“My business is circumference.” So stated Emily Dickinson in her oft-quoted letter to her mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson. This pithy, compact statement offers a vital insight into the poetic project of an enigmatic poet who occupied the periphery of society. Dickinson resists linearity with a defiant rebellious power which challenges the notion that the object of a poem can be grasped in language. The goal of her poetry – truth – she places beyond human understanding at an impossible centre. Her approach is to approximate the centre indirectly by circling around it; the effect is dizzying.
Dickinson aims to explore the mystery of things; yet all she claims that she manages to do is uncover more that is unknown and unknowable. In this way she is constantly chasing an elusive truth. She says of her technique, ‘I work to drive the awe away, yet awe impels the work’. We get the impression that language for Dickinson was frustratingly inadequate when trying to move in a forward direction. She exposes this in ‘What mystery pervades a well!’ where she describes the well, ‘whose limit none have ever seen, but just his lid of glass’, a truth lying just beyond human perception. The lines, ‘those that know her, know her less | The nearer her they get’ suggest the futility of the pursuit, as if there is a kind of magnetic repulsion resisting with increasing intensity the nearer the truth you claim to be.
Both truth and beauty have to be approached slowly, ‘Beauty is not caused – It is -| Chase it, and it ceases – | Chase it not, and it abides’. This explains why Dickinson deals with poetry tentatively and indirectly, if not, truth and beauty would disappear or become too overwhelming: ‘Too bright for our infirm Delight | the Truth must dazzle gradually | or every man be blind.’ But dazzle it must if it is true poetry with full impact. The poet can only hope to catch a glimpse and record what is beyond proof before it evaporates, Dickinson writes, ‘To see the Summer Sky | Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie – | True Poems flee-‘. For her, poetry, like life, is “A Route of Evanescence” a transitory sphere where everything evades our grasp.
Since the direct route to the centre or truth – insofar as it can be approximated – would be futile, Dickinson takes an oblique perspective, ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant – | Success in Circuit lies.’ The use of ‘Circuit’, ‘slant’, ‘circumference’ suggests a lack of confidence, a lack of stability. While the centre would express faith, circumference expresses doubt. Faith occupies a static, fixed point whereas the fluidity of doubt can be seen to be in orbit often returning to the point at which the thought started. As a poet given to religious speculation, she explores the intimacy of faith and doubt. In order to have faith, doubt must exist therefore faith as a centre can only be explored through uncertainty. It is in this hesitancy that paradoxically she writes with the most conviction. She writes, ‘I’d rather be the one – Its bright impossibility | To dwell – delicious – on.’ The expression of indefinacy through circumference is mirrored by Dickinson’s indulgence in dashes throughout her body of work. Some might suggest that the gaps show her struggle to find the right word, however we should remember that she has chosen to substitute a word for the expansion of meaning that a single line brings; she has chosen flux. At the fringes exists a rich cavern brimming with poetic insight, with illumination, ‘Ages coil within | The minute circumference | Of a single Brain.’
The circumference, as well as being a restriction encloses the energy and potential of a coil. Dickinson looks for an expansion of meaning by creating a circumference of meaning(s), a response to the shortcomings of intellect and word in approaching the delicacy of truth.
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