Strangers. You, strangers, reading my poems. The thought makes me a little lightheaded. I’ve grown accustomed to being the solitary artist at work with words, spinning out a poem in its own idiolect. But when it comes time to send it out, so that it might find reception in the minds of strangers, I get a bit stymied. I’ve only recently begun to have poems published, realizing the primary purpose of poetry: a strange communion among strangers. Donald Hall, in his classic Goatfoot Milktongue Twinbird, defined a poem as “one man’s inside talking to another man’s inside.” I like that word talking. Today I define a poem as one person’s strangeness talking to a stranger’s strangeness.
But it makes me giddy to think of you reading one of my poems.
Which brings to mind Emily Dickinson, as so many things do. She sent her poems out in letters to lovers and friends and acquaintances, pinned them to teatowels wrapping gifts of bread, lowered them in baskets from her second-story window, enveloped them in condolence cards with pressed flowers. (Okay, I couldn’t confirm the teatowels, but it sounds like something she would have done.) During her lifetime her strangeness found reception in the minds of those known to her—until she sent a set to a stranger. Brenda Wineapple’s remarkable book, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, characterizes the epistolary relationship that followed as not just life- and art-sustaining but lifesaving for Dickinson. Em had her beloved Sue, sister-in-law, dear friend, reader, critic. But the poet had to have a stranger, too.
“What makes a human being make a poem?” The question opens James Longenbach’s exegesis of Dickinson in his recent book of critical essays, The Virtues of Poetry, in which he treats Dickinson’s humanity as well as her work. In a few pages we come to see her not as the frail-but-brilliant recluse unable to tolerate everyday human intercourse but rather as a threat others steered clear of. “Not many people want to have tea with the Delphic Oracle, however mesmerizing her speech,” Longenbach writes of her “volatile” and “volcanic” room-clearing abilities, an image that makes me love her all the more.
When I was in graduate school I had the assignment of writing a one-word poem. It took a while but then it came to me: “Impossible.” Had the assignment asked for two words, maybe I’d have come up with “Futile. Impossible,” three words, “Not hard. Impossible,” and so on. Having more words to work with doesn’t lessen the impossibility factor, or so I’ve found in the nearly 20 years I’ve devoted to poetry. The word count of my most recent poem reaches a dizzying 184. As I revise with a mind toward publication I can’t help but think I should slice it back to my one true word.
What makes a human being who’s not the Delphic Oracle make a poem? I’ve asked myself versions of that question in the past four years, since a layoff freed me from the distractions of a day-job and I have had to face more fully the difficulties of writing, performing, and publishing my poems. Those difficulties began in my early childhood. In first grade I could write my name only in capital letters. In second grade I fell chronically behind my peers in producing the illustrated stories Miss Johnson kept in big manila folders behind her desk. In fourth grade I flunked penmanship because I wrote below the line (a little harsh, wasn’t it, Miss Houlihan?).
I may or may not have had dysgraphia, a learning disability that involves writing but does not always have its origins in language. It can be a visuo-spatial difficulty characterized by weak fine-motor coordination that affects a child’s ability to draw or place numbers and words on lines or within margins. Such kids have a hard time with maps and charts but may possess above-average verbal skills. I couldn’t draw a bird, despite my mother’s gentle persistence in instructing me, nor could I have hit a tennis ball to save my life. But I loved to read.
By fifth grade I got glasses and my problems with the pen cleared up, mostly. And so maybe I wasn’t dysgraphic, merely an untreated myopic. Still, a deep insecurity around writing had been established. I’ve lived ever since with a duality: an affinity for language coupled with a sometimes-disabling fear of verbal expression. Yet I keep plugging away. The poems pile up. I’ve given a few readings. I try to regard this slow progress as cause for celebration rather than despair.
Speaking of despair: Longenbach looks at Dickinson’s poem #706, “I cannot live with you,” a poem that, like so many of hers, gloriously reworks despair. A long (for Dickinson) lament addressed to an absent lover, perhaps to lust itself, she follows the assertion “I cannot live with you” with “I could not die with you” and “Nor could I rise with you,” arguing in the poet’s logic of illogic that she could not rise to Heaven with her beloved “Because your Face - / Would put out Jesus’.” In the last stanza she arrives at some kind of reckoning:
So we must meet apart -
You there - I - here -
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are - and Prayer -
And that White Sustenance -
I scribbled this stanza on a Post-it and stuck it on the fridge a few months ago, and it occurs to me when I glance at it: maybe I, a stranger, am Emily’s lost love. Our impossible meeting does take place, and it’s an intimate one. Her single poem, small thing, holds the door ajar—not as oceans are but that oceans are; the simile will not do for taking the measure of this terrifying meeting—as it comes alive, mere thing, in my mind.
Longenbach uses variations on the word “threat” to describe the effect Dickinson the woman and her poems had on others. But what effect did the writing of her poems have on her? Longenbach doesn’t say, quite, although Dickinson did say, over and over in the poems and the letters. “I should be glad to see you,” she wrote to Higginson in 1866, “but think it an apparitional pleasure—not to be fulfilled.” What was denied her in life found fulfillment in the poems.
I rely on poetry for its “Bandaged moments.” But I can’t apply the bandages alone. I need you, stranger, to hold the gauze, cut the tape.