Dickinson, Whitman and me (#ModPo Week 1)

Photo of soaring trees

I’ve been working through week 1 of ModPo this week which has focussed on Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman as proto-modernists that will lead us into the rest of the course. I wasn’t very schooled in either of them so it has been a great introduction and I’ve enjoyed putting them head-to-head and thinking about whether I’m a Dickinsonian or Whitmanian. These are my thoughts from the week in a fairly random, Whitmanian splurge:

  • It’s hard to think about Dickinson and Whitman without seeing them as a woman and a man, with all the freedom and constraints of their time. I feel sorry for Dickinson, for the limitations placed on her, but would she have achieved so much if she wasn’t constrained by her circumstances? What would Whitman have done if he couldn’t roam? If he was confined to a room and a house and a rather suffocating life? If he hadn’t been able to loaf? The house and the great outdoors seem at the heart of their work.
  • Sometimes I find Dickinson too uptight, too spikey, too concentrated, too intense, too clever, too superior. I don’t like the thought of her working on these little prissy poems…and yet each one can detonate with a force that explodes her world to smithereens. She has sewn up so much meaning and concept into each one, it can unfold into something massive and expansive where there is plenty of room for thought. I think I don’t like her uptightness as it’s something I don’t like about myself. I do admire her precision and concision and economy.
  • Sometimes I find Whitman too rambling, sprawling, lazy, messy. It’s a splurge across the page, too wandering and unformed. Yet I find myself scribbling out quote after magnificent quote, feel myself stretch out in luxurious embracing of the world with him and it feels fantastic. I love his democracy and socialism. Then again it’s all so…manly, arrogant, irritating. He’s a verbal manspreader.
  • They’ve achieved immortality. They sat there, in the 19th Century, writing these words with all of us unborn and unthinkable, and yet we now inhabit those words and come up with a gazillion shades of meaning. Most of these I’m pretty sure were never in the mind of the poets and in some ways its daft to be too emphatic on this because what matters is the spaces they left for us to occupy. That is what good writing of any type is all about – robust enough to support a social space, flexible enough to be interesting and interesting enough to be enticing.
  • The part I feel I haven’t grasped is how radical or ground-breaking they were or the work they were building on or launching from. This is due to my lack of knowledge of 18th Century poetry and its conventions. Maybe we need an #OldPo? Then again, I remember from school how too much emphasis on the context and the technical language can drain the life from literature so I’m accepting my limitations and going with the flow.

I’m feeling pretty reluctant to leave these two and move on but I already have next week’s poems printed out and ready to go. I’m not happy with making a choice but, if pushed, I’m going to sit down in the Whitmanian camp for sheer enthusiasm, yelping and joy. Plus “I stop somewhere waiting for you” is about the sweetest ending one could ever hope for…

Thanks to all involved for such a wonderful course. If you’re not enrolled, it’s right here.

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