Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Power of a Poem 7

Another favourite poet of mine is none than the wonderful American maker of poems Emily Dickinson (1830-1886).   She was born in a small town called Amherst in Massachusetts, to a successful family with strong community ties.  However, she lived a mostly introverted and reclusive life, shunning all company. After she studied at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she spent a short time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family's house in Amherst. Thought of as an eccentric by the locals, she became known for her penchant for white clothing and her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, even leave her room.  Most of her friendships were therefore carried out by correspondence.

Emily was a prolific poet, who when she had finished shaping a poem left it with many others in the drawers of her writing table or desk.  On her death, some eighteen hundred poems were found in her room.  Fewer than a dozen of these poems were published during her lifetime.  Those of you used to reading the poems of Emily Dickinson will know that she had her own unique or eccentric punctuation, favouring dashes over commas and colons. To this reader at least her poems read like haikus insofar as they contain pithy, insighful and profound lines that work by hitting the ear almost with a thud, making us sit up, take stock of what's going on, wake up, or become aware of this or that truth, of this or that pain, of this or that beauty etc.  Because of her unusual or eccentric style, the work that was published during her lifetime was usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time. Her poems are always very short, and further they contain short lines. 

Also, practically all of her poems typically lack titles, and often use slant rhyme as well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation.  She often reminds me a little of Blake, given the energy and intensity with which they both wrote and their idiosyncratic and eccentric use of punctuation.  Many of Dickinson's poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two recurring topics in letters to her friends. The following little lyric deals with the topic of the truth - whatever that may be, indeed.

I have often said in these pages, as any frequenty readers will know, that I question the use of the singular with respect to truth, and prefer the use of the plural, namely "truths."  It would appear to me that we each see the world from our own spewcific viewpoint, that we see the world very much not as it is in itself, but very much from our own specific point of view as we are in ourselves.  I suppose objective reality exists where commonsense and a shared empiricism overlap.  I have also long respected the spiritual truths as distinct from the doctrinal truths of the great world religions and, indeed, the spiritual truths of perennial philosophy, the insights of depth psychology in its many incarnations and of all good and healthy holistic psychotherapies.  Such spirituality appreciates that no individual can face the brilliant light of their own truth all at once. 

It takes years to grow in self-acceptance and into the very truth of our own personal and unique identity which is each person's individual goal to get to know.  Here, I look upon the truths of the Old and New Testatments to be metaphorical truths, namely doctrinal metaphors for psychological truths.  "One cannot look upon the face of God and live."  Or, as St Paul puts it in the New Testament: "We see through a glass darkly in this life."  These are metaphors for the real nature of our very own soul or psyche or intimate identity.  At least that is what makes sense to me at any rate.

And hence, this leads me on to a lovely little lyric by Emily Dickinson on "the truth."  I have heard Christians say that we must always "tell the truth in love."  However, that is very hard.  We just cannot very easily, at least I cannot, go up to a fellow worker and say something like: "Listen, you are a real egotist," or "You are on a power trip!" or "You have a problem with your ego.  You must let it go, and allow your soul space to breathe," or "You are suffocating your soul," or "Do you not listen to your dreams?" etc. etc.  I find myself saying all these things in my mind about X or Y or Z.  Yet, I know it's not for me to go about prodding unwilling egotists into facing themselves.  I do so only when they are making life hard for me or for others in my place of work, but other than that I say very little.  To go about prodding people would be somewhat arrogant.  Anyway, I believe that we can achieve much by following the wisdom of Emily Dickinson in the following lines.  We need not tell the blunt hurtful truth, but we can always "tell it slant" and leave the other person time to mull over what we have said.  If they have any "cop on" or "common sense,"  they will soon realise the error of their ways, find their own unique truth, accept the unique truth of every other human being and cease trying to force their version of "the truth" down our throats.  Now here is that timeless and titleless lyrical triumph:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant---
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind---
There is a lot of wisdom above!

In the picture above we have a strong setting Winter sun, Christmas 2009.

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