Emily Dickinson

The very first Emily Dickinson poem I encountered was in a book of poetry for children. My mother gave it to me when I was in second or third grade. In among poems by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, there was this one:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — Too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise — you know!

How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one’s name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!

Several years later, probably while in junior-high, I encountered Dickinson’s “A bird came down the walk” poem. Here is its first stanza:

A Bird came down the Walk —
He did not know I saw —
He bit an angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.

In both the “nobody” poem and the bird one, Dickinson shows a quirky sense of humor. Her observations are so astute that her poems are like visual memories. We might not remember the exact wording of a line, but we remember the visual image.

As I mentioned above, when I first read Dickinson’s poems I was seven or eight years old. My memory of the words on the page is that the lines of the poem did not contain excessive dashes. It’s possible that children’s book editors removed the dashes — which just about everybody agrees are excessive. And certainly the short lines look better without the dashes, which seem to interrupt the flow of a poem. Critics argue that Dickinson used the dash to emphasize certain words or thoughts; to indicate uncertainty; to indicate a shift in thought; to connect and separate at the same time; to be informal.

For ease of reading, I prefer the poems without all the dashed dashes! Although . . . when I see one of her poems and it contains no dashes at all, I think something is wrong.

Just as the “a bird came down the walk” poem shows Dickinson’s sense of fun, the well-known “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” poem shows she can make us shudder at the feeling of a snake unexpectedly gliding by our feet.

In my late teens and early twenties I began to encounter people of all types, I was struck by how unanchored some of them seemed. It appeared to me that they hopped from one idea to another to another to another, all without examining how or why or what the differences were. And then one day, while reading The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson (I was taking a class in Dickinson) I ran across this four-line poem:

I bet with every Wind that blew
Till Nature in chagrin
Employed a Fact to visit me
And scuttle my Balloon —

For years I had that poem hanging on my office wall.

A large percentage of the words Dickinson wrote with are one- or two-syllable words of Anglo-Saxon origin. They are, therefore, words very familiar to us, and their brevity and familiarity help give them power.

But Dickinson had a very large vocabulary that naturally included words of Greek and Latin origin. When she used such words in a poem, juxtaposing them against the Anglo-Saxon words, the Greek or Latinate words seemed more powerful. As an example, consider one of her most highly regarded poems, “Because I could not stop for Death.” The words in the first two lines are short Anglo-Saxon words. The fourth line ends with the word “Immortality,” which came into English from Latin. The contrast between the Anglo Saxon words and the Latinate ones helps the reader feel stronger emotions and, at the same time, think about concepts and beliefs.

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were the two most important poets of 19th century USA. Whitman was published and self-published in his lifetime: Dickinson had only ten of her poems published. The two are very far apart in style and subject matter, but both have influenced generations of poets. Whitmanesque lines and themes can be seen in the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, particularly in “Howl.” Dickinson has influenced poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Susan Howe. And I can’t help but think that her short-lines influence is visible in the “skinny” poems of our era.

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None of the birds in Barbara Gregorich’s poems bite angleworms in half. See Crossing the Skyway: Poems.

Food for Thought

I wrote this poem after my husband, Phil Passen, told me about this experience, which happened to him while he was playing music at the Green City Market in Chicago.

*    *    *

Food for Thought

Standing under a sheltering chinkapin
the musician gigs at the organic market
each weekend, and though the venue
is dry and dusty, his music nourishes all,
particularly mothers, nannies, and children
who stomp and spin to the beat of his old-time
dance tunes: “Chicken Reel,” “Blackberry Blossom,”
and “Shove That Pig’s Foot a Little Further
into the Fire.”

Caregivers dole out dollars to the children,
who scamper up to the musician’s basket
and drop in the bills, watching them flutter
and settle. The performer goes home hot,
tired, and happy, knowing organic consumers
enjoy his music.

The musician thinks maybe more market goers,
those far from the chinkapin oak, might enjoy
his music, so one day in addition
to his thirty-pound dulcimer he hauls
his thirty-pound Bose Tower speaker system
to work. Erecting the tower he plugs
it in and plays, and it is true that he draws
a wider market audience, from
as far away as the quiche corner,
the fennel farm, and the Japanese
sweet potato grower.

More mothers, more nannies, more children:
more stomping and spinning to the beat.
But now, when caregivers slip the children
dollar bills, the children run up to the imposing
Bose monolith and deposit their offerings
before it. Even when the amused adults
approach the tower, pick up the false-idol dollars,
and drop them into the musician’s basket,
the children do not understand —
they rush to the basket, remove the dollars,
and once again offer them to the tall
black pillar from which emerges
the intoxicating beat.

At the end of the day the musician
packs up, collects his money (and the monolith’s)
and returns home hot, tired, and full of
processed knowledge —that given a choice
between the actual and the enhanced,
humans sprout a primal urge to abandon
the genuine and worship the magnified.

 

_______________________

You can read other poems by Barbara Gregorich in Crossing the Skyway: Poems.

Mountain Passes: Panther Pass

Contrary to common perception, Europeans didn’t first occupy the land that became the United States in an east-to-west direction. The Spanish marched from south to north, establishing the town of Santa Fe in 1610, ten years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

French missionaries and explorers, on the other hand, moved through the new land from north to south, using the waterways of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River to establish contact with native tribes of what are today Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Arkansas. On the lakes and rivers, of course, the French encountered no mountains and no mountain passes.

The Spanish, moving across the land by foot and on horseback, did encounter mountains. So it should come as no surprise that they encountered mountain passes. (It’s said that the first European to discover a mountain pass in what is today the US was Coronado, who in 1540 marched through the pass called La Glorieta, southeast of Santa Fe, searching for legendary cities of gold.) One of the passes traversed by the Spanish was named after the mountain lions that roamed North America. The North American mountain lion goes by various names in different parts of the continent: cougar, puma, catamount, and panther.

In southwestern Texas the puma is called a panther. In the Chisos Mountains of the Big Bend area, the panther preys mainly on deer and javelinas (wild pigs). And although these large cats prowled throughout the Chisos Mountains, the place they were most often spotted was in a particular mountain pass. Naturally this pass came to be called Panther Pass. The Chisos Mountains, incidentally, are the southernmost mountain range in the US, and are also entirely contained within the boundaries of Big Bend National Park (1,252 square miles). 

Named after the giant turn the Rio Grande makes as it flows east to the Gulf of Mexico, the Big Bend area is spectacular. This is a land of wide variety: harsh desert, rugged mountains, bountiful river. It’s populated by shrubs, cacti, trees, reptiles, birds, and mammals, many of them found nowhere else in the United States. Mainly, though, the land of the Big Bend is desert. Until modern times only Indians native to the area could survive there. They knew which roots provided food, which plants provided moisture, which caves provided shelter. 

Panther Pass

Mountain Range: Chisos Mountains.
Elevation: 5,770 feet
Grade: 15% in some places
Location: In Big Bend National Park, southwestern Texas.

Although the desert was not suitable for farming, it was rumored to contain another kind of wealth: gold. And gold was a lure to the Spanish, who forced natives to mine both silver and gold. This new-world wealth was then loaded onto ships that sailed to Spain. 

Eventually mines are mined out or abandoned for some other reason. Then legends of lost mines spring up. Possibly because so many miners kept the location of their mines secret, the legends were believed. 

One of these many legends says that the Spanish forced prisoners to work in a fabulous mine north of the Rio Grande. This mine was located on what is today called Lost Mine Peak, in the Chisos Mountains. According to legend, the prisoners marched from the Spanish stronghold, Presidio [Fort] San Vicente, which sat on a bluff above the Rio Grande, through the desert, through Panther Pass, and into the dark mine. The gold mine was so rich, legend has it, that the Spanish  blindfolded the prisoners en route so that not one of them would never know its exact location.

Big-Bend-Lost-Mine-Trail2

Lost Mine Trail, Chisos Mountains

How does a gold mine get “lost”? Legends always have an answer. In the case of the Panther Pass gold mine, legend says that the Commanche, who did not want Europeans taking their silver, their gold, or their land, raided the mine and killed everyone in it. Then they sealed the mine entrance with rocks and covered it with brush so that nobody could ever find it again. 

But legends of lost gold mines always give hope to treasure hunters, and the legend of the Panther Pass mine is no different. Supposedly if a person stands in the chapel door of Presidio San Vicente on Easter Sunday, the sun’s first rays will shine on the exact location of the Lost Mine.    

Thousands of prospectors and treasure hunters have looked for the Lost Mine, but nobody has found it. Perhaps that’s because all that remains of Presidio San Vicente are adobe ruins. Or perhaps it’s because Easter Sunday falls on a different date each year. Or maybe it’s because the Earth wobbles on its axis as it rotates, so never again will the first rays of the sun on Easter Sunday strike exactly where they struck 300-some years ago. Or, perhaps . . . the entire legend is total fabrication.

Most likely nobody has found the Lost Mine because it never existed. As they move through the world, humans leave records behind: records of births and deaths, records of ownership, and records of profit or loss. Nowhere in Spain, Mexico, or Texas is there any kind of written record (ledgers, letters, deeds) of a gold mine just beyond Panther Pass. 

But don’t let that stop you. If you’re set on treasure hunting, you can drive or bike an asphalted road through Panther Pass, cross the Lost Mine Trail, and start looking.

Panther Pass

No lost gold
mine-yours-theirs,
there’s nothing where
the puma yowls
and prowls
the arid rocks.

________________

You can read Barbara Gregorich’s earlier blog on mountain passes, The Cumberland Gap.

The Floor Is Not a Laundry Basket

I thoroughly enjoy the Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series featuring Precious Ramotswe. In one of the more recent titles, Precious and Grace accepted as fact that men throw their laundry on the floor. The two detectives considered this clothing-as-debris behavior as unchangeable. This made me wonder how things might have been different had Precious and Grace reacted differently when, at the beginning of their marriages, they encountered the clothes on the floor.

That, in turn, prompted me to dash off this poem.

wooden washtubs

 

There They Lie 

Dirty underwear,
jeans, tees, and shirts litter
the floor,
crumpled where you
dropped them under
the mistaken notion that
somebody would pick them up
and return them freshly laundered
the way your mother used to
. . .  or maybe your father,
while ineffectually admonishing you
to pick them up
yourself.

Yourself now acts as if
I will pick up discarded raiments
and return them laundered. Yourself
is in for a scrubbing in thick suds
of intransigence. I not only refuse
to stoop for your dirty laundry,
I treat it like floor covering,
making certain to wipe
my feet
on it.

________________

You can read other poems by Barbara Gregorich in Crossing the Skyway: Poems. 

Bobblehead

One day, extremely annoyed by sycophants and imitators, I penned this poem.

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Fitting In

I long to be
a bobblehead,

my head so huge
it blows my mind,

springing me from
sense and steadiness.

I want to bounce around
in every breeze,

cool as a quarterback
evading a sack,

my connections to a corpus
tenuous or less . . . or less than that.

I fancy bobbing with the boffos,
traveling with the triflers.

I long to be
a bobblehead.

 

_________________
Barbara Gregorich tackles other annoyances in Crossing the Skyway: Poems.

Not One Woman

Many and many a blog ago, in Woman Yes, Girl No, I wrote about some people’s inability to use the word woman. Recently I was reminded of this by a book I read. In it, the author either refused to or could not get himself to use the word woman.

My response was to write a “skinny” poem, also called a “short lines” poem.

WLM-picture-of-logo

Let There Be Light

The man
writes
a book
peopled
by men,
boys,
ladies,
and girls,
but not one
woman.

In four
hundred
pages,
not one
woman.

I want
to rate
this book
one star
but can’t:
even one
star
belies
the dark.

 

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Barbara Gregorich has published one book of poetry: Crossing the Skyway.

Five Figures of Speech

Rhetoric is effective and/or persuasive writing or speaking, and figures of speech are one of the components of rhetoric. Both readers of and speakers of the English language enjoy encountering figures of speech, which can be clever, humorous, biting, visual — intriguing or memorable in some way. Thus writers who can employ figures of speech are more likely to win over their audience.

Because the ancient Greeks valued and taught rhetoric, most figures of speech have names that come from the Greek. I have to confess that I can use a figure of speech, knowing I have used it, without being able to remember its name.

alexander_aristotle

Some sources state that anaphora [a NAPH o ra] is probably the oldest literary device of all. Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses, and it has been used extensively by writers and speakers of all kinds. Walt Whitman used anaphora, as did Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here’s a well-known example, from Winston Churchill’s most famous World War II speech: “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”

Then there’s antanaclasis [ANT an a CLASS is], in which a word is repeated in the same grammatical form (verb, for example, or adjective), but with two different meanings or senses. An example is the quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” In both cases hang is a verb, but in its first use it means to consort with, and in its second use it means to be suspended by the neck until dead.

UnknownYou can infer the importance of repetiton, both to the Greeks and to ourselves, when you consider how often repetition is part of a literary device. There’s anaphora, there’s antanaclasis, and there’s ploce [PLO see], which is the repetition of a word, often with intervening words between, and usually the second use of the word has a different meaning than does the first use of the word. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

game-of-thrones-longclaw-sword-of-jon-snow_1000Metonymy [meh TON eh me] replaces the name of something with a word that is closely associated with the first thing. For example, when Christina Rossetti wrote “Never on this side of the grave again,” she was replacing the word death with something associated with death: the grave. In “The pen is mightier than the sword,” pen is being used instead of written words, and sword is being used instead of military force.

Metonymy is so much a part of our spoken and written language that we’re often unaware that we’re using a figure of speech.

Synecdoche [sin EK do kee] is a special form of metonymy in which a part is used to represent the whole. An example of synecdoche from everyday usage is calling workers hands — the hand is just part of a human being, but it is used to stand for the whole person. Likewise, calling a very intelligent person a brain is an example of synecdoche.

And now, by your leave, I’ll leave you alone.

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Barbara Gregorich employs figures of speech in her poems, published in Crossing the Skyway.