Anyone who has followed my poetic oeuvre over the last 25 years, 1990 to 2015, will realize that Emily Dickinson provides, for me, an inspiration perhaps exceeding any other poet. I first come across the work of Emily Dickinson in the 1980s thanks to Canadian poet Roger White. In the year before White’s passing, 1992, Roger sent me a copy of Dickinson’s The Complete Poems edited by Thomas Johnson. At the time I was teaching English Literature to matriculation students in Perth Western Australia.
The poem below in this prose-poem, came as a result of reading Dickinson’s number 518. I’m not sure what Dickinson is trying to say in this poem but, generally, it has to do with belief in God. Dickinson's poetry is often obscure for me when I read her work; it is also the case for most of those who try to decipher her phrases.
Dickinson never married -- "Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty" -- and to all appearances seemed just a shy, reclusive spinster, a good Christian woman residing quietly in Amherst, Mass. But her inner life was quite different, hardly Christian and not at all conventional. In the view of eminent critic Harold Bloom, Dickinson's was simply "the best mind to appear among Western poets in nearly four centuries."
Dickinson's poetry, summarizes Vendler, is "epigrammatic, terse, abrupt, surprising, unsettling, flirtatious, savage, winsome, metaphysical, provocative, blasphemous, tragic, funny."1 I find Dickinson evocative, highly suggestive, in her lines of thought. One line in poem 518 suggested, at least to me, the changing nature of the experience that belief provided in my life. After thirty years of an evangelical, a hot, enthusiasm, social activity and a feeling-oriented-system at the basis of my belief, I found that the heat slowly moved away from this social-feeling dimension and was replaced by the world of thought, the mind, contemplation. -Ron Price with thanks to 1The Washington Post, 9/9/’10, a review of Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries by Helen Vendler, and Pioneering Over Five Epochs, 22/3/'99 to 18/7/'15.
Her weight was sweet-once-
upon my heart;
we did lie night after night
upon a bed-
I tasted all her charms,
After many years she slipped away,
no longer charmed the zones,
this bride of heaven,
more real than touch and sight,
hot as hottest dream,
so clear and white,
whom I loved with eyes-a-gleam.
Now her heat and fire
no longer feed and kindle
hot my flame.
But in my mind
she heats a world
of temperatures so high
that nothing’s left
from searing heat
but exhaustion, soul and sky.
22/3/'99 to 18/7/'15.
PROSE-POEMS IN PROSE FORM
Most of my prose poems when first written on the page possess a form resembling a poem, but I could—and I sometimes do—write the poem out into a form that resembles prose more than poetry. John Keats and Emily Dickinson among others used letters to transmit poetry or, to put this idea another way, they formulated letters as poetry in order to exploit the poetic and the epistolary so that they inflect, enrich, even become one another. The blending of genres in various ways and for a wide range of purposes results in an even wider range of effects and this has become a popular sport in recent decades. I have come to see some of my own letters in a collection now spanning 50 years as a blend of literary genres. Indeed poetry and prose have become somewhat indecipherable in my mind's eye. I have come to see poetry itself as natural, as the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda puts it: “Poetry arrived in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where it came from, from winter or a river.”
My poetry is a blending of autobiographical elements, echoes of the literature of the social sciences and humanities and a steady stream of references to and influences from the Baha’i writings, history and teachings. This evening I was reading about the English poet George Byron(1788-1824). I was particularly struck by the fact that all of Byron's poetry is a blending of autobiographical elements and echoes of the literature he had absorbed over the years. And so I felt a certain affinity to Byron as I read for this reason.
His poem Don Juan is considered the most autobiographical of Byron’s works. Almost all of Don Juan is real life either Byron’s or the lives of those whom he knew. Byron started writing Don Juan on July 3rd 1818, eight months after the birth of Baha’u’llah. He continued working on the poem in Italy and on his death in 1824 the poem remained unfinished. Don Juan was a, perhaps the, poem that the working class took to heart in the mid-19th century, so Friedrich Engles informed us in 1844. This poem reached the urban and rural poor and, for many, it was all they read besides the Bible. It is very likely that most of these readers did not read any of Byron's other works. As early as 1819 the work was regarded by the bourgeoisie as filthy and impious, although it was not fully published until 1901. Byron was regarded by Eliot as having contributed nothing and by Goethe as the greatest genius of his century.
I came across an online seminar organized by the National Library of Australia entitled ‘Private Lives Revealed: Letters, Diaries, History’ and was particularly struck with an article by a Peter Read: Private Papers and a Sense of Place. The article was an analysis of the verse of the nineteenth century English poet John Clare. Peter Read saw Clare’s verse as an interesting example of what he called ‘private papers.’ Clare's poetry was so eclectic, his language so personal and his personal involvement so touching, that Read thought Clare’s poetry was much more akin to a collection of private papers that we might find in a library than to the poetry of a poet. However akin to private papers Clare’s poetry was, Read still thought Clare could have become one of the best-known poets of the nineteenth century. In discussing why Clare did not become such a poet, Read quotes the cultural historian John Barrell’s views on Clare: “insofar as Clare was successful in expressing his own sense of place, he was writing himself out of the main stream of European literature."
Accomplished poets and novelists are fully aware of the need for their readers to be able to generalise from the emotions which they as writers present about a particular place, event or person. The world view and life experiences of writers needs to find resonance with readers, if their writing is to be successful. Private papers often reveal such private emotions. Private emotions often reveal intense, ungeneralised concerns for particularities which hardly ever surface amongst the published, fictionalized and/or poetic works of professional writers.
I trust my own private papers, the private papers of a man who was a teacher of poetry, of literature and the humanities and social sciences for 35 years, reveal a person who was a reasonably competent generalist, a man who had to teach in many fields, many subjects. Private papers can tell only so much about a man, though. As I see it such teachers of the arts, and I was one, are advised to approach their disciplines scientifically, that is, in systematically and rational ways. Whatever help they are to civilization and to the acquisition of virtue, theirs or others, will be due to what religious ethic or ethos they acquire or uphold. Their field of study is not the engagement in a ministry. It is not the business of the humanities or social sciences to save society or individual souls, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.
Stanley Fish comes close here to being right about the value of the humanities. They “do” nothing and certainly cannot save us. Despite the proliferation of “applied ethics” courses in western universities, they are unable to make either their students or their teachers more moral human beings. In other words, after twenty-five years in this profession, David Roochnik has come to the same conclusion that Fish has in his forty-five: members of literature and philosophy departments are hardly among “the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth.” And I would agree after 35. Nonetheless, the humanities are not useless. Precisely in being and celebrating their own lack of instrumentality, in defiantly proclaiming their own auto-telic nature, they serve a purpose: exhibiting a paradigm to a community that is preoccupied with more “practical” concerns. Doing so hardly leads to immediate or specific benefits.
Reading Shakespeare won’t solve global warming. But without the humanities, without the pursuit of what Aristotle called theoretical knowledge, the city would be composed only of citizens who are constantly in pursuit of goods whose attainment leads only to further pursuit of more of the same. Aristotle’s justification of theoretical knowledge, or philosophy, or by extension the humanities, is at best thin. Still, he identifies the peculiar civic value of a philosopher. Even if she wields no applied science and has an audience too small to become politically powerful, she nonethelessdisplays to her fellow citizens a fundamental human possibility: namely, that one can engage in an activity that is valuable in and of itself. This is a possibility worth taking seriously…and even funding.
I was a teacher for 32 years and an internal and external studies student for 32, if those who read the above are teachers and are also Baha’is, then they can sift their disciplines through the lens of their religious, their Baha’i, values and beliefs.