Friday, 10 September 2021

'A dim capacity for Wings'

 Guy Walker, via Facebook, has drawn my attention to one of Emily Dickinson's butterfly poems – this one:

My Cocoon tightens — Colors teaze — 
I’m feeling for the Air — 
A dim capacity for Wings
Demeans the Dress I wear — 

A power of Butterfly must be — 
The Aptitude to fly
Meadows of Majesty concedes
And easy Sweeps of Sky — 

So I must baffle at the Hint
And cipher at the Sign
And make much blunder, if  at last
I take the clue divine.

I thought it was new to me, but that just shows how fallible my memory is: it features in an essay by Kay Ryan, 'Specks', which I have read in her brilliant collection, Synthesizing Gravity.
Ryan doesn't think much of the second stanza – 'essentially some Dickinson boilerplate to say, Butterflies fly'. A harsh judgment, but Ryan is surely right that 'Dickinson terrain is hard on the brain suspension. In any poem of more than one stanza, one stanza is likely to bottom out.' This is refreshing, as admirers of Dickinson often tend towards a kind of cultic worship, as if their heroine could do no wrong: of course she could – and that doesn't make her any less of a poetic genius (think of Wordsworth's lapses, or Keats's, or Tennyson's). Ryan loves the third stanza – 'such a strange capsule of a stanza', with its heavy emphasis on clumsiness, 'the exhilarating unworkability of it: one can only blunder into the light, or whatever the "clue divine" is.' Her reaction to the first stanza is wonderfully complicated, and she traces its contours precisely, as always: Ryan's criticism is the closest thing there is to the actual experience of reading and honestly, spontaneously responding to what is on the page. 'So far the picture's funny and ill fitting and, well, let's just say so, ravishing: it takes massive poetic wings to think of "A dim capacity for Wings".' Of course things can be at once funny and ravishing – especially, perhaps, in Dickinson's poems – but it's hard to imagine anyone but Kay Ryan pointing this out.

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