Last summer I was memorizing a poem by Emily Dickinson, a poem that I'd first read back in English 101 at Hiram College in the summer of 1962 with Prof. Charles F. McKinley. (By the way, via my fellow Hiram College Terrier and long-time friend David Anderson I have some of the late Dr. McKinley's daylilies in our garden--and one bloomed this morning: an omen!)
As usual, though, I sort of ... digressed ... for a few posts, then got interested in something else, and never did finish saying what I wanted to say about that poem--"I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died"--and about the experience of memorizing poems by Miss Emily.
By the way--here are three links to those earlier posts in case any of you have nothing else to do today: First Post, Second Post, Third Post.
I noted in those other posts that I've memorized quite a few of ED's poems, and I talked about about using ED with students, as I recall (Hey, I do not have time to read my old posts!).
Okay, some general thoughts about memorizing her. First, her favorite form--the old ballad form--uncomplicates the process quite a bit: quatrains, iambic rhythm with alternating lines of tetrameter and trimeter. Rhyme scheme: abcb. She wrote most of her poems in this format--and teachers for years have realized that they can wax wise about Dickinson by noting that you can sing her poems to such tunes as "Yankee Doodle" and that Coca-Cola song ("I'd like to teach the world to sing ....").
Her poems are almost always short, as well. Easier, one would think, to memorize a short poem (like ED's "They Say That Time Assuages") rather than a long one ("My Last Duchess," The Odyssey).
Okay, those are the easy things about memorizing her. Rhythm. Rhyme. Brevity.
But there are some things that complicate the entire enterprise. For one, her rhymes are not always perfect. Take a look, for example, at "Because I Could Not Stop for Death"--one of her justly celebrated ones:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
Since then –’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –
First stanza--no problem. me and eternity. But from then on? What I'll call "imperfect rhymes"--though there are "official" terms for what she does.
away = Civility
Ground = Ground (!)
Day = Eternity
Now, granting some lenience for varying pronunciations over the years, I still see ... well ... oddness here, don't you? And the boldness to rhyme a word with itself--as if she were saying, That's right--I rhymed a word with itself. And perhaps you can hear her saying (demurely, to herself): Better to use the same word than one that rhymes but just isn't right. Besides, in a poem about death, why not pound the word ground into the stanza?
So ... unpredictable rhymes complicate memorizing. A stanza with perfect rhymes is easier to memorize: remember one of the rhyming words, and you've got a great chance of remembering its partner(s).
But another complication is her unusual diction--choice of words. Not all that strange in "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" (though my Tippet - only Tulle is a choice one!).**
Now ... let's take a look at "I Heard a Fly Buzz" and see how she reached out from the nineteenth century to slap my face a little, to say: Wanna learn this? Do a little work!
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 -
As you can see, the only perfect rhymes occur in the final stanza: me with see. The rest are imperfect.
And her diction: the heaves of storm ... What portion of me be / Assignable ... I could not see to see ...
This is amazing Miss Emily at her best. By saying something in an unusual way (The Eyes around - had wrung them dry - = people had cried themselves out) she requires readers to stop, to think. And by using ambiguous words--King--she prompts you again. Is this a religious reference? Or, here, is Death the King? And how about that last line, I could not see to see - ? Awesome. And have you ever heard the behavior of a fly described as Blue - uncertain - stumbling Buzz - ? Not I.
So ... memorizing Emily Dickinson? Deceptive. Difficult. So much seems so simple (those short lines, those short stanzas, that brevity), but her genius has loaded into each line her unique vision, her profound insights into the world, and it is those things that make memorizing her work a combination of hard work and revelation.
**tippet = a scarf, usually of fur or wool, for covering the neck, or the neck and shoulders, and usually having ends hanging down in front.
tulle = a thin, fine, machine-made net of acetate, nylon, rayon, or silk