The Offside Rule and the unrelated(ish) Emily Dickinson Problem

I’m still in the process of updating, rewriting and polishing arduity. This week two problems have come to light that I thought I’d share.

Some time ago another site likened arduity to an attempt to explain the offside rule in soccer. To those who don’t know, the application of this rule causes immense amounts of angst and debate amongst fans but is a complete mystery to everyone else on the planet. I thought about this observation and decided that it wasn’t a bad analogy in that the mystification and the various nuances of technique are rough equivalents. I’d made pages on various tricks of the trade and had brief attempts at explaining the various isms but then decided that I’d rather illustrate various tropes rather than explaining them. Having reviewed the current content I think I’ve done this reasonably well but there isn’t a page that gives you an overview of the knowledge that might be useful. Some of the current links in the sidebar are misleading, the ‘difficult definitions’ link currently leads to a brilliantly incisive but completely unnecessary discussion of Heidegger, Hill and Derrida whereas what is needed is some examples of the difficult and the undifficult. I’ve decided to have a ‘nuts and bolts’ page that gives the briefest of overviews of a few key terms and suggesting some other resources that will provide more detail/context.

The selection of key terms is proving trickier than expected, I’m having problems with deciding whether to go back to basics (rhyme, meter, forms etc) or whether to deal instead with the things that are features of the difficult. In #1.5 I had thrown out most of the stuff that seemed superfluous and retained allusion, ambiguity, meaning, obscurity and the definition page. I’ve now decided to ‘do’ rhyme and meter as well but to link to Spenser and quote Jarvis as examples. I don’t think I need a definition for obscurity but can point these out when attending to particular poems. I also think that I should put a brief example in each definition and I dither between these two points. Frequently.

There’s also my personal concerns and interests. Following some comments about wrongness and readerly attention from Keston Sutherland, I seem to have developed these two into part of the writing that goes on here. It might therefore be as well to expand on these two a little more, especially as my idea of wrongness differs from Keston’s essay. There’s also the desire to say something about honesty as a quality that (in my view) not enough people think about when attending to the Poem. This would however involve giving examples of dishonesty which would involve writing about material that I actively dislike (later Eliot, most of Larkin, Burnside etc) which is something I try v hard not to do. The final element that I might need to develop is that of ‘clunkiness’ – this is usually part of a poem that either falls flat or doesn’t do what it’s trying to do.

We now come to the Emily Dickinson problem. This comes in two parts:

  1. I’m only just beginning to pay attention to the work;
  2. The poems don’t appear to ‘fit’ with the arduity remit;
  3. Dickinson appears to be admired by people that I don’t admire.

The last of these merely illustrates just how shallow this blog can be but I do have to acknowledge that this is more than a bit of a problem. As a further example, I don’t like the dishonesty at the heart of Sylvia Plath’s work but this is compounded by the nature and tone of her admirers.

The lack of ‘fit’ has shaken up my view of what difficult might be, I was prodded into looking at the work by Prynne’s comment from Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” poems:

It is worth pointing out that difficult ideas in poems are not always
expressed in language that is also difficult; for example, William Blake
in his Songs of Innocence and of Experience draws on language of almost
child-like simplicity and yet his thought is sometimes profound and
obscure. Emily Dickinson’s language is also mostly not difficult.

I’d decided many moons ago that I’m not going to tackle Blake but I’d decided to leave a decision on Dickinson until later. Whar spurred into attention was the strangeness of the last sentence and what we may be supposed to infer from ‘mostly not’. Thus prodded I went to the new Foyles and bought the Faber Complete. I haven’t as of yet done an end-to-end attentive reading but I’ve read enough to know that she may be the best ‘wrong’ poet in the language.

The poems are wrong because they don’t play by the rules, the don’t seem to bothered whether they work or not- and we haven’t yet got to the envelopes. Here’s all of Poem 599 in the Collected:

     There is a pain so - utter - 
     It swallows substance up -
     Then covers the Abyss with Trance-
     So Memory can step
     Around - across - upon it-
     As one within a Swoon - 
     Goes safely - where an open eye - 
     Would drop Him - Bone by Bone

The first two lines are very good indeed, the ‘utterness’ of pain that swallows up / megates all aspects of materiality but we then get to the Abyss which is one of the most loaded nouns that we have except that in this instance it gets subsumed by Trance which would appear to provide a distraction from the memory of this pain. The analogy is then made between ‘Swoon’ and ‘Trance’, the first of these providing some kind of safe passage whereas being awake would result in ‘Him’ being dropped into the abyss in a quite gruesome manner. None of this should work, it’s too disjointed, the use of capital letters seems unduly mannered and we’re left wondering whether ‘Him’ is Christ or just another hapless soul afflicted by this kind of pain. A ‘swoon’ is a fainting fit usually (in the 19th century) brough about by some excess of emotion. In the interest of a better understanding I’ve looked at the examples that the OED gives of and have discovered this from Elizabeth Barrett Browning from four or five years before 599 was composed: ” As one in swoon, To whom life creeps back in the form of death”.

There is a sense about the powers of the trance which has been used down the centuries as a way of making pain bearable. We’ve now discovered that our brains can obliterate memories of events of extreme trauma or pain. So there is some sense going on but there is also the last line which doesn’t seem to belong to what’s gone before. ‘Bone by Bone’ would seem to imply a body that has already been picked clean in some way but surely the noun is usually either ‘cast’ or ‘thrown’ or ‘flung’but not ‘dropped’ which seems much to casual for such an act

At this point I’d normally walk away but there is a tone that I find absolutely compelling (and wrong).

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10 responses to “The Offside Rule and the unrelated(ish) Emily Dickinson Problem

  1. Interesting post, start to finish. I spent a good deal of my adult life struggling with questions of definitions and categorisations in everything from environmental regulations to text books to op eds and books on popular finance to research websites. I concluded I had to err on the side of over-definition, over-categorization and to deal explicitly with competing definitions. Drafting regulations and legislation early in my career taught me the power of controlling definitions.

    • Peter, as someone who was in the business of translating legislation and regulation into practice, I know exactly what you mean- definitions can be ossifying but also, if given a sufficiently light (subtle) touch, can provide useful context.

  2. Assume you know Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson? It’s a postmodern
    Emily worth writing about here, and there are now others working up the same street.

    • Yes but haven’t looked at it yet, still being absorbed in the poems, but will do once I’m more familiar with the material.

  3. Re. the first part of your post, there are a series of useful terms that Yvor Winters used long ago that you can find in In Defense of Reason, “The double mood,” for example, is a very useful concept. He of course was against the use of all the methods that he named and discussed, but as description they are accurate and helpful. He was a reactionary, but he knew how to read modernism and would have had a field day with postmodernism had he lived long enough (and if it hadn’t killed him). He’s also, by the way, very good on Emily Dickinson.

  4. Winters was indeed a good taxonomist, if not taxidermist, of poetic form. I wrote a dissertation about Winters and French Symbolism at Berkeley under the Yeats scholar Tom Parkinson. The Wintersians didn’t cotton to my argument that Winters understood pure poetry. He helped bring Dickinson to the attention of the professoriate. I think Winters had a fine appreciation of the sources of what makes so many American poets confuse obscurity with eloquence.

  5. I would suggest that one can over-analyse these lines. To me Emily Dickinson is performing that ancient role of the poet in finding words to express — and clearly — something most people cannot begin to put into words.
    She has known pain so great that afterwards the mind cannot cope with the memory. The initial capitals can confuse a modern reader. That ‘Him’ is simply the person (he or she) who metaphorically is stepping across the abyss in a trance, who has in actuality experienced the pain.
    I find her words very direct, very moving and — picking up from Tom D’Evelyn — not obscure but eloquent.
    As so often, I’ve found your reflections, and the comments they attract, most thought provoking and I’m grateful. But on this occasion I think we are reading a poet who is a mistress of clarity.

    • John,

      Please accept that neither Tom nor I are questioning the quality of the work, I might question the nature of clarity but I don’t dispute that Dickinson’s poems are both important and staggeringly good. As I think I indicated, I’m new to paying attention to her work and what I’ve said is, as ever, provisional and tentative. I don’t use wrongness in a derogatory sense and will try to amplify what I mean with future posts. There’s no need at all to be grateful, just pleased that you find this stuff to be useful.

      • Thanks J.
        Oh yes, I understood. You would not be giving such careful attention to her work if you did not esteem it.
        I like to read your blog because it challenges my normal perceptions of poetry. Good for the soul, they say; good for the brain too.

  6. I like the concept wrongness (badness) in aesthetics and have fun with it in my Sunday poems at

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