by Martha Nell Smith

Page 8

So what can be learned here? What all these women poets participating in Titanic Operas--however different from one another--insist upon is that we turn to her words first, not to others' words about Dickinson. Like her "astonishing action" of turning to words, our turning to hers will be a profoundly political act. It's a political act to refuse to join what Gwendolyn Brooks calls the "self-crowned" editors "in the seduced arena," the "harmony-hushers," those who determine the worth of words according to supply and demand and official sanction. Rich ends her last poetic address to Dickinson, "The Spirit of Place," with a song of loving kindness:
this is my third and last address to you

with the hands of a daughter I would cover you
from all intrusion even my own
saying rest to your ghost

with the hands of a sister I would leave your hands
open or closed as they prefer to lie
and ask no more of who or why or wherefore

with the hands of a mother I would close the door
on the rooms you've left behind
and silently pick up my fallen work

All those various voices of those woman poets made me look at Emily Dickinson and my reading of her, made me look at a poem I had taken much for granted, one that I had read right over, again. They encouraged me to spend time--not adoring her or them--but to spend time reading her words, even the words of this poem which I had called cloying and dismissed as smarmy sentiment. And let me tell you that I do still agree with Rich's assertion that this poem could have been written by almost any nineteenth-century poetess. In fact, that she wrote this poem was one reason I concluded that she could have written, she was capable of writing, the sappy kind of poem that turned out to be a forgery--"That God cannot be understood" (FP A14-7). So I ask--is its sentimentality a reason to ignore it? Need we scorn it? The poem I want to dwell upon is one Hallmark has popularized, the only poem Dolly Parton mentions in her autobiography. Dickinson's poem is one that she thought enough of to copy out near the culmination of her career, when she was approaching her 40s:
If I can stop one
Heart from breaking
I shall not live
in vain
If I can ease one
Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain

Or help One fainting
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live
in vain (Set 7; P 919)

As Emily Dickinson said of reading Barrett Browning, there is something in a poet that transforms our vision, our very sense of being, our very sense of feeling, our very sense of what it means to know.

As Brooks said when musing upon Emily Dickinson, "Even if you are not ready for Day / It cannot always be night." In trying to heed the call of all these women poets to think harder, I have concluded that it is much too easy to dismiss "If I can stop one / Heart from breaking," still not one of my favorites, as "too sweet." And to move feminist criticism and theory to a stage where we all acknowledge that sisterhood, that humanhood, do not come easy has been of vital importance, has been necessary. But those themes of rivalry, contention, and anxiety are well- worn now, and we need to move on. Once again, I suspect that the poets are ahead of the critics, that poets are the most profound, sophisticated theorists. Dickinson most certainly was, still is.

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Copyright 1999 by Martha Nell Smith, all rights reserved
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