Dec. 10, 2006

341 After great pain, a formal feeling comes

by Emily Dickinson

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Poem: "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" by Emily Dickinson. Public domain. (buy now)

After great pain, a formal feeling comes

After great pain, a formal feeling comes —
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs —
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round —
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought —
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone —

This is the hour of Lead —
Remembered, if outlived
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —
First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go —

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Carolyn Kizer, (books by this author) born in Spokane, Washington (1925). Her collection of poems Cool, Calm, & Collected came out in 2000.

It is the birthday of poet Thomas Lux, (books by this author) born in Northampton, Massachusetts (1946). He grew up on the family dairy farm. He started writing his own poetry in high school by imitating the poems on the back of Bob Dylan's albums.

He's become known for his often humorous poems on a wide variety of subjects, with titles such as "Commercial Leech Farming Today," "Traveling Exhibition of Torture Instruments," "The Oxymoron Sisters," "Walt Whitman's Brain Dropped on Laboratory Floor," "Institute of Defectology," and "Pecked to Death by Swans."

It's the birthday of the poet Emily Dickinson, (books by this author) born in Amherst, Massachusetts (1830). She grew up at a time when people in New England were beginning to struggle with religion. Many had fallen away from the traditional Puritan faith, and so a religious revival movement was sweeping the area, bringing people back to the church. Dickinson remained agnostic, even after her father and sister experienced a conversion at a revival meeting in 1850, when Dickinson was 20 years old. She wrote in a letter, "Christ is calling everyone here, all my companions have answered, even my darling [sister] believes she loves, and trusts [Jesus], and I am standing alone in rebellion."

Dickinson spent one year in seminary school at Mount Holyoke, and then she moved back in with her parents to take care of the family household while her mother recovered from a nervous breakdown. She was not happy about the arrangement. She enjoyed gardening, but she hated to clean and absolutely refused to dust. What she disliked most of all about her father's house was the many visitors. Her father was one of the most prominent men in town, and people stopped by every day to talk politics, to get legal advice, and just to pay tribute. Dickinson thought the visits extremely tedious.

As Dickinson took care of her family household, she watched as her friends got married and moved away. She grew increasingly isolated from her community, in no small part because she didn't attend church. Many biographers have tried to find some reason why Dickinson withdrew from the world, suggesting that she may have fallen in love with a man who rejected her. But there has never been any definite evidence for that theory.

What we do know is that she spent most of her adult life in her corner bedroom, which contained a writing table, a dresser, a Franklin stove, a clock, a ruby decanter, and pictures on the wall of three writers: George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Thomas Carlyle. When an editor named Thomas Wentworth Higginson asked her what she looked like, she wrote back, "I ... am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut burr; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves."

She wrote on scraps of paper and old grocery lists, compiled her poetry and tucked it away neatly in her desk drawer. After a few years of writing, she began collecting her handwritten poems into packets of folded paper, stitching the spines herself.

Dickinson eventually wrote more than 1,700 poems, most of them composed during the Civil War. She wrote 366 poems in 1862 alone, about one per day. It wasn't until 1955 that a more complete edition of her poetry was published, with the original punctuation intact. She's now considered the first great American lyric poet, and one of the greatest American poets ever.

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