Categories
People Writing

Me and Emily: Sweet Whispers of the Betrayer

Did Emily Dickinson mind that only eleven of her works were published during her lifetime? From her letters, one would assume that she didn’t because she talked about family and friends and seemed content. For all the talk about her being reclusive, she did have the close proximity of her beloved brother and sister all her life, in addition to her long correspondence and relationship with friends and other family members.

Yet what of Emily’s letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in response to his Letter to a Young Contributor? To his challenge to young poets, she wrote:

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?

The mind is so near itself it cannot see distinctly, and I have none to ask.

Should you think it breathed, and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude.

If I make the mistake, that you dared to tell me would give me sincerer honor toward you.

I inclose my name, asking you, if you please, sir, to tell me what is true?

That you will not betray me it is needless to ask, since honor is its own pawn.

With this letter she also enclosed four poems: I’ll tell you how the Sun rose, Safe in their Alabaster Chambers, The Nearest Dream recedes unrealized, and We play at paste:

We play at paste,
Till qualified for pearl,
Then drop the paste,

And deem ourself a fool.
The shapes, though, were similar,
And our new hands
Learned gem-tactics
Practising sands.

It’s difficult not to think that someone who writes, Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive? is indifferent to what others would perceive of her work. However, one extremely thoughtful paper that I found at Kangnam University in South Korea, states that Dickinson never wanted to be published. What she wanted from Higginson was permission not to publish, to quiet the voices of those who hounded her to send in her work. This is somewhat supported by the fact that, with one exception, the poems she did publish were sent to the publishers without her permission.

Higginson, began a many year correspondence with Emily after that unusual opening, becoming one of her most cherished friends. Yet read what he writes about his initial reaction to Emily’s letter:

The letter was postmarked “Amherst,” and it was in a handwriting so peculiar that it seemed as if the writer might have taken her first lessons by studying the famous fossil bird-tracks in the museum of that college town. Yet it was not in the slightest degree illiterate, but cultivated, quaint, and wholly unique. Of punctuation there was little; she used chiefly dashes, and it has been thought better, in printing these letters, as with her poems, to give them the benefit in this respect of the ordinary usages; and so with her habit as to capitalization, as the printers call it, in which she followed the Old English and present German method of thus distinguishing every noun substantive. But the most curious thing about the letter was the total absence of a signature. It proved, however, that she had written her name on a card, and put it under the shelter of a smaller envelope inclosed in the larger; and even this name was written–as if the shy writer wished to recede as far as possible from view–in pencil, not in ink. The name was Emily Dickinson.

And it was from this reaction that Higginson recommended to Emily that she consider changing the form of her poems to fit the accepted patterns of the day; to ‘regularize’ them, as it has been termed.

Emily’s response back was a letter that contained the fateful sentence, Thank you for the surgery- it was not so painful as I supposed. Taken in the context of the entire letter, it seems more optimistic than not but looked at in its singularity and we can see a finality to Emily’s dreams of publication — instead of embracing her form and publishing her work, Higginson had recommended that she remove those distinctive aspects of her writing.

Thank you for the surgery- it was not so painful as I supposed.

This sentence takes on a new dimension when one looks at her earlier publishing experience. Her first published work was a mock Valentine called “Magnum bonum”, sent without her permission to the Amherst College Indicator by her close friend (and one of the many supposed loves of her life) Ben Newton. The gratification of publication was somewhat lessened when Emily saw that they had corrected her punctuation.

Her second publication, again a mock valentine, but this time a poem, “Sic Transit”, was sent without her knowledge to the newspaper, the “Springfield Republican”. Again the work was published anonymously, and the introduction was flattering. Again, though, the paper ‘regularized’ Emily’s work.

This was to continue with all of Emily’s works up until she wrote her first letter to Higginson, and on receiving his recommendation to alter her writing style, she responds with, “Thank you for the surgery- it was not so painful as I supposed.”

I worked for chaff and earning Wheat
Was haughty and betrayed.
What right had Fields to arbitrate
In matters ratified?

I tasted Wheat and hated Chaff
And thanked the ample friend –

Wisdom is more becoming viewed
At distance than at hand.

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If Emily but put her mind to observing proper form, she could have been famous within her lifetime. Her choosing not to do so was a source of frustration to many of those around her, including Higginson, who would write of another poem sent to him:

Here was already manifest that defiance of form, never through carelessness, and never precisely from whim, which so marked her. The slightest change in the order of word–thus, “While yet at school, a girl”–would have given her a rhyme for this last line; but no; she was intent upon her thought, and it would not have satisfied her to make the change.

When viewing Emily Dickinson in a modern context, I can’t help thinking that she would look upon the Creative Commons Licenses with horror. After working so hard to maintain the nature of her work, to then freely allow someone else to alter her work based on their own artistic interpretation? Impossible? Unthinkable!

Even slight changes in punctuation would leave her feeling both angered, and betrayed. She would never understand. As she wrote back to Higginson in her third letter:

If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her; if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase, and the approbation of my dog would forsake me then. My barefoot rank is better.

You think my gait “spasmodic.” I am in danger, sir. You think me “uncontrolled.” I have no tribunal.

Would you have time to be the “friend” you should think I need? I have a little shape: it would not crowd your desk, nor make much racket as the mouse that dents your galleries.

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Some — Work for Immortality –
The Chiefer part, for Time –
He — Compensates — immediately –
The former — Checks — on Fame –

Slow Gold — but Everlasting –
The Bullion of Today –
Contrasted with the Currency
Of Immortality –

A Beggar — Here and There –
Is gifted to discern
Beyond the Broker’s insight –

One’s — Money — One’s — the Mine –

In many ways, Emily’s refusal to conform in writing style was of a piece with her defiance against the Church; her refusal to be ‘born again’ as it were, manifested in some of her most satirical, and brilliant, work.

Now I lay thee down to Sleep-
I pray the Lord they Dust to keep-
And if thou live before thou wake-
I pray the Lord thy Soul to make-

While away at school, she was the only student who would not conform to the accepted religious beliefs of the time and was marked so. Later at home, all around her those she loved and admired succumbed to the same church she could not accept, until even the mildest reference of it would invoke her wrath. She and her brother and sister received a letter from a cousin that spoke glowingly of the Church, and her brother had to reply that it would be best that any correspondence of this nature be addressed only to him and Vinnie, because the topic would drive Emily into a rage.

Thus the brother who was always Emily’s most trusted confident, became the first of many who would act in Emily’s interests, though the act would itself seal and set Emily’s status of Outsider.

God gave a Loaf to every Bird –

But just a Crumb — to Me –
I dare not eat it — tho’ I starve –
My poignant luxury –

To own it — touch it –
Prove the feat — that made the Pellet mine –

Too happy — for my Sparrow’s chance –
For Ampler Coveting –

It might be Famine — all around –
I could not miss an Ear –
Such Plenty smiles upon my Board –
My Garner shows so fair –

I wonder how the Rich — may feel –
An Indiaman — An Earl –
I deem that I — with but a Crumb –
Am Sovereign of them all –

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Emily Dickinson was an explorer in her youth, vivacious and outgoing. She once joked in a letter about her ‘devastating beauty’, and later at school would compose letters that were signed by all her friends. But her writing, as with her views on religion, would set her apart, and over time, the adventurer would withdraw ever inward.

Susie–

You will forgive me, for I never visit. I am from the fields, you know, and while quite at home with the Dandelion, make but a sorry figure in a Drawing–room–Did you ask me out with a bunch of Daisies, I should thank you, and accept–but with Roses-“Lilies”-“Solomon” himself-suffers much embarrassment! Do not mind me Susie – If I do not come with my feet, in my heart I come-talk the most, and laugh the loudest-stay when all the rest have gone-kiss your cheek, perhaps, while those honest people quite forget you in their Sleep!

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However, the world of words was still Emily’s and she continued to write her poems (sewed into little booklets known as fascicles and stored away, secret from prying eyes), and her letters to friends. She put much of herself in her writing, trusting the confidence of the recipient, because, as she noted in her letter to Higginson “…honor is its own pawn.”

But Emily’s reliance on Higginson’s confidence was misplaced. He would share her letters with his friends, going so far once as to take her work and her letters to a meeting of women scholars, trusting that to keep the writing anonymous would not be a breach of honor. More, he called her his “partially cracked poetess at Amherst”, and an act of fun among his intimate acquaintances was to emulate Emily’s writing style in writing letters to each other.

Look back on Time, with kindly eyes –
He doubtless did his best –
How softly sinks that trembling sun
In Human Nature’s West –

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We talk from time to time about the animosity with which we write about each other, in postings in our weblogs and in comments or elsewhere. We cluck our tongues and go, ‘Tsk, tsk’ at the act and condemn those who would speak so bluntly. But consider the alternative–that the words of fun or condescension, delight or despair are hidden; whispered words just beyond our hearing. No harm you might think if you don’t hear the words and are not impacted by them. However, no matter how skilled we are at writing, we are not so skilled at disseminating, and the words will eventually bleed through–a half-understood inside joke, or a knowing wink in writing.

I can think of few things more painful, or more betraying, and I don’t have half the sensitivity that Emily had. Or her perception with words. Emily must have known.

They might not need me yet they might
I’ll let my Heart be just in sight

A smile so small as mine might be
Precisely their necessity

A few years before her death, her oldest nephew died, and two month’s later Emily’s brother Austin, began an affair with Mabel Loomis Todd, an act that Emily felt painfully and deeply because of her love for her sister-in-law, Susan, and her esteem for her brother.

Mine Enemy is growing old –
I have at last Revenge –
The Palate of the Hate departs –
If any would avenge

Let him be quick – the Viand flits –
It is a faded Meat –
Anger as soon as fed is dead –
‘Tis starving makes it fat –

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Emily Dickinson sickened one last time and died peacefully at home, cared for by her sister, surrounded by those she loved. At her quiet memorial–she refused church services–Susan said:

To her life was rich, and all aglow with God and immortality. With no creed, no formalized faith, hardly knowing the names of dogmas, she walked this life with the gentleness and reverence of old saints, with the firm steps of martyrs who sing while they suffer. How better note the flight of this “soul of fire in a shell of pearl” than by her own words—

Emily Dickinson had left instructions with her sister to destroy all the letters she kept and all her writings, but when Lavinia found the trunk with all of Emily’s poems, she couldn’t bring herself to destroy them.

She asked Susan to edit them for publication, but Susan never followed through, and Lavinia finally turned to Higginson and Mabel Todd Loomis–yes that Higginson and that Mabel Todd Loomis–to edit the poems for publication.

Mabel did so, but only after altering them to fit the standards of the day, and after the publishers broke apart Emily’s careful little booklets, and arranged them in categories popular at the time. It was not until the 1950’s that Thomas Johnson began the work to publish the poems in the original form.

After reading so much about Emily Dickinson, I wonder about the act that saved her work. Did Lavinia betray her sister in saving the poems for publication? Or was the act redeemed when the poems were returned to their original form?

As for our own culpability, do we betray Emily when we read her poetry these many years later when each poem should have been its own bit of flame and ash? Or would it be a greater betrayal not to read them, and cherish their uniqueness?

“People say a word dies when it is written by the pen,
but for me that word’s Life is just about to begin.”
– Emily Dickinson

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Categories
Photography Places

Cape Girardeau

Today was sunny and in the 60’s (that’s ‘warm’ in Celsius). Since issues are still open on the book I am foot loose and loosed my feet to Cape Girardeau today.

Cape Girardeau is a Lovely little town on the Mississippi, with a smaller college (Southeastern), some great architecture, and about the friendliest people I’ve met in Missouri. I ended up chatting my way through town.

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First off, Cape Girardeau is the world’s only inland cape, originally built on a rocky promontory on the Mississippi. There’s a park by the water you can walk along, watching the barges float past a rather pretty bridge.

Today the wind was blowing so strong it formed white caps on the river, and a mist, like fog, in the distance. I kept getting sand in my eyes, and spent most of my walk crying, which somewhat fits a lonely river walk. Thankfully I wasn’t seen or there might be concern I was going to throw myself into the river in despair. The need not have feared, though — a person would not commit suicide by jumping in a river with three cameras.

Unless they were weights.

Didn’t stay too long by the water.

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Since Old Muddy can be a wild beast at times, there are canals through the town to help with water overflow. In addition, there’s a huge flood wall built between the town and the river. By the height of that wall, that town must have faced some serious flooding.

The buildings in town were interesting. Several vintage civil war era buildings, some in good repair, some with just enough weathering to make them interesting. And because of the college, you have a mix of old and new, including beautiful old buildings with wrought iron trim, and beer cans in the grass surrounding. It is not your ordinary waterfront, tourist town.

Additionally, it has a thing for murals. There are murals everywhere. The nicest of the bunch was the mural pained on the river wall–The Missouri Wall of Fame. It features famous people who have been born in Missouri. Among them are Mark Twain, of course, Walter Cronkite, Betty Grable, George Washington Carver, President Truman, General Omar Bradley, Josephine Baker, and several others.

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Today was a quiet day — too quiet in some ways, because I think my picture taking generated interest in its own right. However, that led to fun conversations. For instance, I was taking pictures through a closed antique shop window when the owner came up and we started chatting about the sewing machine in the window. He said that the machine was actually listed on eBay under his username (which I will post as soon as I find the piece of paper he gave me).

His shop, A-1 Consignment was great; just a jumble of stuff, and I do mean jumble (that will make the collectors drool). The business is a part-time job for him, so it’s not always open; he supplements his income selling stuff on eBay, which I thought was an interesting story to pursue (putting into my future story to-do list).

He also had a terrific story to tell about Rush Limbaugh, as well as an old Post Office letter cancelling machine but I’m fading fast, so I’m forced into being a tease, and leaving these stories for tomorrow. In the meantime, the rest of the photos.

(And its Mardi Gras this next week — I have to be healthy for the parades and the King Cake.)

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Categories
Web Writing

A True Title

I am enjoying the comments and suggestions about the book title in the last post, and have directed my editor to have a look. In the meantime, for a bit of fun, I’ve come up with several titles that I’d really like to use for the book:

Internet for people who have been screwed online and are now out for revenge.

Internet for those who invested in the dot-com bubble a few years back, and now want to know why they’re holding worthless pieces of paper.

Internet for those with money…what did you say your name and email address was again?

Internet for people who have a more intimate relationship with an email spammer then their own significant other because they at least get the spammer’s email through all the filters.

Internet for people who are scared by their kids knowledge of the Internet.

Internet for people who are scared by their kids knowledge about sex they gained on the Internet.

Internet for those who want to talk about work online.

Internet for those who are looking for a new job online.

Internet for those seeking a warm, caring relationship online, but will settle for a quick roll in the hay. Or picture of same.

Internet for the paranoid and…wait! Wait! What was that?

Internet for the remaining Howard Dean supporters…all two of you.

Internet for Mom, Dad, and don’t tell them about my weblog.

Internet for the censored, spied on, and imprisoned, because the truth will not always set you free.

Internet for the pundits, because you will inherit the Web.

Internet for the meek, because you will inherit the bill.

Internet for people who will not stop clicking on email attachments and whose machines are now a festering bed of evil, with monitors levitating above the desk, and spinning in circles.

Categories
Web Writing

A True Title

I am enjoying the comments and suggestions about the book title in the last post, and have directed my editor to have a look. In the meantime, for a bit of fun, I’ve come up with several titles that I’d really like to use for the book:

Internet for people who have been screwed online and are now out for revenge.

Internet for those who invested in the dot-com bubble a few years back, and now want to know why they’re holding worthless pieces of paper.

Internet for those with money…what did you say your name and email address was again?

Internet for people who have a more intimate relationship with an email spammer then their own significant other because they at least get the spammer’s email through all the filters.

Internet for people who are scared by their kids knowledge of the Internet.

Internet for people who are scared by their kids knowledge about sex they gained on the Internet.

Internet for those who want to talk about work online.

Internet for those who are looking for a new job online.

Internet for those seeking a warm, caring relationship online, but will settle for a quick roll in the hay. Or picture of same.

Internet for the paranoid and…wait! Wait! What was that?

Internet for the remaining Howard Dean supporters…all two of you.

Internet for Mom, Dad, and don’t tell them about my weblog.

Internet for the censored, spied on, and imprisoned, because the truth will not always set you free.

Internet for the pundits, because you will inherit the Web.

Internet for the meek, because you will inherit the bill.

Internet for people who will not stop clicking on email attachments and whose machines are now a festering bed of evil, with monitors levitating above the desk, and spinning in circles.

Categories
Photography

Film at midnite

Before I quit Orkut, at the Digital Photography forum one of the members started a thread with the question of which is better: digital or film. I expected to hear most members of the group say digital, but instead there was a good mix of answers. Some preferred film, some digital, others, such as myself, liked both.

This last week I’ve spent time scanning in several old slides and negatives, and I’ve enjoyed it for the most part. It was good seeing old photos, like this one of flowers in New Hampshire, though it’s not the type of photo I’d probably take today: it’s so determinedly cheerful, like the wife of a dying man.

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I love my digital camera because it allows me to experiment and try new things without having to worry about the cost. I also like getting immediate feedback, seeing the results as I take the photo. By checking how each photo comes out, I can modify the exposure and the angle until the picture I’m trying to find appears. Tough to do with film, unless you have a lot of money, or a lot of experience. Or both.

Sometimes, though. when I’m in a mood, I’ll take pictures of everything, and I’m not sure this is good for building photographic skills — skill is dependent on being somewhat discriminatory in the photos one takes. When I read about photographers who have put tens of thousands of digital photos online in just a few years, I have to wonder if the good shots I see were deliberate creations, or the results of statistical probability.

With film, each picture has a cost, so you’re more aware of what you’re doing ( or at least I’ve found it so, but I could be an exception). Plus there’s a feel to the film camera you don’t have with digital (or at least, I don’t have it with mine).

Awareness and feel aside, there’s a magical aspect to film: getting it developed and seeing the photos at a later time; looking for the ones that worked among all the ones that didn’t. And my film cameras have better optics than my digital, but that’s primarily because I can’t afford the high end digital SLR cameras.

(An advantage to the explosion of digital cameras is that excellent film cameras can be had at eBay for literally a few dollars. A disadvantage is finding out that my beloved film cameras aren’t worth more than the price of a nice blouse.)

When I take digital photos, I’ll delete pictures when I’m out in the field and am running out of space. Can’t do that with film, though, and I’m not sure if this is an advantage or disadvantage to digital photography. I’ve kept most of my old negatives and ones I didn’t like long ago are the ones I find I like now. Like this misty, shaggy, old growth tree with its crown of ferns.

Film can fade, but there are risks to digital, too. There was a story in the evening news on Sunday about how images are being lost because they were digital and not film. The format the earliest digital images were stored in is now no longer compatible with today’s computers, and retrieving the old images is difficult. Film can fade, but it still stays film.

Another risk of digital film is demonstrated by the infamous hug of Monica Lewinsky by Bill Clinto at an event before the story broke of their affair. The photographers at the time used digital, and weren’t interested in the photo — just a crowd shot, after all — so they discarded the images. All except for the one lone photographer who had captured the event on film, and thus recorded this bit of infamy in history.

Amy Yee in the UK Financial Times wrote on this:

Photographers cite an almost mythical example of the importance of archiving: photographers using digital cameras deleted an image of former US president Bill Clinton greeting yet another faceless crowd in 1996. Dirck Halstead, a Time magazine photographer, was still shooting film. After searching through thousands of pictures in Time’s archives, he recovered the indelible image of Mr Clinton hugging a beaming Monica Lewinsky.

Photographers who use slide film can also be eager to toss slides, but when you use negative film, you tend to keep everything. Most of the images I’ve been able to salvage have been film. I wonder how many good images I tossed long ago because my eye wanted to go one way, but the results didn’t fit the the requirements of a proper photo. I wince at this, and am determined not to toss an image — digital, negative, or slide — unless it’s obviously bad. And then I’ll probably still hold it.

Back to my scans of the old film. Some of the it suffered very little over time, like the flower above. Other negatives or slides, though, deteriorated until the film is either unusable or requires a great deal of work to fix. Several pages of film are totally lost.

But there was one set of photos, of older buildings and a garden in New Hampshire where the deterioration has caused a beautiful color shift and fade that, in my opinion, left incredible photos in its wake. Incredible at least to me,and with that I will have to be satisfied. Ultimately, regardless of whether I use film or digital, the only one who can judge whether my work is progressing in the direction I want it to go, is myself.

According to Yee:

While some wax nostalgic about pungent chemicals and line-drying wet prints, most professional photographers embrace digital. Willis Hartshorn, director of the International Centre of Photography in Manhattan, says that digital technology is “just another tool in the tool box”. Since its invention in 1839, photography has always been a changing art form, with its evolution from daguerreotype to silver halide and from black-and- white to colour. Photographers are accustomed to change.

“Ultimately, photography is not about technology,” says Mr Hartshorn.

“It’s about pictures. Technology doesn’t make it any easier or harder to have good vision,” he adds. “The kind of things a serious photographer is trying to accomplish [go] beyond technical issues. It’s about vision.”

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