06 March 2009

Richard Howard

[from Richard Howard’s “A Consideration of the Writings of Emily Dickinson,” 1973, in Paper Trails, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004]

The one generalization I should care to hazard as to how we should respond to literature is that when we are troubled — bored, provoked, offended — by characteristic features of a writer’s work, it is precisely those features which, if we yield to them, if we treat them as significance rather than as defect, will turn out to be that writer’s solution to his own problems of composition and utterance. The problem of Dickinson’s poetry for us is the solution to the problem of that poetry for her, as we shall see. By an agreeable coincidence, in the years Thomas Johnson was completing his edition of Dickinson’s poems, I met Jean Cocteau, who gave me some advice: “Ce que les autres vous reprochent, cultivez cela: c’est vous-meme (What other people reproach you for, cultivate: it is yourself).” As Emily Dickinson’s contemporaries Lowell and Longfellow have so drastically demonstrated, there is only one thing worse than to be reproachable as a writer — it is to be irreprochable. In literature, if not in the salon, the posture Cocteau advocated is precisely the posture to which I aspire, for it suggests the means whereby all the lion which threaten our introgression into the work of Emily Dickinson, all the problems I have raised, or at least tilted upward, become rather guides and familiars in the enterprise, which is to see her poetry as it is; become answers, solutions, explanations of a poet who said, “My need — was all I had.”

The poems were not written for publication; they were not subjected to that tidying reduction by which we acknowledge a literary profession; she made the poems to replace the habit of experience in the world — as Blackmur said, she made the poems of a withdrawal without a return. The phenomenology which governs her life as a poet is one of inundation. . . . all her life long, she submitted to engulfment, she mastered it in her own terms, and when at last the deluge left her high and dry, she recorded that abandonment, too, in one of her greatest utterances: “The consciousness of subsiding power is too startling to be admitted by men — but best comprehended by the meadow over which the Flood has quivered, when the waters return to their kindred, and the tillage is left alone.”

. . . If you believe, as she did, in the Nothing that renovates the World, then an elusive form of communication is the only adequate one — a direct form is based upon the security of social continuity, while the elusiveness of existence — the astonishment, as Dickinson called it, that the Body contains the Spirit — isolates you wherever you apprehend it. If you are conscious of this and if you are content to be human, you will avoid a direct form. You become what Kierkegaard calls, in a passage which offers the best account I know of Dickinson’s enterprise, if not of her achievement, a genuine subjective existing thinker. . . . Kierkegaard goes on to describe such a thinker as

always in the negative. He continues to be as negative as he is positive as long as he exists, not once and for all. His mode of communication is made to conform (lest through being too extraordinarily communicative he should succeed in transforming a learner’s existence into something different from what a human existence in general has any right to be). He is conscious of the negativity of the infinite in existence, and he constantly keeps the wound of the negative open, which in the bodily realm is sometimes the condition for a cure. Others let the wound heal over and become positive; that is to say, they are deceived. In his form of communication, he expresses the same principle. He is therefore never a teacher but a learner; and since he is always just as negative as he is positive, he is always striving.

Paper Trail: Selected Prose, 1965-2003

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