Monday, when it sees me coming
with my convict face, blazes up like gasoline,
and it howls on its way like a wounded wheel,
and leaves tracks full of warm blood leading toward the night.

And it pushes me into certain corners, into some moist houses,
into hospitals where the bones fly out the window,
into shoeshops that smell like vinegar,
and certain streets hideous as cracks in the skin.

There are sulphur-colored birds, and hideous intestines
hanging over the doors of houses that I hate,
and there are false teeth forgotten in a coffeepot,
there are mirrors
that ought to have wept from shame and terror,
there are umbrellas everywhere, and venoms, and umbilical cords.

I stroll along serenely, with my eyes, my shoes,
my rage, forgetting everything,
I walk by, going through office buildings and orthopedic shops,
and courtyards with washing hanging from the line:
underwear, towels and shirts from which slow
dirty tears are falling.


What Makes Walt Whitman Whitmanian?

Throughout my readings I have mentioned Walt Whitman with sweeping, vague references to his eminence and looming spirit. Sweeping because deeming something Whitmanian suffices as analytical synecdoche to say there is a strong sense of metaphysical unity in the poem; and vague because, to be honest, I don’t think I could define it, that is pinpoint it with accuracy. Whitman is a paradoxically elusive poet, burying his visionary power within his superficial simplicity (superficial meaning on the surface, nothing negative). I am no great reader of Whitman. I have glanced at his lesser works and have read “Song of Myself” several times. Strangely, I came to “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d” with some fervor after I lost my brother. It is his best poem, and that gentle elegy (for Lincoln) will haunt me when I venture to memorialize my brother in verse. The poem is especially significant today for not just myself, but the world, as we collectively mourn the assassination of John F. Kennedy 50 years ago, Friday. The poem remains important not only because of its strength, but also because it is an elegy for every one that has ever passed. Here we see that unity I mentioned (the initial ‘you’ is Lincoln. Also, a quick note that I have noticed confuses some new to poetry. When you see an awkward indent in verse, as we see at ‘and sacred death’, it is not the poet’s intended line break. The line is just too long for the page. In Whitman’s original text there is no break there: ‘For fresh…death’ is all one line):

(Not for you, for one alone,
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring,
For fresh as the morning, thus would I chant a song for you O sane
and sacred death.
All over bouquets of roses,
O death, I cover you over with roses and early lilies,
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
Copious I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes,
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you and the coffins all of you O death.)

But where is the vision? And what makes it great? Why, when he writes, ‘I am to see to it I do not lose you’ (‘To a Stranger’) does it bear a heft as great or greater than a poetry well wrought and rife with, well, poetry; there is no ‘My life had stood—a Loaded Gun’, which we get in Dickinson, his withdrawn contemporary of equal eminence. I think his greatness is due to his self-regard, which stands separately from an egotism. He does deem himself ‘august,’ but he knows that any honor he is due is rendered wholly through his unbridled commitment to not only humankind but also the entire earth and cosmos. He is the paradoxical poet of expansion—manifested formally in what is called the operatic line due to its brea(d)th—as this expansion is only found in the psychological death-of-self. His self is selfless. He sings this self (which is not the Me Myself) only because it is the only way to appropriate and sing the entire world. (All italics are mine throughout.)

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

This is how ‘Song of Myself’ opens. Immediately he sees his presence in everything, every body, each gust of wind, and indeed every leaf of grass. I think the word assume here is often misread; Whitman’s stature is too large for him to admit that he is merely making assumptions and not stating universal truths. I read assume to mean take the shape of. So as we read his work we take the shape of the ‘the woman the same as the man.’ The truths are universal in that the truth he sings, the body, the body politic, and the nation’s body, are all literally the stuff of the universe, stardust smattered and strewn from the unifying explosion of our shared origin.

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the
And the pismire [ant] is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and
the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’œuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

I find I incorporate gneiss [rock], coal, long-threaded
moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots,
And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over…

This ‘assuming’ continues throughout ad nauseam:

‘I am the hounded slave’

‘I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the
wounded person’

‘I am the mash’d fireman’

This is what makes Whitman a great poet and a visionary. At a time when the country was torn apart in ‘fratricidal war’ Whitman volunteered as a nurse and wound dresser in Washington D.C. What little money he received went to buying clothes, pens, and even ice cream for the wounded. He read and wrote letters for the newly blind and amputated. This is why when he states ‘I am to see to it I do not lose you,’ it is so impactful. And this is why he is the great American poet. He cared. He placed himself among the suffering, suffered with them and, as a great lover of America, strove for a unifying vision that would end the madness and create equality for all. He saw, as we see through him, each individual in utter communion with every living and inanimate thing. That is what it means to be Whitmanian. I leave you with an excerpt from Song of Myself:


A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green
stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and
remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive
them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out
of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colourless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon
out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Lorine Niedecker’s Neuroaesthetics

This is part two of my posts on the neurology of reading in poetry. If you have not yet read the previous post on Dickinson, I would recommend that you do so first, as there are some important concepts that are integral to understanding this attempt at Lorine Niedecker’s (1903-1970) work. I chose Niedecker for two reasons: the first is the obvious connection of her writing to Dickinson’s and the second was because of this quote: ‘Gail Roub asked Lorine once: “Who are you?” [She answered,] 
‘William Carlos Williams said I am the Emily Dickinson of my time.”’

Emily Dickinson and Lorine Niedecker

Emily Dickinson and Lorine Niedecker

Niedecker almost perpetually inhabits a liminal zone; in fact, she seemed to demand this position throughout her life. Living as a self-described ‘laborer’ and as a poet allowed her to dwell in both the physical and the abstract. She built her cabin along the waters of Rock River in Wisconsin, fulfilling that classic, melancholic image of the ruminative figure standing on the shore gazing into the infinity of sky and water. Jenny Penberthy points to this disposition of liminality several times in her introduction to Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works (2002). She writes, ‘[Her] poems offer a rich and subtle study of folk habits made by a poet with twin allegiances to a rural backwater and a metropolitan avant-garde’ (6). And in an essay on Niedecker, Penberthy continues: melancholy ‘She’s drawn to threshold states, to boundaries between the familiar and the alien, between the facilitating contours of syntax and an alien content. In other poems where the hold on syntax loosens, she pushes further into pre-discursive language, into the non-expressive, into the abstract.’

With an understanding of the neurology of reading, it becomes clear that Niedecker’s projects progress beyond mere experiments in abstraction. Her poems consistently demand something more from the reader, something beyond the trancelike state in which she may have composed them.

The process of reading a written word occurs within a tenth to a half a second and we maintain in our memory the graphic or symbolic expanse of what is seen and its relation to what precedes or follows it, this allows us to make meaning contextually if our mental dictionary of word meaning does not immediately recognize the word. The mental dictionary of word meaning is different in each person. It is dependent upon culture, learning, etc.; as one moves from culture to culture, from semantic space to semantic space, meaning varies through slippage. Already Niedecker’s ‘abstraction’ is significant, as it seems to rely on the unreliability of the reader’s recognition and understanding. In Niedecker’s poetry—which desires to assert an inter-subjective meaning between the spaces of personal significance—slippage and linguistic trickery that relies on the irregularity of the saccadic eye becomes key.

The inherent formula of poetry allows Niedecker a field to assert these two techniques, given that ‘whenever our eyes stop, we recognize [only] one or two words.’ In a letter to Roub, Niedecker describes what she is attempting with her poetry: ‘Much taken up with how to define a way of writing poetry which is not Imagist nor Objectivist fundamentally nor Surrealism alone…. I loosely called it “reflections” or as I think it over now, reflective, maybe. The basis is direct and clear what has been seen or heard-but something gets in, overlays all that to make a state of consciousness…. The visual form is there in the background and the words convey what the visual form gives off after it’s felt in the mind’ (Roub 41).

Take a segment from part V of ‘Progression’:

In Swalery I forgot my face,
beyond that it’s something to have under a sunbonnet
when aphorists and haymakers meet. And doctor,
nothing so good I know for intricate rhyme schemes
in six-syllable lines with ten syllable lines
of an evangelical staple as bug-sing and carrot seed,
observe now, while perspective is the next show
in the gallery, it’s a fervid shade, and there’ll be
stricken areas in the throat waiting for the blowing.
A touch of noon? Try then: each man to his own sleep
in the night skies. Gaspaciousness enmillions
dread-centric introspectres. Future studies
will throw much darkness on the home-talk.

The difficulty of this excerpt demands rereading and subsequent explication (one can revel in the sounds and that is fine), and, as I have stated, it is this demand that renders meaning within the poem.

In this poem, Niedecker compresses the distance between language and culture. The segment begins with a setting that becomes at once no place and every place due to the ambiguity of Swalery (as far as I can tell Swalery does not exist). Niedecker immediately asserts the ubiquity of female oppression within the realm of sexual politics. The face becomes something beneath the obscuring, female ‘sunbonnet’ to be worn when hosting. The semantic field of ‘sunbonnet’ seems to infantilize women as well, as it is infants that now primarily wear them. The infantilized state is continued in the youthful, perhaps uneducated syntax ‘doctor / nothing so good I know for,’ which is followed by the statement of her roles as poet and laborer, declaring her self-sufficiency in dialectical terms, that is as the diminished female, the empowered female poet, and then again the diminished female whose labor is confined to the garden:

[diminished–>]nothing so good I know for [empowered –>] intricate rhyme/schemes/in six-syllable lines within ten-syllable lines/
of an evangelical staple as [diminished –>] bug-sing and carrot seed

Finally her statement ‘Future studies / will throw much darkness on the home-talk’ seems to predict (in the temporal realm of the poem) sexual revolutions, the empowerment of the female, and the subsequent vexation of the male in regard to that power.

The most fascinating and wonderful part about this poem is the sentence ‘Gaspaciousness enmillions / dread-centric introspectres.’ It is here that Niedecker is operating within that liminal zone between abstraction and meaning. Neurologically, the synaptic pathways responsible for encoding and decoding are interrupted by the unrecognizable words. All that becomes important on the first read through is that very important aspect of poetry, sound. ‘Mental conversion into sound plays an essential role when we read a word for the first time. Initially we cannot possibly access its meaning directly, since we have never seen the word spelled out. All we can do is to convert it into sound, find that the sound pattern is intelligible, and through this indirect route, come to understanding the word. Thus sounding is often the only solution when we encounter a new word’ (Dehaene 27).

It is easy to dismiss these lines of poetry as mere sounds or useless units of language. As Dehaene writes, ‘English has a particularly extensive collection of complex graphemes such as “ought,” “oi,” and “au.” Our visual system has learned to treat these groups as bona fide units, to the point where we no longer pay attention to their actual letter content.’ But with a close, albeit subjective reading, the neologisms develop great and personal meaning for readers as well as Niedecker herself. Through the process of memory and word recognition, we can project meaning onto the neologisms. The preceding sentence slowly unfolds as a declaration of death between the line breaks:

each man to his own sleep
in the night skies.

As the result of the deaths of these men, the speaker is haunted by not necessarily their deaths but the demons it manifests within the self. The root words in gaspaciousness are gas, space, and –ness; gas-space is the gas that fills space and the –ness turns the word into a noun, so a synonym would be something like ether. Enmillions is easy: the prefix –en forms a verb, so it simply means ‘makes millions’. Dread-centric can only mean concerned with dread and introspectres (intro+spectres) means inner ghosts, or colloquially inner demons. ‘Gaspaciousness enmillions / dread-centric introspectres’ means, then: ‘Out of the ether is made millions of inner-demons that cause dread’ i.e. guilt, fear, etc. It is this difficult, seemingly nonsensical sentence upon which the entire poem turns, as it encapsulates the anxieties of being a cultural being suffused in the complexity of a language delineating the very complexities of that culture.

In this disruption or transmogrification of language, Niedecker opens the readers to new categories of thought by exploring human experience through the use of various possibilities of language. In her own exploration of human experience and linguistic experimentation, she also places the experience of the reader in the fore; the reader’s role becomes central to the entire process, dependent upon culturally varying memory banks. Niedecker once wrote in a letter to Gail Roub, ‘I like planting poems in deep silence, each person gets at the poems for himself.’ Dickinson’s poetics accomplish the same things: ‘Dickinson may encourage us to pay more attention to our own perception of texts and reflect on figures of cognition and their cognitive effects on processes of reading’ (Sielke 69). It is not merely this assertion of subjectivity that Niedecker and Dickinson have in common. In a poem like ‘Progression’, Niedecker repeats the same techniques in Dickinson’s ‘I felt a Cleaving in my Mind’; however, whereas Dickinson placed the complexity almost wholly within the mind, Niedecker explicitly places the interiority of the speaker into a cultural context.

Dickinson and Niedecker’s sometimes nonsensical lines demand that the reader (on a conscious and subconscious level) considers more deeply the perplexing graphic representations put forth on the page as the saccadic eye drifts into the aporetic space of line breaks. Through obfuscation, meaning is rendered more immediately and viscerally. Their success at this (and therefore the success of their poetry) is due to the ability to give multiple meanings to language that is either present outside of our linguistic territory; that is, to operate within the liminal position between complete linguistic abstraction and objective meaning rife with psychological and or cultural significance.

Works Cited

Dehaene, Stanislas. Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention. New York: Penguin Books, 2009. Print.

Penberthy, Jenny. ‘A little too little: Re-reading Lorine Niedecker.’ Modern American Poetry. http://www.english.illinois.edu/. Web. 21 May 2013.

Penberthy, Jenny. Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works. 1. University of California Press, 2002. Print.

Roub, Gail. ‘Getting to Know Lorine Niedecker.’ Wisconsin Academy Review. 32.3 (1986): 37-41. Print.

Emily Dickinson’s Neuroaesthetics

English: Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dicki...The process of reading as well as the effect it has on us as individuals is only just beginning to be understood. Recent instruments of brain imaging such as positron emission tomography (PET) scans and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have unleashed a bevy of information on our own neurology, bringing us closer and closer to understanding that slipping locus: mind. Floating within the liminal space between the empiric and the transcendent is art; at one point it seemed both fields grew parallel to one another, then they seemed to approach infinity asymptotically, now, in the field of neuroaesthetics, their paths will meet.

Emily Dickinson thrusts the entangled nature of art and science and the phenomenological experience of reading into our consciousness by disrupting or displacing it so that we consider our relation to not only what is being read but also our psychological self and our culture as a whole. Like many modern poets, Dickinson uses neologistic linguistic devices to corrupt language, so that we reassess our relation to it and the socio-cultural context in which it is placed. But her primary technique is elision, a method that demands we do not take her 
Basquiatlanguage for granted and slip into negligent forms of reading or contentment with the world of her poetry. Jean-Michel Basquiat once said, ‘I cross out words so you will see them more: the fact they are obscured makes you want to read more.’ Through linguistic obfuscation or total elision, Dickinson accomplish the same thing, reflecting and elucidating the functions of reading language for the reader.

Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention (2009) offers a relatively simple definition of the neurological complexities in the process of reading. Dehaene writes, ‘Written word processing starts in our eyes. Only the center of the retina, called the fovea, has a fine enough resolution to allow for the recognition of small print. Our gaze must therefore move around the page constantly. Whenever our eyes stop, we recognize one or two words. Each of them is then split up into myriad fragments by retinal neurons and must be put back together before it can be recognized. Our visual system progressively extracts graphemes, syllables, prefixes, suffixes, and root words. Two major parallel processing routes eventually come into play: the phonological route, which converts letters into speech sound, and the lexical route, which gives access to a mental dictionary of word meaning’ (9 [italics mine]).

The act of reading involves the process of encoding, retrieval, and decoding. Overtime our neurons become trained, internalizing graphic signs in constituent parts, i.e. phonemes and graphemes. Each time we look at a word, synapses fire in order for the brain to retrieve information from within memory banks and subsequently sift through their potential meanings. This process occurs within approximately a tenth to a half a second. The eye shifts back and forth intermittently, pausing at moments when the brain decodes small chains of language or when the eye must respond to changes in light or other external shifts in the surrounding environment. These movements of the eye are called saccades. Saccadic movement allows the fovea to scan lines of text, as the fovea is only wide enough to see six to seven characters at a time. The encoded graphic representations of language are then sent (primarily) to an area located in the occipital region of the brain where encoded language is decoded through a process Dehaene calls ‘neuronal recycling,’ allowing the brain to recall patterns and become attuned to the subtleties of language, such as homonym. All of this takes an incredible amount of neurological activity and thus energy and heightens the significance of language in the development of not only culture but also who we are as individuals.

In 1862 Dickinson experienced her greatest moment of personal and mental turmoil, however it was also her most prolific period in which she wrote 366 poems. Capitalizing on the somewhat vague understanding of Dickinson’s condition, psychoanalysts often studied this period of Dickinson’s work to show the significant fragmentation in the processes of thought during psychotic breakdowns. Perhaps her agoraphobia allowed her to regress into her interiority due to little contact with the outside world or maybe her anxiety was sublimated into art (likely both); whatever the cause of her creative energy, it is during this time that her poetry seems to focus most heavily on the manner in which body and brain receive information.

As we have seen in the brief introduction to the neurology of reading, the brain receives graphemes (and most information) in fragmented units and subsequently interprets coherent wholes out of them, oftentimes intercalating the missing pieces. Given that the mind only registers one or two words at each pause, Dickinson’s dash takes on great importance in regard to the way we read and understand her work. In implementing the dash, Dickinson is asking the mind to pause in order for it to register unconsciously what it has just encoded, allowing the decoding process to initiate before the movement to the next graphic chain, thereby providing a neurologic immediacy to the process of reading her work. This is an important aspect of Dickinson’s poetry as her elision often renders syntactical meaning perplexing. Through fragmentation, the brain slows and processes what it is reading, interpolates the elided information, and focuses on the language present. This seems counterintuitive to what the dashes and the abstraction of Dickinson’s work seem to be accomplishing (or not accomplishing) superficially. The dash does sometimes speed up the reader consciously but by placing this meaningless (meaningless in that it has no lexical meaning) graphic, the brain processes the information better. It is this type of poetic trickery or obfuscation that makes her poetry so immediate, so physical. Consider how important each chain becomes in ‘Departed – to the judgment –’(1862):

Departed – to the judgment –
A Mighty Afternoon –
Great Clouds – like Ushers – leaning –
Creation – looking on –
The flesh – Surrendered – Cancelled –
The Bodiless – begun –
Two Worlds – like Audiences – disperse –
And leave the Soul – alone –

She seems aware of the saccadic movement of the eye and the importance it has in reading and is therefore asking us to slow down, to encode/decode the unit before moving on to the next chain or line; she wants our attention to remain for some time on the segments delineated by the dash before continuing and she does not want to fill the space with conjunctions, prepositions or useless language.

The abstraction present in this poem is typical of Dickinson and furthers our desires to pay particular attention to the language. The poem seems to be about the soul’s state after death under that public eye of nature; it is a dying into nature whereby the body is surrendered and cancelled. The setting of the death is a storm. In a letter discussing her growing dependence upon her sister and her fear of being alone, Dickinson writes, ‘Vinnie has been all, so long, I feel the oddest fright at parting with her for an hour, lest a storm arise, and I go unsheltered’ (Letter 200). Storms become an important symbol and metaphor of psychological torment; read this way, the poem is enacting the psychological state of a panic attack. Anxiety is the term for a fear without a specific focus and patients describe them ‘as a simulation of death’ (McDermott). (Dickinson’s panic attacks were probably the reason for her obsession with death and the persistent placement of the speaker in the very act of dying or beyond the grave.) In the poem, ‘Two Worlds’ are leaving the ‘Soul – alone’, one is explicitly the body and so the second (because it cannot be the Soul which leaves the Soul alone) is likely the mind; thus the speaker is experiencing being both without body and without mind. During panic attacks, patients describe the feelings of being disconnected from their body and that they are ‘going insane.’ In this poem Dickinson is relaying through form the psychological distress of death or impending doom whose locus is indeterminate or abstract, hence the poem’s enigmatic nature. The form and content represent that ‘snarl in the brain’ present during her greatest moments of psychological torment.

The cryptic nature of Dickinson’s poetry is also due to the fact that she is often skeptical of religion, afterlife, and morality as well as the manner in which humans are able to receive and subsequently record external phenomena. In her poetry, this skepticism is often the result of the tender and quite capricious nature of the brain’s neurological makeup, which, according to Joseph LeDoux, is what makes the self: he calls this notion the synaptic self. It is clear that synapses allow us to be; the unconscious processes of synaptic firings allow us to breathe, sit, walk, think, speak, read etc. However, LeDoux argues that synapses are as important as nature (genetics) and nurture (or religion, culture etc.). An important aspect of this theory is that because we are consistently changing physiologically, our mindset changes as well. We are, by the very nature of our somewhat whimsical synapses, protean. Helen Vendler writes that Dickinson creates ‘structures that mimic the structure of life at any moment she conceives it’ and ‘[b]y those structures…channels our reactions, adjusts our pace to her and molds our thinking after her own’ (34).  Dickinson discusses the manner in which our brains often run counter to ourselves (a theme taken up in my post on Frost’s ‘Spring Pools’) despite our desires to think differently in ‘I felt a Cleaving in my Mind’ (1864).

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind—
As if my Brain had split—
I tried to match it—Seam by Seam—
But could not make it fit.

The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before—
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound
Like Balls—upon a Floor.

For Dickinson, the fissure in the mind feels like it is a direct result of the brain’s being split: she initiates with the Whitmanian thesis: ‘[w]e do not have a body, we are a body’ (Lehrer). While this poem discusses cognitive disjunction known to everyone, the language chosen as well as the form into which it is placed heightens the problem of the poem by making that very problem latent in the diction and syntax.

lobessssIn the process of reading, the visual recognition of word triggers myriad neurological circuits that have been conditioned and fortified through our environment, learning, and reading behaviors. With the recognition of a graphic form as a potential grapheme or word, we begin the process of decoding the smallest groupings of letters into potential words while simultaneously seeking in lexical and auditory memory banks, memories that we can apply to what is seen. The brain does not do this immediately, and so it must sequence patterns of recognition to seek out banks of possible auditory and lexical meaning. Overtime, through the process of reading and ‘neuron recycling,’ the brain becomes aware of homonyms and understands it must differentiate these twinned lexical graphics using contextual signs. However, this is not always immediately possible, and so meanings slide and we fall victim to innocent parapraxis while reading or speaking. In ‘I felt a Cleaving in my Mind’ the difficulty of the poem is substantiated by homonymic difficulties, echoing in the reader’s mind the struggle which Dickinson is discussing.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb cleave has two separate meanings. The first is (1) ‘To part or divide by a cutting blow; to hew asunder; to split’. The second meaning is its exact opposite: (2) ‘To attach to.’ (Because the line break is accentuated by the dash, the brain may register this latter meaning first). At the close of the second line—with that hard split—the meaning becomes clear and the cleaving is a splitting. What makes this homonymic moment more impressive is the fact that Dickinson is lamenting the loss of the second meaning, she in fact wishes her mind would cleave (2) and not cleave (1). This would lack importance if it were an insolated incident within the poem, however Dickinson repeats the lexical trickery with the word ravel. Here ravel in fact has three meanings. (1) ‘To entangle; to confuse, perplex; to render incoherent or muddled;’ (2) ‘of a skein of yarn, a spool or reel of thread, etc.: to become unwound;’ and (3) ‘to knit or bring together.’ The superficial meaning is the first meaning (1): Dickinson cannot connect one thought to the next and is therefore confused. It is the last two meanings that perform the deception. Taking ‘Seam by Seam’ to be a knitting metaphor, ravel initially means that her thoughts are unwound; however, the secondary definition means that in its becoming unwound it is knit together, just as one must unravel a spool of thread to ravel (knit) an article of clothing. The sequence (patterning) ravels out of caterwauling auditory input (‘Balls – upon a floor’) and Dickinson is consciously unable to align her thinking patterns to that sequence; though subconsciously, on a neurological level, the brain is making meaning: on a superficial level the disparate meaning of lexical input is consciously rendered cryptic and yet meaning arises out of the mind’s ability to pattern properly, however unlikely it seems.

In her use of dichotomous language, Dickinson is lamenting not the fact that she cannot think properly but rather that this is in fact the process of thought, especially in times of psychological distress. The cleaving of the mind as a result of the brain’s splitting continues the theme of being disconnected from her body, and in that disconnect her thoughts become subject to the seemingly arbitrary will of synaptic energies, however it is those very energies that create the poem. Two years prior to the composition of this poem, and during a tumultuous time, Dickinson wrote on the notion of the brain’s arbitrary connections in ‘The Brain, within its Groove’ (1862):

The Brain, within its Groove
Runs evenly—and true—
But let a Splinter swerve—
‘Twere easier for You—
To put a Current back—
When Floods have slit the Hills—
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves—
And trodden out the Mills—

This poem is attuned to LeDoux’s notion of the synaptic self whereby the self, as much at is informed by culture, religion, etc. is really dependent upon patterns of synapse. The brain is plastic and is changing constantly through synapses as we continue to change day to day. This plasticity not only literally reshapes our minds but also our personality, our thoughts and even our beliefs. Dickinson is stating, as countless neurologists have stated (and recidivists proven), it is easier to learn than it is to unlearn.


Works Cited:

Dehaene, Stanislas. Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention. New York: Penguin Books, 2009.

Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas H. Johnson & Theodora Ward, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Johnson, Thomas H. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.

LeDoux, Joseph. Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Lehrer, Jonah. Proust was a Neuroscientist. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.

McDermott, John F. ‘Emily Dickinson’s “Nervous Prostration” and its Possible Relation to Her Work .’Emily Dickinson Journal. 9.1 (2008): 71-86.

Vendler, Helen. ‘Emily Dickinson Thinking.’ Parnassus 26.1 (2001): 34-56.

Stanley Kunitz: The Testing-Tree

Magic LanternI haven’t dreamed in months. My brain is numb with thinking, burned-out, gutted. I wake each morning to only the hoary, fragmented recollection of the pages I was reading before I fell into sleep, adrift in the glow of the kitchen light. I know that dreams had flickered and doused like lights in an electric storm, but they are impossibly distant (magic) lanterns and the mind’s nights are uneventful. So I have turned again to my dreamer, Stanley Kunitz.

Kunitz makes it into every important anthology and yet I’ve never heard his name murmured by graduates of verse in any 
New York City dive. Kunitz died in 2006 at the age of 100 and he racked up every important literary award and position along Kunitz1the way. His honors include the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, the State Poet of New York, the Pulitzer Prize, and the United States Poet Laureate. But no one seems to be writing or talking about this contemporary of Eliot, Pound, Frost, Stevens etc. whose wide-reaching influence includes Theodore Roethke, W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell, and so forth and so on until the early 21st century.

Kunitz’s ‘The Testing-Tree’ is one of his most visionary poems. In it, he progresses from a reflection on his childhood to, as he states, a recurring dream. In future, I will likely provide some entryways into the poem . But for now, I think it should only be read and read again. All I will say is listen to the voice. This is a voice that has lived. A voice that has loved and hurt, hurt and plunged, plunged and risen. It is an authoritative and chilling voice; a human voice whose heart ‘breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking.’ His is a voice that has dreamed and dreamed and dreamed.

Here’s the poem:

The Testing-Tree


On my way home from school
   up tribal Providence Hill
      past the Academy ballpark
where I could never hope to play
   I scuffed in the drainage ditch
      among the sodden seethe of leaves
hunting for perfect stones
   rolled out of glacial time
      into my pitcher's hand;
then sprinted lickety-
   split on my magic Keds
      from a crouching start,
scarcely touching the ground
   with my flying skin
      as I poured it on
for the prize of the mastery
   over that stretch of road,
      with no one no where to deny
when I flung myself down
   that on the given course
      I was the world's fastest human.


Around the bend
   that tried to loop me home
      dawdling came natural
across a nettled field
   riddled with rabbit-life
      where the bees sank sugar-wells
in the trunks of the maples
   and a stringy old lilac
      more than two stories tall
blazing with mildew
   remembered a door in the 
      long teeth of the woods.
All of it happened slow:
   brushing the stickseed off,
      wading through jewelweed
strangled by angel's hair,
   spotting the print of the deer
      and the red fox's scats.
Once I owned the key
   to an umbrageous trail
      thickened with mosses
where flickering presences
   gave me right of passage
      as I followed in the steps
of straight-backed Massassoit
   soundlessly heel-and-toe
      practicing my Indian walk.


Past the abandoned quarry
   where the pale sun bobbed
      in the sump of the granite,
past copperhead ledge,
   where the ferns gave foothold,
      I walked, deliberate,
on to the clearing,
   with the stones in my pocket
      changing to oracles
and my coiled ear tuned
   to the slightest leaf-stir.
      I had kept my appointment.
There I stood in the shadow,
   at fifty measured paces,
      of the inexhaustible oak,
tyrant and target,
   Jehovah of acorns,
      watchtower of the thunders,
that locked King Philip's War
   in its annulated core
      under the cut of my name.
Father wherever you are
    I have only three throws
       bless my good right arm.
In the haze of afternoon,
   while the air flowed saffron,
      I played my game for keeps--
for love, for poetry,
   and for eternal life--
      after the trials of summer.


In the recurring dream
   my mother stands
      in her bridal gown
under the burning lilac,
   with Bernard Shaw and Bertie
      Russell kissing her hands;
the house behind her is in ruins;
   she is wearing an owl's face
      and makes barking noises.
Her minatory finger points.
   I pass through the cardboard doorway
      askew in the field
and peer down a well
   where an albino walrus huffs.
      He has the gentlest eyes.
If the dirt keeps sifting in,
   staining the water yellow,
      why should I be blamed?
Never try to explain.
   That single Model A
      sputtering up the grade
unfurled a highway behind
   where the tanks maneuver,
      revolving their turrets.
In a murderous time
   the heart breaks and breaks
      and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
   through dark and deeper dark
      and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
   Where is my testing-tree?
      Give me back my stones!

A Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’

snowA blizzard has begun. Their predictions were right but my vexation at having to reschedule a flight to Vermont subsided with that first sight of accumulation on the streets of Manhattan. I had hoped to experience the storm from some place of sylvan solitude; in lieu of drooping conifers and ivory fields, I turned to Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’ (1921) and angled an IKEA chair toward the northeast window.

Since yesterday afternoon I have been mulling over how on earth I might follow the ‘The Broken Tower.’ Now it seems the obvious choice is Stevens. Crane and Stevens are both great 20th century American mystic poets. Both struggled intensely with the ideologies of a Judeo-Christian God and seemed to have favored in the end a form of Gnosticism, or what Stevens called ‘The Presence of an External Master of Knowledge.’ Put simply (something Stevens—and for that matter Crane—would not favor) it is a Oneness, a Oneness with nature, consciousness, all that mystic, Whitmanian jazz.

‘The Snow Man’ presents this sense of the unified whole brilliantly through the complete cohesion between form and content. Usually I would avoid this trope, however it is so well done in this poem that noted linguist Jay Keyser says it is the best short poem in the English language for this very reason. Personally, I feel that’s a stretch but it does accomplish that particular characteristic of great poetry better than any I can think of.

Wallace Stevens

The poem is a single sentence divided into syntactical units by semi-colons. As the poem is read and we arrive at the end of each unit, the mind renders the unit a completion. However each persistent ‘and’ necessitates the reassessment (the re-view) of what was read before and so through the apprehension of the unit, we try to reach the whole. In this way, reading ‘The Snow Man’ is in fact like watching a snowstorm: the eyes follow a portion of flakes down until they reach their supposed journey’s end, the eye then lifts, gathering another segment in its gaze and repeats in an attempt to witness the power of the storm. It is a wonderful analogy for the process of reading and re-reading—a necessary part of loving poetry.

More than this, the poem is the invitation to view things as they appear to you. This poem is more pertinent than ever in a world in which we take in information ceaselessly, clicking the shiny hyperlinks and formulating our opinions based not on the content of the page but the ads that flicker beside them or the inane comments that sit beneath. In the mystic tradition, the ‘nothing that is not there and the nothing that is’ is the void, the presence of absence denoted by the snow that seems to blot out the world by creating one anew. It is the everything out of nothing. The Snow Man sees things as they are because he is constantly reevaluating his position in relation to what is observed. He is aware that he is literally made up of the world that surrounds him—he truly has ‘a mind of winter,’ being a snowman, and knows that his presence in the world is directly affected by that which is outside of him and vice versa. The form and the content of the poem are entreating the reader to stop, pay attention to what they are reading, truly understand every aspect through reanalysis, see what is there and what is not and what is there because it is not there. It is asking you to understand your personal relation to the world and formulate your own opinions accordingly.

Here’s the poem.

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.