Poetry Wednesday: Tell it Slant, Emily

A friend once told me that Emily Dickenson’s poetry was like something Wednesday Addams might write.

And while I’d argue that Christina Rossetti* would be a closer match to Wednesday’s style, I get the point:  Emily Dickenson’s stuff  might be whimsical, but most of it ain’t light-and-fluffy whimsical.

I mean, even that bird of hers bit that poor anthropomorphized** worm in half.   And there are times when her penchant for layered thought doesn’t quite fit the bill.

But I like her poems anyway, or most of ‘em—she wrote over four hundred, so there’s something in her oeuvre for almost everyone, even those of us who prefer not to dwell on our own mortality, thanks so very much.***

And I can’t help but adore her definition of poetry:

“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”

Nice.

I’m not going to bother with a biography today—there are a million of ‘em out there written by far more articulate people and I stayed up way too late last night trying to bend characters to my mighty will,^ so I’m even less articulate than usual.

But look her up if you have a minute—she was a fascinating woman who may or may not have led exactly the life she wanted.  And her poems are over 125 years old and still being read and interpreted and quoted.

So no matter what some talking ducks might think, the lady clearly had it going on.

Here are a few of her verses that speak to me, or at least speak to me today^^—it varies.   If I’ve missed one of your favorites—and odds are, I have— please share them in the comments.

Share two, they’re small.  Or at least compact.

Tell All The Truth
(Emily Dickenson)

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

A Word
(Emily Dickenson)

A Word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

The Brain
(Emily Dickenson)

The Brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.

I Lost a World
(Emily Dickenson)

I lost a world the other day.
Has anybody found?
You ’ll know it by the row of stars
Around its forehead bound.
A rich man might not notice it;
Yet to my frugal eye
Of more esteem than ducats.
Oh, find it, sir, for me!

Remembrance
(Emily Dickenson)

Remembrance has a rear and front,—
’T is something like a house;
It has a garret also
For refuse and the mouse,

Besides, the deepest cellar
That ever mason hewed;
Look to it, by its fathoms
Ourselves be not pursued.

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Sheldon® is one of the best webcomics ever produced, and Dave Kellett is its brilliant and essentially non-litigious creator.  Revere him.

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*Who gets my personal vote for the Thomas Hardy Mental Funk Award

**I might be exaggerating (and showing off) just a tad . . . But that line still seems a bit too nature red in beak and claw to me.

 

*** Plus, most of them are short, so when things get weird, at least they aren’t weird at length—which, especially after tackling Dante Alighieri, can come as something of a relief.

^Actually, I was bending the laws of  elevator physics while trying to ignore the fact that everyone is wired for instant communications.  We all came to an agreement in the end, I think—I finished up so stinkin’ late I’m afraid to look.

^^No deep psychological mysteries here . . .

Poetry Wednesday: A touch of Frost less traveled by

Robert Frost is one of those poets whom almost everyone has read, but usually in small doses of roads less traveled and stopping on snowy evenings.

But the man clearly wrote more than that—four Pulitzer’s worth over his lifetime.  His first poem, “My Butterfly, an Elegy,” was published when he was twenty*, although he didn’t start writing full-time until he was thirty-eight** and moved his family to England, or more specifically, the small village of Dymock in Gloucestershire, which was already the stomping grounds of several influential poets,  including Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke, and Ezra Pound, an American who helped promote Mr. Frost.***

Mr. Frost prudently returned to America at the start of the first World War and settled in New Hampshire, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the natural images in most of his poems, though his sense of whimsy is often overlooked:

A Dust of Snow
(Robert Frost)

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

As a genealogist and confessed taphophile,^ I’m also fond of this one:

In a Disused Graveyard
(Robert Frost)

The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never anymore the dead.
The verses in it say and say:
“The ones who living come today
To read the stones and go away
Tomorrow dead will come to stay.”
So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can’t help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?
It would be easy to be clever
And tell the stones:
Men hate to die
And have stopped dying now forever.
I think they would believe the lie.

Even when his poems have urban settings, one gets the sense that he doesn’t particularly want to be there:

Acquainted by the Night
(Robert Frost)

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
O luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

And he didn’t much care for urban sprawl, either:

A Brook in the City
(Robert Frost)

The firm house lingers, though averse to square
With the new city street it has to wear
A number in.
But what about the brook
That held the house as in an elbow-crook?
I ask as one who knew the brook, its strength
And impulse, having dipped a finger length
And made it leap my knuckle, having tossed
A flower to try its currents where they crossed.
The meadow grass could be cemented down
From growing under pavements of a town;
The apple trees be sent to hearth-stone flame.
Is water wood to serve a brook the same?
How else dispose of an immortal force No longer needed?
Staunch it at its source With cinder loads dumped down?
The brook was thrown
Deep in a sewer dungeon under stone
In fetid darkness still to live and run -
And all for nothing it had ever done
Except forget to go in fear perhaps.
No one would know except for ancient maps
That such a brook ran water.
But I wonder
If from its being kept forever under
The thoughts may not have risen that so keep
This new-built city from both work and sleep.

There’s obviously more to Robert Frost than a couple of inspirational poems—not that I’m knocking anything that has such universal, timeless resonance.

I’m just saying that it might be worth it to check out some of his poems less traveled and see which ones speak to you, personally.

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Sheldon® is the property of the remarkable, brilliant, and ultimately non-litigious Dave Kellett.

*It’s here if you’d like to read it.  The only comment I’m going to make about it is that it’s reassuring to know that we all have to start somewhere . . . and the man shed a lot of purple over the years.

**Something else I find reassuring.

***Until Frost asked him to stop—the reasons aren’t entirely clear, though he may have feared that the reviews weren’t describing his work accurately. Despite this, they remained lifelong friends, which says a lot about Robert Frost’s loyalty and patience, as Ezra Pound was certifiably unstable.  I’m not just saying this because I don’t care for most of his stuff—he was at one point arrested for treason and declared mentally unfit for trial. I heard a recording of Pound reading “With Usura,” before I was told his history, and I can’t say I was much surprised that he was institutionalized. He reminds me of a library patron who sounds perfectly sane until he asks you to proofread a letter to his congressman that explains his beliefs that the president was born in Osama bin Laden’s mansion in Paris because they’re secretly second cousins—and when you hand it back, he gives you a special tin foil hat because you’re the only person who understands him.

^Yes, it’s true . . . I like cemeteries. What did you think it meant?

Backstory: From Cardboard to Who Cares?

Of the many, many webcomics* I follow, Sheldon, by the talented and beyond-awesome Dave Kellett, is probably my favorite.  Janie loves it, too, and often requests that we read one of our many printed collections of the strip as her bedtime story.

It’s fun—we do the voices.

One of the reasons I love this comic is that the author is as big a geek as I am and riffs on all the cultural icons of geekdom, up to and including Star Wars, Star Trek, and, of course Lord of the Rings.**

Last night, we landed on this strip:

Click the image above and read through the arc—it’s six strips long, ending on this one:

Exaggeration aside, you know damn well that Tolkien knew the backstory of every single creature in LOTR, down to what each one had for breakfast—and second breakfast—the morning of the battle of Minas Tirith.  Even Tom Bombadil.

Writers are told to create a backstory for our characters, too—even if the character is a minor one.  Alison Janssen wrote a gorgeous post illustrating why:

Think about your character like this: He is a very small ocean when he’s young and inexperienced. As he moves through time and experiences life, the coasts surrounding him widen, and the sea floor drops. His ocean gets bigger as his character grows, containing more saltwater.

Now think about the formative events of his life — the stuff that happened to him before the story you’re telling in your manuscript. The kinds of things that led to the quirks and traits he possesses in the story you’re telling . . .   Imagine each of those events as a drop of colored liquid in the character ocean. The larger the impact of the event, the larger the drop, and the more viscous the liquid . . .

And it’s not just the immediate, most recently dropped pool of liquid that will inform your character’s actions, behaviours, and perceptions. Every drop of liquid, even when dispersed, will have changed the overall makeup of the character ocean. Wave patterns, currents, the flora and fauna — everything’s related.

This is heady stuff for writers!  Whether you make it up on the spot or your characters tell you more about themselves as you go, characterizations are nothing but fun.  And we’ve all become wary of cardboard characters and flat characterizations.  There needs to be something behind those baby blues, right?

BUT . . .

While Tolkien wrote in almost every possible historical, genealogical, and personal detail for his characters—including Tom Bombadil—it was the early 1950s. And he was Tolkien.

Currently, we aren’t supposedto use a character’s entire backstory—unless that’s what the story is about—because an infodump slows  the pace to a crawl while the reader tries to process everything,  like a kid trying to eat a sundae through brain freeze.  It can be done, but it’s not as enjoyable as usual.  And most backstory isn’t important to anyone but the characters and their anxious parent author.  It’s natural for us to want our babies to show off for the nice people, but that’s not the point.

Naturally, it depends on the audience—ten-year olds like Sheldon up there have a low boredom threshold, while professors of 19th Century Delphinapterus literature seem to have quite a high tolerance—as well as the needs of the story.   And I’m not discounting talent and skill; some authors seem to effortlessly balance any amount of backstory—or none at all.

J.K. Rowling works a couple of tons of personal backstory into Harry Potter, especially the last volume, but it doesn’t slow anything down at all—she  keeps up the pace because the details are relevant and immediately useful  to the plot.

In The Key, Averil Dean weaves the relationship between Elizabeth and her late father into the first several chapters, but these memories and details aren’t infodumpy or extraneous—they establish the character’s loneliness and explains how and why Elizabeth views the world the way she does, which also influences her actions when strange things start happening.  The details are relevant.

Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout’s premiere detective, raises orchids.  It’s one of  his signature character traits—his entire schedule revolves around his greenhouse.  I’ve read all of his adventures, but I don’t believe there’s any mention of why he loves these flowers so. Stout supplies a lot of Wolfe’s backstory,  but I’ve yet to find an outright explanation for this.^  Yet the orchids aren’t just a surface gimmick:  orchids are as fussy, particular, and agoraphobic as Wolfe himself, and serve as a reflection of himself, even to his preference for bright yellow.  Wolfe without his orchids would be Wolfe lessened.

BUT . . .

While I may find it fascinating that my MC likes flavored coffees because her first sensei used to brew hazelnut-mocha coffee  in the back of the dojo and the scent has become a sign of safety and comfort,***  interrupting the story to mention this isn’t going to help things along.

Her coffee preference is a good personal detail (at least in my opinion), but while  the reason might matter to the character—if she would even remember it it doesn’t matter to the story, and wedging it in there wouldn’t work.  She’s not the kind of person to share this kind of personal information, or naturally ponder it so the readers will catch on.  In the end, the why doesn’t matter.

It’s enough that after tough days, she always makes a pot of hazelnut-mocha,  and breathes in the steam before relaxing.  And doesn’t give a damn if her co-workers wrinkle their noses.

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*Or  my “four-paneled” soap operas, as I call ‘em.

**But not, to my relief, sparkly vampires.   Bless you, Dave Kellett!

***I just made that up, but why not?

^If there is one, please let me know—and cite the story, please!

Have an [insert Egg Pun here] Sunday!

 

The Wesson clan did a little better this year (yes, certain family members are fond of pink and purple):

May your day be filled with fun according to your own personal belief system—and also various egg and egg-shaped products.

Speaking of fun:

I hope they do Peeps next!

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Sheldon webcomic magic by Dave Kellett.