A Resistant Writer–No Kidding

I can definitely see what Scanlon means when she said that Dickinson (and H.D.) at times actively resist the reader.

Take poem 42.

I’ve spent a long time thinking about this poem and, though I am much further along than when I started, I still don’t know if I can make the whole poem fit together. Dickinson starts with a kind of riddle, which the reader is left to guess: “There is a word…” (1) and, by the end of the poem, she seems to have given at least three possible answers. The word is either, the most obvious contender, “‘forgot'” (18), which she places in quotation marks, or perhaps “Time,” which takes center stage in the final stanza as “the keenest marksman! / The most accomplished shot!” (15-16), or it could be something that the poet has not identified and has left for us to conjure. My candidate is “forgot,” which would seem to make sense at first, since that would seem to be the greatest harm to a decorated war hero, rather than time which “harms” everyone in the sense that it ultimately leads to death.

But when confronting the second half of the first stanza, it’s no longer certain. If “[t]he saved will tell / On patriotic day” then how could one forget him? I’ll grant that their memory seems woozy (“Some epauletted Brother” [9], emphasis mine), but the remembrance is still occurring. Besides, what do we then make of the second stanza in which it seems that Time is in fact the word? The first reference of “it’s noiseless onset” (13) seems to refer to the same “It” of line four, the word, and yet, if one associates the exclamations (as I do), then the “marksman” and “most accomplished shot” would be aiming for the “target,” which “[i]s a soul ‘forgot'” (15-18). ┬áNow it looks like Time is the word which is the ultimate culprit and forgetting just a consequence.

But Dickinson isn’t through complicating all of this–she decides to make “Time’s sublimest target” (17) the word “forgot.” What?? I thought that the word was a bad thing? It “bears a sword” and “[c]an pierce an armed man” (2-3). That doesn’t sound very sublime, nor does “hurl[ing] it’s barbed syllables” for that matter (4). And yet, perhaps, as I thought earlier, it is after all “forgot,” which, of the two particular candidates, is the only word with “syllables” (plural). But that just leaves us right back where we started–what do we make of this whole time business at the poems close? How could forgetfulness be so deadly if people seem to still remember?

Now of course I recognize that this is just my understanding. I’m eager to see what other people make of this poem (and the others) as I imagine many of us will have different interpretations.

Thoughts on this one?

3 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. —Thanks Everett, for posting some thoughts on how you were approaching this poem. With the exception of maybe #16, I’ve definitely struggled the most with parsing out #42, and I found your idea to dwell on the meaning of the “word” in line 1 to be particularly helpful in my own attempts to make sense of the rest.

    Rather than pin down the specific meaning of this “word” though, I ended up arriving at a gendered understanding of the poem, where the “word” functions less as a particular reference to any word used by Dickinson in the poem and more as a broader symbol for the female poet’s voice. For example, in the first stanza, Dickinson specifies that this “word” bears a sword that can harm an “armed man” with “it’s barbed syllables,” imaginatively performing the kind of violence that was unthinkable for a woman confined within Dickinson’s historical reality. She is quick to point out though, in the next couple of lines, how ultimately ineffective the violence of this feminine “word” can still be, seen from a masculine historical perspective in which history only records how “some epauletted Brother / Gave his breath away” and not how the “word” took this breath away.

    In the second stanza, Dickinson assigns a masculine gender to history’s notion of time itself, referring to “Time” as “the keenest marksMAN” (capitalization mine) and characterizing it by the same masculine, militaristic jargon she associates with the fallen epaulet-wearing Brother and “the armed man.” In the final lines of the poem then, I read Dickinson as merely giving the appearance of presenting the female poet as “the soul ‘forgot'” or the “sublimest target” of a historically masculine sense of “Time”. The scare quotes she uses around “forgot” indicate that Dickinson doesn’t actually believe this feminine voice, or the”word,” has been forgotten at all. In fact, it is her own use of this “word”– the poem itself– that protects the female poet’s voice from a gendered construction of time that wants to forget it.

    —Also, on an unrelated note, three times in this poem Dickinson uses the possessive form of “its” incorrectly (once in the first stanza, twice in the second) By including the apostrophe, what she’s actually writing is the conjunction “it’s” For someone who put so much thought and care into her poetry, I have a real hard time believing this was a mistake on Dickinson’s part, so if anyone has a reasonable explanation for what she’s up to hear, I’d love to hear it.

    January 18th, 2011

  2. That’s an interesting reading Ryan, I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

    With regards to your last comment, I think that the “its-it’s” spelling was just another of her quirks, like the “opon-upon” spelling as I’ve seen her do it that way in other poems and letters too. Maybe Scanlon could clarify?

    January 27th, 2011

  3. mscanlon

    Yes, a regular misspelling, as far as editors handle it, at least.

    January 27th, 2011