A Thought

A Thought went up my mind today —
That I have had before —
But did not finish — some way back —
I could not fix the Year —

Nor where it went — nor why it came
The second time to me —
Nor definitely, what it was —
Have I the Art to say —

But somewhere — in my Soul — I know —
I’ve met the Thing before —
It just reminded me — ’twas all —
And came my way no more —

~Emily Dickinson

This isn’t the first poem we’ve encountered here that deals with the elusiveness of thought. I love that this is something that seems to preoccupy Dickinson. She’s known for poems about love and God, but my favorites, as a group, are her poems about thinking. I love how she grapples with the nature of thought itself, with its seeming randomness and propensity to appear and disappear on a whim. Good stuff.

In this poem, the thought that eludes her is a character unto itself. It appears, reminds her of its existence, and flits away–it’s a perverse little thing, annoying and teasing. She isn’t able to say when she’s encountered it before, where it came from, why it came, or even what it is. All she can do is record that feeling of vague frustration in poetry.

In which Emily is not G-rated and there is a whole lot going on

The thought beneath so slight a film
Is more distinctly seen,—
As laces just reveal the surge,
Or mists the Apennine.

~Emily Dickinson

So much going on in this tiny poem. It’s just a simile, really, but there is all sorts of stuff to unpack. First, Emily Dickinson talking about boobs. !! Definitely not one I ever saw in a middle school English textbook. Then there’s the comparing of the “surge” to mountains, which is a pretty clichéd metaphor for breasts, but still lovely with the correspondence between lace and mist.

But the real gist of the poem is that thoughts are clearer when slightly clouded, and this is a fascinating idea. I wonder what the “film” is that she’s talking about. She seems to be thinking of something specific–“so slight a film”–but the reader has no real clue as to what that film is. Is she talking about language? tone? something else?

I don’t know…but I do know I’ve already expended many more words in trying to unpack this poem than Dickinson ever needed to write it, and that is as good a definition of what poetry is as anything else I can think of.

So dense a fuzz

To hang our head ostensibly,
And subsequent to find
That such was not the posture
Of our immortal mind,

Affords the sly presumption
That, in so dense a fuzz,
You, too, take cobweb attitudes
Upon a plane of gauze!

~Emily Dickinson

This is a tricksy one, and much is unclear. Who is the “you,” the “we”? What Dickinson seems to be saying for certain is that sometimes we “hang our head ostensibly”–we discredit ourselves, or act humble–when what we want is not to be humble, and when we are not feeling humble at all in “our immortal mind.” The “immortal mind” suggests the notion of the higher self, and so I think Dickinson’s message in the first stanza is fairly clear. Sometimes we’re humble when we don’t need or want to be. Sometimes we’re right, dangit.

The second stanza, to me, is best summed up in the phrase “so dense a fuzz.” I’m not sure what exactly Dickinson means with any of the second half of this poem. Line 5 is decently clear–when we know we don’t need to be humble, when we know we’re right, we feel a sly presumption–but what exactly is that presumption? “Cobweb attitudes” and “a plane of gauze” suggest that the opinions of the enigmatic “You” are insubstantial. But what’s the dense fuzz? The internal tug between wanting to be humble and wanting to be right?

Perhaps at 6am on a Friday, I’m just in too dense of a fuzz to make sense of this poem. But maybe this is part of what Dickinson is doing–making the reader doubt herself to prove a point. As I read through this poem, and reread it, I find myself doubting my own ability to parse any sense out of it. Dickinson has planted me squarely in the midst of the dense fuzz that is the syntax and word choice of this poem.

Well-played, Emily, well-played.

Ravelled out of reach

I felt a cleaving in my mind
As if my brain had split;
I tried to match it, seam by seam,
But could not make them fit.


The thought behind I strove to join
Unto the thought before,
But sequence ravelled out of reach
Like balls upon a floor.

~Emily Dickinson

Yup. Pretty much this. It’s the end of the school year, which means that of course nothing is going smoothly and everything is fraught with complication, so I’m just going to leave it at this and call it good.

My new favorite poem

XXXI


I FOUND the phrase to every thought
I ever had, but one;
And that defies me,—as a hand
Did try to chalk the sun


To races nurtured in the dark;—
How would your own begin?
Can blaze be done in cochineal,
Or noon in mazarin?

~Emily Dickinson

I love this poem. It’s not one I’d ever encountered before. I’m finding as we progress through this project of a Dickinson poem a day that it’s the poems I’ve never heard of that strike me most. It’s not just because they sound fresh to me–I think it’s because they’re a bit quirkier or more philosophical or less easily categorized than her poems that are most commonly anthologized.

This poem strikes me as brilliant, and as part of a much larger trend that runs through many of Dickinson’s poems. This isn’t the first of her poems I’ve read this year that attempts to express the inexpressible–not in terms of pinning it down, but in terms of recounting the human experience of dealing with the knowledge that there are thoughts, emotions, ideas that we will never be entirely capable of articulating.

One of my grad school professors said during a lecture that thought is impossible without language. I disagree, and I think Dickinson would, too. This poem is proof. She’s found the phrase to every thought–except that one tricksy one that keeps eluding her. The second stanza, with its juxtaposition of abstract words with paint colors, seems to expand the argument–can we really express anything accurately via our art?

There’s perhaps no point in attempting to express the inexpressible. What Dickinson does is express what it feels like to stand in the face of that chasm in her knowledge. I love, too, that she includes a prompt in her own poem, a question to the reader. How would yours begin?