Song and Compression in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

Photograph of poet Emily Dickinson

Last semester I wrote a craft annotation on the subject of poetic structure and nonlinear time. Now I can see that this is very much an element of lyric poetry. Where narrative poetry moves like a road, lyric poetry unfolds like a flower, spiraling out from a single image or moment into a flurry of associations and other moments.

In The Flexible Lyric, Ellen Bryant Voigt calls out compression and song as two characteristics of lyric poetry. Emily Dickinson’s poems feature both of these qualities prominently. Her poems have a basic pattern: quatrains with alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter lines. But the thing that set her apart from the dominant aesthetic of her time was the way she broke from the pattern. What her contemporaries might have called spasmodic, imperfectly rhymed, and lacking in form, we today consider a masterful interplay of meaning and music. Some of her poems adhered more closely to convention than others. Consider “Because I could not stop for Death” (poem 712):
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A Close Reading of “Elegy for My Father,” by Annie Finch

Detail of the cover of Spells: New and Selected Poems, by Annie Finch

Annie Finch titled her 2013 volume of selected poems Spells for good reason. A Wiccan as well as a poet, she recognizes the power of incantation in creating an altered consciousness, a state in which a strongly held vision can move from the realm of possibility into reality. Not all of Finch’s poems are visionary or transformative in intention, but they do share a powerfully persuasive incantatory quality.

Finch relies on a number of poetic techniques to create these incantations, most notably repetition of words and phrases and the use of iambs—the thump-THUMP of a heartbeat that calls up instinctive memories of the womb. But her repertory far exceeds the basic iamb, as we see in “Elegy for My Father.” While the poem definitely meets the criteria of an elegy – it recounts the vigil at her father’s deathbed – its complex dactylic meter runs counterpoint to the somber subject matter. Lines alternate between pure dactylic tetrameter and dactylic trimeter with a final, stressed syllable at the end, as in this example:

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Boston-Area Readings for February and March 2019

Image of candle lanterns with the caption "Poetry like a candle in the darkness" Photo credit: Jill111 via Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/en/lights-christmas-luminaries-night-1088141/

February 1, also known as Candlemas, marks the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Attend a reading to light your way from winter to National Poetry Month in April. Thanks as always to Daniel Bouchard for compiling these listings.

Of special note: Regie Gibson Feb. 13 at the newly opened Bedlam Books in Worcester; Morgan Parker (one of my poetry crushes) Feb. 12 at Brookline Booksmith; Martha Collins Feb. 27 at Suffolk University; Gloria Mindock Feb. 28 at Rozzi Reads; Layli Long Soldier March 5 at Smith College.

Friday, February 1, 7 pm
Linda Lamenza and Francis Lunney, Open Mic
Workshop for Publishing Poets
West Suburban YMCA
276 Church Street
Newton, MA

Friday, February 1, 7:30 pm
Kevin McLellan
Unearthed Song & Poetry
Home.stead Bakery and Cafe
1448 Dorchester Ave.
Fields Corner
Dorchester, MA

Sunday, February 3, 1 -3:30 pm
Lisa Sullivan and Iain Haley Pollack
Poetry: The Art Of Words
Plymouth Public Library/Otto Fehlow Room
132 South St
Plymouth, MA

February 3, 2 – 4 pm
Zvi A. Sesling
followed by open mic
Temple Sinai
50 Sewall Ave.
Brookline, MA

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Come See Me Read in Roslindale on January 24, 2019, at 7pm

Photograph of Roslindale poets Phyllis Bluhm, Frances Donovan, and Mary Lou Maloney

I’m reading next Thursday in Roslindale (a neighborhood of Boston). There’s parking nearby, it’s on the commuter rail, and it’s a ten-minute bus ride from the Forest Hills T stop. Hope you can come.

Rozzie Reads Poetry
Featuring Roslindale Women Poets and Open Mic
Phyllis Bluhm, Frances Donovan, and Mary Lou Maloney

Thursday January 24, 2019 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm
Roslindale House, Community Room, 120 Poplar Street, Roslindale, MA

Sponsored by Friends of the Roslindale Branch Library, a free event, contributions voluntary, refreshments provided. Parking on Hawthorne and Poplar streets, in unnumbered spaces, and at rear of building.

Phyllis Bluhm is primarily a painter who works in acrylics, oils, encaustics and also 3 dimensional assemblages. As a physician assistant she worked at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital and continues to work in Urgent Care at Harvard Vanguard. She started writing poetry over 40 years ago when getting her masters degree in Art Therapy in Louisville, Kentucky, where she honed her dancing skills and became a founding member of the Louisville Ethnic Dancers which continues to this day.

Frances Donovan is the author of the chapbook Mad Quick Hand of the Seashore. Publication credits include The Rumpus, Snapdragon, Marathon Literary Review, and The Writer. She is a certified poet educator with Mass Poetry and reads for Sugar House Review. She once drove a bulldozer in a GLBTQ+ Pride parade while wearing a bustier. You can find her climbing hills in Roslindale and online at www.gardenofwords.com.

Mary Lou Maloney is a poet and former lobbyist for The Arc of Massachusetts, an organization that represents people who are developmentally delayed. She has studied poetry under Barbara Helfgott Hyett and is a member of Poemworks: The Workshop for Publishing Poets. She received her undergraduate degree at Regis College and her Masters at Boston College. Her work has appeared in Constellations, Lit Break, Third Wednesday, and Front Porch. She currently resides in Roslindale.

Boston Area Poetry Readings for the Second Half of December 2018 and All of January 2019

Poetry to Warm a Mind of Winter: Photograph of a Cardinal on a Branch. Photo credit: James H via Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0.

Take some time away from the holiday swirl and listen to some poetry. Or break in the New Year the same way.

Please note that I am reading on Thursday, January 24, 2019 at Rozzi Reads in Roslindale Square, along with Phyllis Bluhm and Mary Lou Maloney. The reading starts at 7pm with an open mic to follow. Hope to see you there.

Friday, December 14, 7 pm
A Tribute to Claribel Alegria and other Salvadoran Poets
Readers: Lee Varon, Marguerite Bouvard, Doug Holder, Alexander Levering Kern, Dorothy Nelson, Jesse Diamond, Annie Pluto, Julia Carlson, Melissa Silva, Karen Friedland, Joy Martin, Kevin Bowen, Nelson Salazarand, and Gloria Mindock.
At The Arts for the Armory
Basement, Room B8
191 Highland Avenue
Somerville, MA

Friday, December 14, 7:30 pm
Jonathan Aibel, Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough, and Ellen Steinbaum
Chapter and Verse Literary Reading Series
Loring-Greenough House
12 South Street
Jamaica Plain
Boston, MA

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Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Two, First Packet

Photo credit: Nilufer Nilufer Gadgieva Flickr, CC 2.0

This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the second semester, I studied with poet Kevin Prufer. We spent the semester looking at narrative versus lyric poetry. This is the cover letter to the first packet.

Dear Kevin:

Thanks for being so generous with your time, both during the residency and via email this month. I’ve been particularly crazed during this first packet. I constantly had the feeling of playing catch-up. Somewhere in there I forgot that I’m doing all of this because I enjoy studying and writing poetry. Last semester, I had a moment sitting under a tree in our back yard reading Sylvia Plath, and I thought, how is this grad school? I’ve had a moment or two like that in the past month, but they’ve mostly been overshadowed by OMGIHAVETODOALLTHETHINGS RIGHTNAOWWWW. Perhaps this is just how it feels to be in one’s second semester. The winter blues don’t help.

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Boston-Area Poetry Readings for November and December 2018

Image credit: Mabel Amber via Pixabay, CC0.

New since the last listing:

  • James Grigg and Heather Dupont in Gloucester (11/7)
  • Amanda Doster, Anna M. Warrock, Richard Wollman, and Janet MacFadyen in Turners Falls (11/9)
  • Kate Colby, Amanda Cook, and Kate Tarlow Morgan read Charles Olson in (of course) Gloucester (11/10)
  • Gloria Mindock, David Blair, and Bert Stern in Cambridge (11/15)
  • Susan Eisenberg in Jamaica Plain (11/15)
  • Carla Schwartz in Cambridge (11/16)
  • Peter Fallon and David Ferry in Boston (11/27)
  • David Ferry and Bert Stern in Somerville (12/3)
  • Troy Jollimore and Heather Altfeld at MIT (12/12)

Also please note:

  • Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s reading with Wendy Drexler at Belmont Books on November 15 has been cancelled.
  • Tino Villanueva’s reading at the Omni Parker House in Boston has been moved from November 10 to November 17.

Thursday, November 8, 6 pm
Kate Colby and Anselm Berrigan
Houghton Library
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA

Thursday, November 8, 7 pm
Susan Stewart delivers the CD Wright Lecture
McCormack Family Theater
70 Brown St.
Providence, RI

Thursday, November 8, 7 pm
John Farrell
Recital of Eliot’s Four Quartets
Holy Cross
Carol & Park B Smith Hall Rehm Library
College Street
Worcester, MA

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