What a weird and wondrous little poem. “You cannot put a fire out”? But you can. I’m not initially sure what Dickinson is getting at here. She begins by saying you can’t put out a fire, but goes on to say that a thing that can ignite can burn without help. I’m not sure how these two ideas are connected, besides both being about fire.
In the second stanza, she goes on to say that you cannot “fold a flood” and put it away. This makes more sense. But then she gives her reason–you can’t do this because the winds would find out and tell your floor? The “cedar” here feels forced, thrown in for the sake of the rhyme and nothing else.
What is this poem about? Dickinson seems to be saying that certain things are irrevocable–once out in the world, they cannot be taken back. Fire can burn unchecked once started, can rage out of control. Floods, too, cannot be controlled. I wonder if what she’s really talking about here is speech, language. Once said, a word cannot be unsaid. It can rage like a fire or a flood, and its originator can do nothing to check its spread. The winds telling the floor could be the power of rumor, the tendency of spoken words to spread beyond the speaker’s intended audience.
This is an odd one. The first stanza seems fairly self-explanatory. Fire is powerful. It can spark seemingly without warning, and once it gets going, it can be impossible for humans to stop. Fire here could be a metaphor for all sorts of things that are uncontrollable by human beings.
The second stanza begins in the same vein–just as you can’t control fire, you can’t control water. A flood is wild, something that cannot be folded up and put away.
Then it gets weird. You can’t control a flood because “the winds would find it out”? “And tell your cedar floor”?? Umm…..
I think what Dickinson is really talking about here is trying to control language. Once something is put into words, it’s out there in the world. It cannot be taken back. If you try to control a word once it’s been spoken, you can’t. I’m reminded of this Dickinson poem:
A word is dead When it is said, Some say. I say it just Begins to live That day.
Words take on lives of their own. Once said, they cannot be unsaid. While the last line of this poem feels contrived–this whole “cedar floor” business sounds as if it’s trying too hard to match rhyme and rhythm–the point is a powerful one.
Who owns a story? Who owns a poem? A play? A piece of music? There’s something very modern about Dickinson’s sensibility in this poem. While old schools of criticism have focused on seeking intrinsic, inviolate meanings in literature, newer ones play with subjectivity, with individual responses.
There is much talk in the writing community about how once a book is in the hands of readers, it no longer belongs solely to the author. Each reader brings to each story a different set of experiences, emotions, perspectives. Stories become not weakened by this, but stronger. They begin to live and breathe, to take on lives of their own. They multiply themselves into myriad visions, and in this way assure their own survival.
The instant a word is spoken, written, it breathes its first breath and comes alive.
Is this the most famous Emily Dickinson poem? If not, it’s got to be right up there. I can’t remember the first time I read this poem–perhaps it was an elementary school English class. I suspect anyone who’s ever taken a literature course in the United States could quote the first line or two. It serves as an epigraph in collections of Dickinson’s poetry, though those poems were not arranged by her, so their order is at least somewhat arbitrary. The poem itself seems pretty straightforward.
As I read it for the gazillionth (??) time, though, something new jumps out at me–the way that Dickinson seems to equate herself with Nature. In the first stanza, she announces that this (this poem?) is her “letter to the world,” and then there’s an Em-dash and then “the simple news that Nature told.” The setup of the stanza seems to be equating “my letter” with Nature’s news.
Then, in the second stanza, the speaker asks that her countrymen “judge tenderly of” her because of their love of Nature. Throughout the short poem, Dickinson seems to be conflating her poetry with Nature’s creation. She is a microcosm of Nature Herself, able to create entire worlds in verse. Like Nature, the poet is a creator, a maker of things, a breather of life into what was lifeless, a transformer of the raw materials of words/world into meaning and matter.
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?
“Going to him! Happy letter! Tell him— Tell him the page I did n’t write; Tell him I only said the syntax, And left the verb and the pronoun out. Tell him just how the fingers hurried, Then how they waded, slow, slow, slow; And then you wished you had eyes in your pages, So you could see what moved them so.
“Tell him it was n’t a practised writer, You guessed, from the way the sentence toiled; You could hear the bodice tug, behind you, As if it held but the might of a child; You almost pitied it, you, it worked so. Tell him—No, you may quibble there, For it would split his heart to know it, And then you and I were silenter.
“Tell him night finished before we finished, And the old clock kept neighing ‘day!’ And you got sleepy and begged to be ended— What could it hinder so, to say? Tell him just how she sealed you, cautious, But if he ask where you are hid Until to-morrow,—happy letter! Gesture, coquette, and shake your head!”
There are many strange and interesting things happening in this often-anthologized poem. Why is the entire thing in quotation marks? The speaker is addressing the letter she’s just written, which is fascinating. She’s essentially written a letter to the letter she just wrote, telling it about all the things she hasn’t written.
According to the speaker, the letter she’s just written omits verb and pronoun. In this short poem, she uses forty-four verbs and forty pronouns. I cannot think of another poem that makes such enthusiastic use of the word “it.” Interestingly, the speaker repeatedly refers to herself as “it,” while the letter is always “you.”
This entire poem is about all the things a letter doesn’t say: “the page I didn’t write,” “I only said the syntax,” “Tell him–No.” But the third stanza is where things get especially strange. She has already asked the letter to tell its recipient about the circumstances of its writing. But now she implores the letter to not tell him where it is hidden. How can it tell him where it’s hidden if it’s hidden and he doesn’t know where it is?
I think that what’s happening here over the course of the poem is the gradual conflation of the speaker with the letter–of the writer with her writing. We talk about how writers pour their hearts into their work, and in this case the act seems literal. In writing the letter, the speaker has poured herself out into it, become it. They have almost switched places–she has become “it,” while the letter is a human “you” that can tell, wish, get sleepy, flirt.
There’s something lovely in this notion that the writer becomes the writing, particularly when it comes to letters. It’s an oft-repeated platitude that handwritten letters are more personal, more intimate–and it’s true. We touch them, impart to them warmth, scent, energy, intent. We touch something that someone else then touches. We make something with our naked hands rather than by machine. We make it for one person, and one only. In writing a letter, we send a little fragment of ourselves.
We do not know how our letters will be received (on rare occasions they aren’t). To write them, to send them, to pour ourselves into the creation of them, is an act of trust. The nervousness Dickinson describes is palpable, and it reminds me of the little flip in my stomach every time I slip a letter into that irrevocable brass slot in the post office wall. A little piece of me has gone out into the world, never to return. As soon as the envelope, slim and svelte or bulging with scribbled words and glitter, falls from my fingers, I can no longer control its destiny. Often, as soon as it’s beyond my control, I think of all the things I didn’t say, the things I forgot, the things I wasn’t sure how to articulate in the moment. It’s tempting to want to call the letter back, to explain, to contextualize, to add on and flesh out.
Letter writing seems to be having a bit of a resurgence. Like the slow-food movement, it’s an attempt to be more mindful, more intentional, to slow down and appreciate–above all, to connect. This renaissance is due at least in part to the overwhelm of the internet, with its impersonal emails (Gmail now offers to finish your sentences for you with canned phrases) and shiny social media posts with premade filters that can give your restaurant meal the perfect lighting and your face the perfect makeup. A handwritten letter is not like these things. It is by definition imperfect because it is by definition human. Letters are deeply personal. We touch them, leave skin cells behind on them, lick envelopes. There is something visceral about them. In an age of filters and facebrags, letters are authentic. We send them out into the world, imperfect, and we cannot take them down, take them back, tweak them or revise them once they’ve left our hands.
There is a huge vulnerability in this irrevocability. It’s a vulnerability that modern technology discourages. It’s old-school, like the souls who still write letters. The beauty of Dickinson’s poem is that it’s still as true as the day she wrote it–maybe even truer. When we write a letter, we become that letter. We transform ourselves into words, speak ourselves into being, and then send our minds, hearts, souls, selves winging out across time and distance.