I've written a couple of recent posts about Emily Dickinson--mostly experiences in college (as a student, as a "singer" of a song a friend and I "composed" based on Dickinson's "If You Were Coming in the Fall").
When I began teaching myself, it was not too long before I had my students memorize some of Dickinson. Some years it was "Because I Could Not Stop for Death," still a favorite of mine. When I required students to memorize, I always learned the text, as well, and after a few years I would try to learn something else by the same poet (since I already knew the required one). And so, as the years drifted along, I soon had a nice "stash" of Dickinson poems nestled in my brain ... here's a list:
“Because I could not stop for death”
“A bird came down the walk”
“Hope is the thing with feathers”
“If you were coming in the fall”
“I like to see it lap the miles”
“I taste a liquor never brewed”
“Much madness is divinest sense”
“There is no frigate like a book”
“They say that ‘Time assuages’ —”
“The going from a world we know”
“The brain is wider than the sky”“I heard a fly buzz when I died”
You'll notice the last one--"I heard a fly buzz." This is the most recent. It's a poem I decided to learn because, paging recently through my old English 101 textbook from Hiram College (summer 1962), I saw the poem there--and I remembered, as I read it over, what a puzzle that poem had been for me, what a bit of a dust devil it had kicked up in my head back when I was still seventeen years old.
Here it is--page 371 in Interpreting Literature. I'm struck now, by the way, that it's next to Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee ...?"), the first of the Bard's sonnets that I memorized (I know thirteen others now, as well).
I remember very clearly reading Sonnet 18 in Dr. McKinley's English 101 class, so it must have been then that my eyes drifted across the page to see "I heard a fly buzz when I died."
Can I tell you what that line meant to a naive reader like me? Nothing. How can you tell me what you heard when you were dying? Where are you to be able to say something like that? (Was the poet in Heaven? Or, you know, the other place?) It just made no freaking sense to me in the summer of 1962. And I could not imagine why a nonsensical poem would be in an anthology to start with! I mean, I already knew that "great literature" was often (very often) beyond me. My encounters in high school with Shakespeare (Julius Caesar and Macbeth) had convinced me of several things: (1) I was an idiot; (2) Shakespeare was impossible to read; (3) people who said they loved Shakespeare were (a) insane, (b) liars, (c) both; (4) I would never again read anything by the Bard--as long as I lived!
The lone virtue of "fly buzzed"? It was short. And it rhymed (kind of).
Well, I'm out of time and energy for the nonce ... will finally get to the memorizing issues (and revelations) next time!
Here's the entire "fly buzz" poem, by the way--a little easier to read than it is on that scanned page ... quiz on Monday.
I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air -
Between the Heaves of Storm -
The Eyes around - had wrung them dry -
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset - when the King
Be witnessed - in the Room -
I willed my Keepsakes - Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable - and then it was
There interposed a Fly -
With Blue - uncertain - stumbling Buzz -
Between the light - and me -
And then the Windows failed - and then
I could not see to see -