When you just don't "get it."

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When you just don't "get it."

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okt 21, 2007, 1:24 pm

What do you do when just don't "get" an author? Say, a really famous author who many people respect and enjoy. I am currently struggling to receive Emily Dickinson into my heart and mind. She isn't "real" to me (although I enjoy certain of her startling passages).

What (if any) is your process for overcoming obstacles you have between you and certain authors?

okt 21, 2007, 3:06 pm

What I resent is when an author is just, plainly, so much smarter than I am. I think of Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Beckett. I have to struggle to understand them...but when I finally have a breakthrough or insight (reading them aloud often helps), I feel a tremendous rush of joy.

Likewise, I am frequently confounded by "modern" art. I used to rail against Pollock and Kandinsky and much of Picasso but once I understood that kind of vision in context, what it was reacting against, I had some lovely epiphanies.

This may be why I pooh-pooh reading for pleasure or escapism (or simple representational art, photo-like realism). If a work is too accessible, too reader friendly, I simply don't find it challenging and can't respect the erudition and intelligence of its author. That's perceived as snobbery and I suppose it is. But I like to push myself, challenge my preconceptions and limitations. That way I feel I grow intellectually and artistically.

okt 21, 2007, 4:17 pm

I don't "get" Hemingway, but I don't consider it any loss on my part. There are so many books and authors to read and discover before we die...if it's not happening, I say just move on. On the other hand, sometimes, maybe like what's happening with you and Dickinson (whom I love, btw), Theresa, there's a kernel of something that draws you to try harder. In that case, I might just keep the book on my shelf and re-consider it at some time later, but I'm a very moody reader.

I think it's like people we do or don't relate to. We've all had the experience of wondering what a friend sees in another person. They're having their own experience and it's not for me. That's okay, right? We can't want to befriend every person we're introduced to. Maybe that person just isn't meant to travel our path with us.

Redigeret: okt 21, 2007, 6:07 pm

Mostly, I am with citygirl on this. Our world is absolutely inundated with books! If I even had time to read all the really well-written ones that do speak to me, I would consider it an incredible luxury.

However, it's hard knowing in advance what book will speak to me and what won't. There's something stubborn in me that just doesn't like to give up on a book once I've started it. And sometimes I'm really glad I stayed with a book. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was like that for me. It started slowly and seemed dry, but as I kept reading, I became more and more involved with the characters and their strange world, where the magicians with their extra powers found life just as difficult to manipulate and manage as all of us unmagical regular mortals do. I can't categorize that novel as fantasy or magical realism - the magic in it was symbolic at such a deep and complex level, it was more like poetry.

Other times I'll read a book that I don't "get," because it's meant a lot to someone else whose opinion I value. It's rare for me to read something and not have a few worthwhile insights as a result, even if the book as a whole doesn't grab me.

I like books to be reader-friendly, so authors who mask their meaning tend to annoy me. Some, like those who live in repressive dictatorships, have legitimate reasons for hiding their meaning below an obscuring surface. Others, I fear, are just too lazy to revise so their work communicates effectively to readers, or perhaps their ideas are commonplace and the obscurity makes them appear more interesting than they really are. On the other hand, I love books whose meaning unfolds more and more on repeated reading - as long as enough meaning comes across on the first reading to interest me.

okt 21, 2007, 8:13 pm

A lot of people didn't "get" Emily Dickinson during her lifetime. In Emily Dickinson--collected Poems a preface is included wich was written by Thomas Higginson. Emily had sent poems to him but he didn't publish very many of them. Many of the people that she gave her poems to regarded them as quaint & "curiosities."
She does take a bit of getting used to. I was introduced to her in grade school with poems like "There is no frigate like a book..."
Now there seems to be so much hype about her reclusive life & the feminist cause of the "Woman not taken seriously because of gender ect." I agree with the above posters, there are plenty of other poets but if you are teaching transcendalists, Emily is important. So try to take her in small doses, with other poets in between, she does come up with some good lines.
BTW, a friend of mine wrote a poem about Emily "In her white flannel night-gown, her hair set free..."(can't remember the rest but it gave old Emily a human dimension, struggling over her notes like the rest of us.

okt 21, 2007, 8:39 pm

In the case of poetry, it's something that has to be studied properly, a language to be learned. Try the old Brooks, Lewis, Warren anthologies about how to read poetry.

In the case of Emily, she is difficult because she is so personal and private and enigmatic. Sometimes you can get the meaning if you look for her tendency to be epigrammatic: "The soul selects her own society," "I felt a funeral in my brain."

Poems like that, when they transcend the personal into the universal, are a little easier to grasp.

okt 21, 2007, 11:08 pm

On an intellectual level, I can see what she is doing and I can even imagine why. But I'm not connecting with her on an emotional or spiritual level. This concerns me. I think I have not done enough work to be able to do that. I haven't given her enough thought, enough time, to talk to me. I want to feel her pulse and my pulse, beating together.

okt 22, 2007, 10:51 am

But I'm not connecting with her on an emotional or spiritual level. This concerns me.

Have you tried other ways to let her seep in? E.g., reading right before you fall asleep or music in the background, have someone else read to you, just anything that might make a connection in a different way. I assume you've read biographies or anything else that might help you make a personal connection and you've probably taught her to your students, so I know you have access to all sorts of goodies.

But I'll ask again, do you really feel that you must make a connection with every "great" writer that you come in contact with? If so, I can only imagine that that is an impossible task. At what point do you decide that a connection is being forced?

Or is Emily beckoning to you? If she is, maybe stop trying and see what remains on its own.

okt 22, 2007, 2:18 pm

I think she has something for me but my skin is too thick to soak it in. It's an uneasy feeling. Does anyone here really like Emily and can you tell me how you connect with her?

okt 22, 2007, 3:51 pm

the thing about some authors, and emily dickenson in partcular, is you can't take 'em too hard. For years, there's been a school of thought that all emily dickenson poems could be sung to the tune of "Yellow Rose of texas. here's a page that sheds a bit of light on this.

i think a good yardstick to have when reading someone is "does it work for me? does he or she make any sense?" and if you can ruthfully answer "no", then that's what works for you. the world will carry on, dancing like shiva or chanting like depak

and you too will find great poems.

okt 22, 2007, 4:06 pm

I like her wit.

okt 22, 2007, 4:16 pm

Interesting question(s)...Tim's got a good point.

I've always had it in my mind that I liked Emily's stuff. So, when you posted this concern I went looking for my book of her poems.

Things change ... and my sense is that there is a small amount of what she produced that really speaks to me and the rest I might "appreciate" but it isn't as easy for me to breath in as, say Whitman.

Some of her stuff is too tightly wound up in form and the words seem "used" ...instead of natural. Then in the middle of something, she says things like... "I like to see it lap the miles, and lick the valleys up..." and the oddity of it is just great!

Some of her work I like, I really like. And I totally forgot until now, upon re-reading, she is a bit sarcastic, no?

"I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us -- don't tell
They'd banish us, you know."

Redigeret: okt 22, 2007, 4:29 pm

chuckling at myself because, well, i stick with what i know. read on about this poem:

Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!
Futile the winds
To a heart in port,
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.

Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!

"Wild nights! Wild nights!" is a poem of unrestrained sexual passion and rapture. When the 1891 edition of Dickinson's poems was being prepared, Colonel Higginson wrote to his co-editor Mrs. Todd,

One poem only I dread a little to print--that wonderful 'Wild Nights,'--lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there. Has Miss Lavinia Emily Dickinson's sister any shrinking about it? You will understand & pardon my solicitude. Yet what a loss to omit it! Indeed it is not to be omitted.
His comments reflect both the sexual narrowness of his times and the Myth of Emily Dickinson, Virgin Recluse.
This poem, ardent as it is, is hypothetical; it expresses wish or desire, "were I with you" (that is, if I were with you) and "might I but." Do you think it carries the implication that the speaker is remembering past pleasures and yearns for more?

(more on this train of thought:



anyway, i love the "fun!" in this poem! i don't think that side of her stands out in much of her other poetry, and I've never made it my passion to find out ...

but yeah, my suggestion is, let it come easy to you, or keep a curious eye out for it, but move on. there's si much to read in life. it's all in how you're introduced to a poet, i think.

anyway, i truly love this poem. she did a great job.

okt 22, 2007, 5:05 pm

Ha Tim !! I do absolutely include "Wild Nights! Wild Nights!" on the list of Emily stuff that is priceless!

okt 25, 2007, 1:16 am

I loved Emily Dickinson the first time I read her poems as a teenager, though not all of them. I always found "I'm nobody" a little too cute for my taste, perhaps too similar to a lot of poems I had read in children's anthologies by adults reaching "down" to a child's level - though that certainly is not what Dickinson was doing.

I liked the quality of solitude in her poems, and an odd sort of blended melancholy and contentment. Dickinson had a genteel upbringing, and one senses in her poems that it could be oppressive without offering any specific causes one could pinpoint for complaint. That spoke to me, as the eldest child of a minister. I, too, crave time spent alone.

dec 21, 2007, 3:34 pm

Virginia Woolfe has always challenged me.
To the Lighthouse
put me in a state of frustration and confusion.
Thomas Hardy is another writer I struggle with. Perhaps my personal taste and interests had a hand in blinding me to the art of these writers. I much prefer Jane Austen or Mary Barton.

dec 22, 2007, 2:22 am

#15: I used to feel that way about "I'm Nobody," too, but lately I've been reading about Emily and have run across really good criticism of her poems. The criticism has opened the poems up to me and I am able to appreciate them on more levels now. I am still far from being a great fan of her work, but I do feel more compelled to read her now.

#16: I read To the Lighthouse in college. It was so different from what I was used to reading, but I just stuck with it and the book has always stuck with me. The Internet now makes it easier to research works and get feedback that helps with understanding. I think Woolfe is worth it.

dec 23, 2007, 12:37 am

With Woolfe, as well as a number of other literary authors, I find I have to let the books settle in my mind for some time after reading them. Certain scenes and characters that seemed frustratingly opaque while I was reading stick in my mind and seem to open up afterward.

I recently read John Banville's novel Kepler and felt, when I finished it, that it hadn't been a particularly worthwhile read. I still feel it was flawed, but I'm realizing what an fine job he did of making his protagonist and the times he lived in come alive. Certain scenes enveloped me so vividly while I was reading that I realize now I was seduced into taking them for granted as commonplace when, in fact, it is extraordinary for a written scene to envelop a reader so completely. The problem with Kepler is that I didn't like the character. But Banville was writing a biographical novel, based on a real person about whom much is known. Rather than distort the truth in his work by forcing the character into a more likeable mold, Banville insisted on presenting him with great artistic fidelity. While reading, I didn't especially appreciate that choice. But now I do.

I love Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy both - I think both were masterfully gifted at plotting. Literary writers today are inclined to slight plot, as if it were not important. Austen and Hardy show us how a well-crafted plot can make a novel more literary, not less. Tess of the D'Urbervilles is the Hardy novel many people were forced to read in school; I don't think it's necessarily his best, and I find it very depressing, though it's certainly well-crafted. My favorite Hardy is Return of the Native, which I re-read every few years.

Redigeret: jan 28, 2008, 12:40 am

"Wild nights! Wild nights!" is a poem of unrestrained sexual passion and rapture.

I'd have to disagree with this reading of Wild Nights.

The "Wild Nights" refer to agitation, something to overcome, not something to be sought. "To moor in thee" refers to finding a safe haven from the wild nights at sea, which I see as disorientation, agitation, anxiety, despair, or some other form of unhappiness.

The desire to reconnect to land, as it were, to find that calm, doesn't necessarily mean a wild night of sexual intercourse. In fact, it means the opposite. Calmness, not wildnesss.

In port, winds are "futile" because the ship is docked. It can't be tossed around anymore. One is now at home and rest, so there is no longer any need for compass or chart to navigate the dangerous and disorienting ocean. "If I were with Thee," then we would be safe in each others' arms, and wild nights would be a luxury, i.e. a rare thing, an unnecessary or unneeded thing that we have put behind us. In other words, if I were with you, there would not be any more wild nights, i.e. nights of disorientation.

"Rowing in Eden" doesn't mean rowing in a storm. An Edenic sea would be a calm one, an ideal one. No sailor wants rough waters. I'm not sure one can even "moor" in a rough sea. The sea has to be relatively calm in order to moor a boat in port, to tie it down, etc. One must have a calm sea to get home.

In the letter from Col. Higginson you quote, he says he hesitates to publish Emily's poem "lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there." In other words, he worries that it is an easy poem to misinterpret, esp. when written by a virgin recluse. Naturally it would be tempting to think of the demure Emily cutting loose and gettin' down. That appeals to our sense of humor and rebellion.

But it would be inconsistent with her character. It would be more than she ever dreamed of putting there. Let's not assume that we know her better than she knows herself. Or that we know her poem better than she does. If we misread her intent, seeing something sexual where there isn't, then we are the malignant ones. That is what makes the colonel hesitate. That is what the colonel wants to protect her from -- her own innocence, her failure to predict that people could read her poem as sexual wish-fulfillment. When, in fact, that is not what she meant at all.

So I read Wild Nights as a means of reconnecting, seeking order and an end to wildness, not a seeking of wildness. This theme of order and reconnection would be more consistent with Emily's character, personality, milieu, and most important, her body of work.

"Oh for a night of wild sex" just doesn't follow. After all, this is the poet who wrote "After great pain, a formal feeling comes." A formal feeling. Not "I broke down in tears" or "I wailed my head off" or "I was crestfallen for days."

Formal. Something with form. An ordered state of calm.

jan 27, 2008, 9:57 pm

#19: This is more my reading of the poem, also. There is so much struggle in Emily's poems; until I found the tension, I could not get interested in her work. "Seeking order and an end to wildness" is precisely the tension in the poem, it seems to me. Your analysis is wonderful.