This issue marks the last Recess of the fall semester. Most years this occasion prompts an editor to write something that resembles a state of the union address. I’d rather not do that—partially because Michaela wrote a wonderful overview of the semester during last week’s note—but also because, in my currently sleep-deprived state, the only thing I can imagine writing about is Emily Dickinson.
I’ve spent the last ten weeks reading through the R.W. Franklin edition of the Poems of Emily Dickinson. The book weighs in at over two pounds—it’s the closest thing to a dumbbell I’ve lifted since October—and most of the 600 pages are filled with short, regularly jaw-dropping poems written in four-line stanzas. Having spent so much time with her writing, I’ve found that her words strike me at unusual times and places—during meals with friends, while shaving, while walking or driving. Her poems can cast a tone or a mood that stays for hours. I’ve been writing a series of poems in her honor, and I’ve noticed her lexicon in the corners of my speech.
Though I spend much of my free time reading and writing poetry, it is only this semester that I have been seriously challenged to find words and explanations for why poetry is valuable. I have been startled by the ease with which many philosophers—even great philosophers like Kant, Freud and Plato—dismiss poetry as mere playfulness and shallow sentimentality. It has been suggested to me by an adviser that I should minimize references to my own creative work in my applications to analytic philosophy graduate schools so as to avoid coming across as irrational. (Given the general impression I have of many philosophy departments, I think the advice is reasonable.) Old friends and teachers have insinuated to me that I am wasting talents in other fields like mathematics and science by continuing to write poetry. More and more, I’m learning how to stand up for poetry—and also how to recognize when certain artistic pursuits may be misguided—though I still find these conversations surprisingly difficult. There are moments when I am capable of the most articulate explanations for what I am doing and then, hours later, I find that I can hardly speak at all. I still haven’t been able to explain to my roommate what exactly happens to me when I read a poem.
This isn’t a problem that is mine alone. During the controversy about the funding of the National Endowment for the Arts, I was deeply disappointed by how many arts supporters could find little more to say about the purpose of art than true but distressingly vague statements such as “life would be boring without them” or “arts give pleasure.” If those are the best responses we have concerning the value of art in modern society, artists have more than funding to be worried about.
Dickinson has helped me to articulate my thoughts. “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” Emily famously said. Her poetry has an effect on me that I have begun to call ‘re-synaptic.’ Her combinations of words are startling—as if two distant brain pathways have just experienced their first, electric contact. Her ‘slant’ approach allows me to look with fresh eyes at sights to which I had been willfully blind (e.g. the fragile beauty of snowflakes in “Soundless as Dots/ On a Disc of Snow.”) She addresses and acknowledges death from dozens of different angles, dozens of different moods, as if feeling blindly the bark of an oak. And her sublime affirmations of a small drop of dew render the world infinite.
Even the previous paragraph seems to avoid the question: Why should society spend its time and money on poems? I think that if I’ve learned anything from Dickinson it is that the most pressing concerns of our psychological life—birth, death, illness, love, remorse, sublimity, loneliness—are so easily forgotten that in order to see them with proper wonder and proper respect we need someone to speak about them in language to which we are not already accustomed. Yes, poetry is beautiful. But just as importantly, by speaking in a way that evokes our childish wonder, it allows us to more healthfully acknowledge life’s joys and frailties.
I am starting to think that the hardest and most important job of arts journalism is to explain persuasively, accurately and in no nebulous terms the reasons why works of art do or do not change our lives for the better. This issue of Recess we are lucky to have some of our loyal music staff writers explain how they think about their favorite albums of 2012. It’s not often enough that we get the chance to hear other people explain why they love what they love. But that is the type of journalism we need to read if we’re ever going to become successful proponents for the arts that are most meaningful for us.