Poet’s Challenge 10: ‘A Light Exists in Spring’ by Emily Dickinson
The challenge this time is to use the rhymes Dickinson used in this poem, whether as internal or external rhymes. We may make of them what we will. We need not emulate her style or her vocabulary or syntax, though it’s good to plow up and till our own once in a while.
A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period–
When March is scarcely here.
A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.
It waits upon the Lawn
It shows the furthest Tree
Upon the furthest Slope you know
It almost speaks to me.
Then as Horizons step
or Noons report away
Without the Formula of sound
It passes and we stay–
A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.
When I was in college a literature professor suggested, based on some reading she had done of someone else’s work, that Emily Dickinson’s poems were written to familiar hymn tunes (or at least hung upon the musical meters belonging to them) and that the dashes represent places where she had left a note without a word.
I don’t know if this theory ever caught on or if it is still current. What I do know is that if you read the poems aloud, there’s a singularly romantic and emotional effect you can achieve by reading with pauses at the dashes instead of at the ends of lines. One interesting thing about this is that it sometimes teaches you where to put swells and falls in the voice, where to emphasize and de-emphasize, beyond the teaching that mere meter does with our English language.
I think this matters to us because of the discussion about Leah’s poem in the second-to-last challenge. We were discussing whether a metrical liberty she had taken was really all right to take. She believed that it worked if read a certain way; we were uncertain about whether that’s quite orthodox (poetically speaking) because after all, the reader wouldn’t necessarily know whether to read it that way. Perhaps Dickinson wrestled with the same issue? And perhaps the dashes were one way of working it out? (Or perhaps they would function that way for our purposes, even if she didn’t and they weren’t?)
I love formal poetry, but the truth is that normal pronunciation squeezes into meter only with the consent of a skilled reader sometimes. So the poet and the reader have to cooperate on this – the poet trying to indicate and the reader trying to intuit how the words can be spoken with fullness and feeling and meter, all at once. Of course it’s this kind of puzzle, and solving it well on both ends, that gives formal poetry its superior value.
And then you wonder about Dickinson’s capital letters. It’s a Romantic-poetish way of writing, sure, but does it also contain hints about pronunciation? Did she read her own poems over and over again to herself the way I sometimes do, whispering their incantations and reviving in her soul the visions and inner motions of which they were made to be the vessels? Did she have a favorite way of pronouncing her poems, and did she linger over the swelling roundness of the Important Words?
(What accent would she have spoken in?)
At the very least, I feel whenever I dip into the Romantic poets how much idiosyncrasy and individualism and even obscurity good literature can bear. One doesn’t aim at them – one aims at significance. But one also doesn’t stop at any innovation or removal that better expresses one’s strained-at significance than conventional usage can do. The reader and the poet must strain together on this, but in opposite directions.
Punctuation itself can therefore be idiosyncratic. In fact, it had almost better be. The best poetry happens when we attend to that within ourselves or our world – or better yet the interaction between the two – for which no immediate verbal expression springs to mind. We enter into voluntary struggle and become not the slavish users of language with its rules, but the next Makers of it. Not the destroyers and pullers-down of that which has been previously built (like some so-called poets of anything-goes, who think it’s all right because they make a little sandcastle in the rubble) but the builders of little parapets and towers – and patios and gables – upon the hallowed structure.
Or at least we try. Good luck.