Vol. 22, No. 5,514 - The American Reporter - September 7, 2016

by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
Seattle, Wash.
May 30, 2001

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SEATTLE, Wash. -- There are times when I consider Whitman to be the greatest American poet. But then there are other days, and today is one of them, when I am absolutely sure that it is Emily Dickinson.

I wish that nothing were known about her life, encapsulated in the title "The Belle of Amherst," for her famously sequestered life is a stumbling block to weak natures who lack the strength to confront what she wrote.

A young woman, a student whom I knew some years ago at Princeton, dismissed Emily as "that sex-crazed old maid from New England."

Something like this fate befell Marianne Moore some years later. Those i= ncapable of dealing with the hard steel of her poems were content to dismiss her as the batty old spinster from Brooklyn who wore crazy tricorn hats and was mad about baseball, especially the Dodgers.

Emily, it is true, by writing about worms and snakes, played innocently into the hands of those who would leer with knowing Freudian smirks at such poems as the one, called a dream, that begins:

In Winter, in my room,
I came upon a worm,
Pink, lank, and warm.

To my shame, I remember reading this when I was an adolescent:

I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

... and satyrically pronouncing the last word "alcohearl."

My vocabulary did not at the time contain the word "assonance." I did know the word "asinine" but thought it could apply only to other people.

Mr. Rainwater, my English teacher at Anderson Boys High, once kept me in after school and paddled my backside for mispronouncing a line of Byron's in "The Destruction of Sennacherib." (I recited the first line thus: "The Assyrian came down, like a wolf, with a cold.")

Would that he had also caught me in time to beat some opportune respect for Emily into my head.

But Emily herself has provided, in four of the wittiest lines she ever wrote, the proper antidote for me and all such scoffers - a bomb, no less:

A bomb upon the ceiling
Is an improving thing --
It keeps the nerves progressive,
Conjecture flourishing...

But I leave the rest of this space, with the fewest possible interjections, to Emily herself. This is the poem "Dying":

I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.

[consider the energy that radiates from the single word "heaves"!]

The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.

[no more schoolboy giggles over "sure" and "power"!]

I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable -- and then
There interposed a fly,

[notice the shattering effect of rhyming the first person singular with "fly" -- this in the context of dry legalisms]

With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.

[Stumbling buzz? Forgive me, Emily. Still alive, I could not see to see.]

Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus ofCompara= tive Literature at Princeton University.

Copyright 2016 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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