DICKINSON AS A POETESS
by Annie Finch
Page 2Working in the Romantic tradition, I wanted to write poems that were compelling in the mode of "Ode to a Nightingale" or "Four Quartets." Nonetheless, I found the assumption of the requisite lyric stance at the center of a poem extremely difficult--in fact, impossible. It felt not only awkward but morally questionable to place my poetic "self" in the sole subject position and to present the rest of the objects in the poem, whether natural or human, from that perspective. I coped, temporarily, by writing poems without clear subjective centers, or poems without pronouns, and finally by writing verse plays where I assumed many voices. Around this time, a poet who was one of my teachers made a comment that turned out to be invaluable for me. "Look," he remarked after our poetry workshop, "why can't you just marry the world?" Though I said nothing, wondering at how simple it seemed to him (I soon wrote the poem "Diving Past Violets," included in this book, in response), I became, almost in that instant, self-conscious about my practice as I had not been before. I saw from his exasperation that there was a logic to my flailing, and that I might be able to investigate the way that poets created subjectivity. Ultimately, after my searches led me to read carefully the work of the poetesses, I understood an unfamiliar subjectivity as the source of that mysterious sound in Dickinson: she was carrying traces of a tradition that was not concerned with marrying the world.
When I discovered the work of Dickinson's precedessor, the popular early sentimental poetess Lydia Sigourney, I finally appreciated the extent of Dickinson's differentness. Sigourney rarely personifies or even metaphorizes natural objects in order to make statements about her own feelings. Her poems are not organized around a central poetic subject or ego, but instead attribute an independent subjectivity, often conventionalized, to nature: "Then the sea answer'd--"spoils are mine / From many an argosy, / And pearl-drops sleep in my bosom deep, / But naught have I there for thee." They lend to natural objects voices and identities separate from that of the speaker, who may even address them directly: "Yes, we have need of thee; / thanks, tree of sympathy." There is no one subjective center to a Sentimentalist poem. Whether all subjectivities are equally objectified in relation to God, as is frequent in an early poetess like Sigourney, or whether the poetess asserts her own subjectivity while undercutting or contradicting it, as in a later, less religious poetess like Helen Hunt Jackson, a reader takes away from these poems only a sense of that which Dickinson might call "Circumference": a world of endless and equal entities in which the poetic "I" is not necessarily more privileged than any other.
The tension between the romantic and sentimental aesthetics may be the source of much that is unique and exciting in Dickinson. The vulnerability of a precariously attained subjectivity is expressed, for instance, in Johnson poem 889:
Let an instant pushThis poem's magnification of the distinction between subject and object may be illuminated in the context of nineteenth-century magazines like Godey's that were uniformly obsessed, on the subtlest verbal level as well as in pictures, advice, and exemplary tales, with the importance of women becoming the proper kinds of objects in the perceptions of others. Like the poetesses, Dickinson here develops in response a poetics of the object, though hers is a precarious object-hood. In the world of this poem, if a circle hesitates in circumference--if the world is too much objectified within the poet's mind--the feminine hand, adjusting its hair for the sake of others' vision of her, might shake and a dreaded "Eternity" of subjectivity suddenly center itself within the poet.
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