Friday, March 7, 2014

The Scholar's Art and Manliness

"Poetry is the scholar's art."

I'm not a big fan of Wallace Stevens. But I can admit he perfectly expressed poetry with the above quote. Poetry is the art of the scholar. That doesn't mean necessarily that poetry is for academics. I'd argue the opposite, in fact. Poetry is the classic art, for scholars who wander the world with ink under fingernails and madness in their hearts. But it's the art for people who look and listen and learn from the past. It's only accessible through study. The great poets can speak eloquently about their poetics. They've read extensively, they've broken apart and dissected every aspect of words. They don't care about philology- but they've read the sections of Ulysses that speak to it. Poetry is for thinkers and scholars.

Emily Dickinson is a perfect example of this, in a sad and circumspect way. In her newly released book The Gorgeous Nothings, we see the brilliance of the poet in a way that was never possible in earlier decades. The book collects pieces of poetry and philosophy scattered across envelopes and scraps of letters sent by her to various friends and colleagues. They are written in sly interstitial spaces, and they're brilliant.

I like Dickinson's poetry. I always have. But her poems are restrained and limited. The poems we see from her are half-poems, poems from a scholar who was thwarted by the perceptions and attitudes of the nineteenth century about her gender. The most amazing work she ever did was in the margins, quite literally. Poets today have to contend with institutional issues of sexism and general ignorance, of course. But poets like Susan Howe are free to express themselves in a way poets like Dickinson never were. And seeing the amazing words written on the margins of the pages in The Gorgeous Nothings... it's a reprehensible wrong that it ever occurred.

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