SHORT POEMS AND SPIN-OFFS: EMILY AND THE EXPERIENCE OF SURPRISE
by Denise Levertov
I think that anyone who cares for the work of Emily Dickinson at all, cares for the experience of surprise. The surprises that she gives us in her adjectives, her adverbs, sometimes her verbs, the whole character of her epithets, which is so incomparably fresh and strange. In the twentieth century, maybe only Wallace Stevens is comparable to her in this, in that strangeness and freshness. And among the poets who preceded her one may, I think, perhaps find some parallels in Edward Taylor. It's commonly recognized that this gift for images that go beyond the shock of recognition is enhanced by the simplicity of her prosody. But what I especially like, is the way, not only her diction, but her punctuation twists and syncopates those simple or even simplistic norms. So I too, like Sharon Olds, like things that she does with rhythm. Although I think that perhaps what I hear in her rhythms is something a little different from what Sharon focused on.
I feel that without the peculiarity of her famous dashes, the poems would have to depend solely on content, image, diction, those things which they have so strongly. But they would have to depend on them, I think, too much, because their rhythms would not be of very much interest. Once those dashes, which, as I showed, were omitted by her conventional, earlier editors were restored, we get, not a jog trot (which I think we do get without them) not a jog trot, but a dance. It's a strange dance, a strange sidling, sidestepping kind of dance. It's movement matches, I think, the unique character of her imagination. I'm going to read two very short poems of hers in which these dashes have that effect.
Presentiment - is that long Shadow - on the lawn -
Now remove the dashes and let's see what it sounds like.
You can hear what I mean, can't you? And the other poem:
There is a pain - so utter -
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