by Mary Gunderson
Emily Dickinson starts her poem #125 with two strong verses, “For each ecstatic moment / We must an anguish pay”. These two verses challenge me while I agonize and search through the spaces of each word in five of her poems, #252, #254, #249, #280, and #125, realizing for the moment that I want to take part in, I must agonize as well. Through the moment and agony I discovered an action carried in each of the poems, the feeling of unfolding. And so I try to do the same with response to her poems. Unfolding what has been discovered and felt.
In her poems, Emily Dickinson has a unique way of making one think they have discovered her style, when if fact there might not be a style to discover, or at least a style that could be placed into a box and sealed. I became aware of the fact that I might not be able to label her poems with a consistent rhythm or rhyme, which was actually quite frustrating.
When I couldn’t find a predictable scheme in a first stanza, but then was able to find it in another, I would go back to the first stanza and try to find anything that had a possible poetic structure. I would resort to counting the syllables and how many words were in a verse, hoping that consistency might leap out and hit me in the face. But it did not.
It would seem that Emily Dickinson would start a poem relaxed and not caring for a particular scheme as in poem #252. In the first stanza of this poem it has no rhythm or rhyme. You actually feel in this stanza that you are sharing a very personal experience to someone. The verses are crisp and short, light and heavy. But as you flow into the second stanza you are suddenly hit with a direct verse. You are separated from speaking personally to one, into speaking generally to a crowd. A rhyme starts to carry and the structure causes you to embrace the direct words. It allows you not to detach yourself from words that might otherwise push you away. This flow of not having a predictable scheme, leading into a stanza that does, helps one to hear the rise and fall of expression in each verse and stanza.
Emily Dickinson also compliments this varied structure with her use of punctuation. Poem #249 is incredibly filled with expression because of the use of dashes and exclamation points. The dashes are used as pauses, to cause reflection, but also in strengthening of a word. Exclamation points are placed at the end of verses where you can hear one feeling so overwhelmed by what’s being said. In poem#280, the commas act as a description of one in complete thought and confusion, as they break one deep thought from another deep thought.
So the reading causes me to break my own deep thoughts with a comma. Or cause me to pause and reflect on one word with a dash. Not only was it an unfolding of structure but of expressions and deep memories. The moment of unfolding thoughts that either have some structure or completely none at all.
It would seem that Emily Dickinson as well was challenged in her own structure or non-structure of thoughts and expression. Four of the five poems were written in a time of great conflict and unfolding of events. Emily Dickinson being surrounded by this wants us to recognize the presence of hope and despair. That within one poem not only structure or lack of structure would flow in and out, but also opposite thoughts and feelings. Emily Dickinson’s unfolding of expression would add to mine.
On the last verse of #280, Emily Dickinson writes, “And Finished knowing /then”, even though I struggle to understand what that means, it symbolizes the constant unfolding of every aspect of life and words.