Song and Compression in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

Photograph of poet Emily Dickinson

Last semester I wrote a craft annotation on the subject of poetic structure and nonlinear time. Now I can see that this is very much an element of lyric poetry. Where narrative poetry moves like a road, lyric poetry unfolds like a flower, spiraling out from a single image or moment into a flurry of associations and other moments.

In The Flexible Lyric, Ellen Bryant Voigt calls out compression and song as two characteristics of lyric poetry. Emily Dickinson’s poems feature both of these qualities prominently. Her poems have a basic pattern: quatrains with alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter lines. But the thing that set her apart from the dominant aesthetic of her time was the way she broke from the pattern. What her contemporaries might have called spasmodic, imperfectly rhymed, and lacking in form, we today consider a masterful interplay of meaning and music. Some of her poems adhered more closely to convention than others. Consider “Because I could not stop for Death” (poem 712):
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Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Two, First Packet

This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the second semester, I studied with poet Kevin Prufer. We spent the semester looking at narrative versus lyric poetry. This is the cover letter to the first packet.

Dear Kevin:

Thanks for being so generous with your time, both during the residency and via email this month. I’ve been particularly crazed during this first packet. I constantly had the feeling of playing catch-up. Somewhere in there I forgot that I’m doing all of this because I enjoy studying and writing poetry. Last semester, I had a moment sitting under a tree in our back yard reading Sylvia Plath, and I thought, how is this grad school? I’ve had a moment or two like that in the past month, but they’ve mostly been overshadowed by OMGIHAVETODOALLTHETHINGS RIGHTNAOWWWW. Perhaps this is just how it feels to be in one’s second semester. The winter blues don’t help.

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Quantity, Quality, Dubious Dichotomy

About six months ago I joined a writing workshop. I’m still not sure whether it was a good decision or a bad decision. One the one hand, there’s the whole “make me a better writer” argument. On the other hand, I find myself cringing from imagined criticism before I write a single word.

Maybe I was better off posting mediocre haiku after mediocre haiku and getting random praise of dubious sincerity from strangers I met on the Internets.

I’ve written and rewritten this third paragraph three times now, not sure exactly how to say what it is I want to say. Did Emily Dickinson agonize over her verse like this? Do I really want to be Emily Dickinson? Her life kind of sucked.

I leave the workshops variously energized, exhausted, and frustrated. For a while I was sure I wasn’t coming back. But then I was accepted for publication somewhere, and asked to read somewhere. I felt like I’d broken through some kind of barrier, one composed mainly of my own hang-ups.

The workshop leader herself is expansive, creative, extravagant. She has lived the kind of life I thought I wanted to live: professorships at this university and that university; poet in the schools; workshops in France, in Maine, in Taos NM. She has written books of beautiful poetry. I want very badly what she has, but I’m not sure what that is.

After the first class, she said, “Wonderful! You are a wonderful poet, a wonderful critic!” At the beginning of the new term, she said “Welcome home,” and gave me a hug.

And then proceeded to rip into my poem when it came around the table. Is it just me? Am I being too much of a sensitive poet? Finding a reason not to walk the road I’d fantasized about for so long? Even after reality-checking with a friend, who agreed that she does seem harsher toward me than the other students, I don’t know. Can’t articulate it. Can barely articulate it in this post. Have no idea how to ask for things to be different — or if it’s even possible.