Friday, August 28, 2009


The tendency is to call them Aunt Emily and Uncle Walt; they are just that close to us in American literature. But Walt Whitman did not write about Emily Dickinson. It is possible that he was not even aware of her. Hers was a still small voice very like that of the Spirit. Only eleven of her poems were published in her lifetime and these were tampered with by her publishers - to make them more 'acceptable' for their time. They shamelessly added titles to her work, and changed punctuation and capitalization. Her poems were too original, apparently, for her day. But it is that originality that might have attracted the attention of other poets. Alas, she never seems to have complained or to have been much noticed. (Not until 1955 was a faithful collection of her poems finally released).

Dressed in white, Emily Dickinson sat at her writer's desk daily and wrote poetry. Like Hawthorne and to a lesser degree Thoreau she chose the reclusive life. She seldom traveled; and she never ventured very far from her home in Amherst, Massachusetts when she did. She never married. She never saw a volcano. She never had a direct experience of much of anything, it might be said. But what she did experience was her innermost self, and it is there - deep inside - that she has touched the readers of her poems. At the time of her death, when her poems were at last brought to light, there was found to be one thousand seven hundred and seventy five of them.

If Emily Dickinson was aware of Walt Whitman, the other great poet of her age, she never said much about it. His great yawping shaggy-bearded reputation may have seemed a bit overwhelming for her. (In a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson from April 26, 1862, she wrote, "You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book, but was told it was disgraceful.") She read Shakespeare and Emerson and William Wordsworth and Longfellow's prose tale 'Kavanagh'. "Great men stand like solitary towers in the city of God," 'Kavanagh' begins, "and secret passage running deep beneath external nature give their thoughts intercourse with higher intelligences, which strengthens and consoles them, and of which the laborers on the surface do not even dream!" Emily Dickinson was certainly not a laborer on the surface of things. Her poems are concerned with death and God and eternity. She allowed herself to think and write what other women of her time dared not even whisper.

Hope you'll take a look.


Friday, August 7, 2009


When we Americans think of inventiveness in our fiction we think of wild machinations and fireworks and showy plot devices that drive us forward from one page to the next. Either that or, as a librarian friend of mine recently said, "We are just telling the same story over again in different ways." But I just read a novel by Spanish author Javier Marias and there we find a very different sort of inventiveness. I am new to this author, though he is on the short list for the Nobel Prize every year. 'The Man of Feeling' was first published in 1986 but wasn't translated into English until 2003. We are a little slow.

And it is that slowness to seek what is beyond our own borders that caused one Nobel committee member to say that he would not vote for an American again and that an American would not win the prize as long as he was a member. Now, our first reaction might be one of outrage and a sense of injustice. But his observations could enlighten us. We are too provincial. Too narrow minded. Too concerned about our own affairs. We don't translate enough.

Marias spends many of the early pages of this novel building character as a young opera star travels on a train from Milan to Venice. The main character finds himself helplessly detached from the world around him because of his traveling and the kind of rarefied life he leads. (Living as he does in grand hotels between rehearsals and performances).

Of his writing Marias says, "I need to feel my way forwards, and nothing would bore me or put me off more than knowing, when I start a novel, precisely what it will be: the characters who will people it, when and how they will appear and disappear, what will become of their lives or the fragment of their lives that I am going to recount. All this happens as I am actually writing the novel and belongs to the realm of invention..."

I have been reading Chekhov again recently and am astonished at how quickly he can pen the essence of character in his short stories. Perhaps we should spend more time inventing what is essential to the story we are trying to tell. What do you think?

Jim August 21, 2009