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« The Importance of Martin Guerre, part two [by Joe Lehman] | Main | Between the Lines [by James Cummins] »

February 19, 2021


Excellent piece. And let's not forget that most of her poems can be sung to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas."

Let us consult Ms. Dickinson's neighbor Mr. MacLeish, who says this, with not only the same elan as Emily, but with her dash, too:
A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be."

Hi Dave. That must be MacLeish's best poem. But to what does "this" refer in "who says this"? Aren't you reducing Dickinson to one meaning, when the pleasures of poetry go far beyond meaning? MacLeish's "dash" in quite a different sense from the grammatical term, yes?

Hi Tony,
My point in excerpting the verse, is to align with what I take to be his judgment that poetry is beyond scholarship. My judgment is that every poem is individual to the one reading it, and that a poem cannot be reduced to meet anyone else's thesis. I mean, it can be, and is done - way too much. The pleasure of a poem goes beyond meaning all the way the poem goes - if that's not a tautology? Once a term is added to the book of forms and grammar, it becomes as a leaf in a poem about October in New England.

"Once a term is added to the book of forms and grammar, it becomes as a leaf in a poem about October in New England." That's a great sentence.

That's a great compliment, Tony. I'm always alert to opportunities to imagine anytime but the present - it's a defense mechanism, always keep one foot on firm imaginary ground!

I see you have excised the original concluding sentence, David. I already feel like a party crasher here, so, if you could recommend another website open to the discussion of poetry, please do. Thank you.

Dave Read: Thanks for commenting. Not sure I remember what my original concluding sentence was. Far from a party crasher, you are most welcome here. -- DL

“Today the power of her dash is acknowledged as an element of style in any university course in which her work is taught.” The deletion of it vitiated my comment: "... with not only the same elan as Emily, but with her dash, too." I was showing off, then you pulled the rug...! It's your poetry party, your rug...

Speaking of Ms. Dickinson, I've just read my old teacher's entry about repurposing material from her letters in your "Ecstatic Occasions Expedient Forms." His rationale reminds me of the "sampling" kerfuffle at the birth of hip-hop.

Thank you, David, for making room for a cranky anti-academician.

“Today the power of her dash is acknowledged as an element of style in any university course in which her work is taught." Isn't that in the piece? It should be. I am pretty sure the sentence was lifted from the head note I had written for Dickinson in The Oxford Book of American Poetry.

Lifted by whom, David?
And what do they know at Oxford about poetry in America - or does Oxford refer to the locale of Ole Miss?

Dave Read: That's my sentence; I wrote the head notes for the Oxford Book (which I edited), and I listed it for my piece on Dickinson -- or thought I did. When I studied in England, admittedly many years ago, the "American" writers most esteemed were Henry James, TS Eliot, early Auden, and Larkin.

I know where/how to discover stuff about the British, David. However, I'm here because I'm passionate about the woeful state of poetry in the USA. Before going to study in England, had you read Spring and All, the book?

We're both first wave baby boomers, David; was the Academy your refuge from the draft? If you opposed the Vietnam war, how did you not see the Academy as being more responsible for it that any other institution? Is it OK to pretend truth is a social construct, rather than an absolute and essential component of reason?

Dave Read: I wrote a book -- much acclaimed, but it also earned me lifetime enemies from entrenched academics -- excoriating the idea that "truth is a social construct" or a "narrative." The book is "Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man," published in 1991, with a new afterword in the 1992 paperback. Have you read it? It gives me very little pleasure to see how prescient that book was.

I await the truth, David, of how the sentence disappeared from the above essay, after I based my comment on it?

At any rate, I would turn to the philosophers for a disquisition on truth. It's absence from contemporary poetry is why I'm so outraged.

Why did you dodge my question about Vietnam? It is the crucible of our generation. It looks like you made a separate peace that allowed you to take cover in the Academy? If so, what have you done to liberate the Academy from its dependence on the Pentagon?

What do you say to the mother of the poor boy who was drafted instead of you? Was he killed? Did he kill?

Dave Read: The final sentence of my first paragraph is "Today the power of her dash is acknowledged as an element of style in any university course in which her work is taught." It has always been there.
Much as I like vigorous give-and-take in comments, you are behaving a bit like a bully. I am
under no obligation to answer questions, especially not those hurled at me in so hectoring a manner. For the record, the best thing I did in my professional career was to quit academe and set myself up as a free-lance writer. I was 32, with a PhD in hand and six years of fulltime teaching, and I wanted out.
If you are sincerely interested, may I recommend that you take a look at my "One Hundred Autobiographies: A Memoir."

I am sorry, David, I made a mistake, please accept my unconditional apology.

Just ordered "Sings of the Times...," David - thanks in advance for writing it. I'll cop to being a boor from time to time, but I'm not a bully. Thanks again for letting me sound off here.

In case you're wondering, Dr. Lehman, here is an example of a poet tending to the poetry canon; scholars disqualify themselves from the task when they remain in class after the bell, instead of go out to play as poets do:

The effect -- of the dash --
stops the runner -- in his track
as if the wish -- for a wash
would take you back to the wreck

of the morrow -- as even you know
who knows neither nonsense nor sorrow.

Dickinson, Whitman and Frost -- All Americans who write poems are descended from at least one of these poets. History aside, they are also fun to read.

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That Ship Has Sailed
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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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