Saturday, 4 August 2012

Poems in the Afternoon: Dickinson, 249 Wild Nights

c. 1861, first published 1891

            Confession: I can’t really get into Emily Dickinson, which seems weird somehow, because I feel like I ought to love her, and not just because she is a Great American Poet. Her writing just isn’t pleasurable to read for me; it’s too florid and breathless and purple, what with all the excessive dashes and Random Capitals and personifications of Truth and Beauty and Death. It’s possible that I missed the window of opportunity to get into it, being a bit too young when I first got this collection back in 2005, and a bit too old now (says the girl who still gets IDed for wine). Perhaps I would have loved it as an impressionable, Plath-reading 16 year old. And maybe I’ll come around someday, because I’d really like to like her work. But as it stands, this is the only Dickinson poem that I do love. It all just comes together – the hysterical excitability condenses into passion, the purpleness is cut off and transformed into romance, the dashes (perhaps because they don’t punctuate every word) become a force of emotion, shaping the poem into wildness on the page.

            This is a deceptively simple little poem. Its meaning is layered and elusive, because of the tangled longing expressed ambiguously for either – or both? – the Edenic tranquillity of a peaceful mooring, and for what I read to be a wild, dangerous sea. The vagueness is intriguing; when Dickinson writes “Futile – the Winds -/ To a Heart in port”, is she comforted by her protection from turbulence, or does she long to be tossed out of her calm port and into the rough seas of love? The “thee” of the final line refers back to the “thee” of the second line, but the structure of the stanza allows it to potentially also refer to Eden or the sea. She might long to moor in her lover (metaphorically, sexually?), in Eden, and/or in the wild sea. It’s hard to tell. In my opinion, the interpretations are all about equally plausible (although I might lean towards preferring the wild, rough sea – she does say she wants wild nights, after all – but I don’t insist on it). The ambiguity is part of what makes this a great, erotic and complex poem. I generally distrust interpretations and analyses of texts that want to come down definitively on one side or another of a purposely ambiguous point, since they so often are little more than personal preference dressed up as objectivity, and we all know how badly that can be misused (Ophelia as a big seductive slutty McSlut, sucking all of Hamlet’s manly energy away with her dirty sexy sexness, turn of the century writers about Shakespeare, hmmm?) The intensity of the desire expressed in this poem is amplified by its condensed nature; it’s a powerful and unusual (for Dickinson) jab of sexuality, emphasising the archaic double meaning of “luxury” (luuuust!).

            So, there we go. This is a great and striking little poem, and that rare thing, a Dickinson piece that makes me actually feel something, other than sore eyes from rolling them too hard.

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