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Thinking Out Loud

Random Joy

by Michael Jinkins | Feb 14, 2017

Emily Dickinson had not been one of my go-to poets. Not until recently. A new edition of her work published by the Folio Society of London changed that.

Random JoyNot only is the book, Emily Dickinson: Selected Poems, beautiful and beautifully made, the table of contents pages draw you into the inevitable and magical world of meaning-making, largely because of an idiosyncrasy of Dickinson's style. You see, she did not title her poems conventionally. What you have in the table of contents are a list of her first lines.

At first, I dove into the volume as I would most collections of poems, skipping over the table of contents altogether, reading one whole poem after another. Most of her poems are so brief. I would read. Reflect awhile on the poem. Read it again. Perhaps reflect a little more. Then I would move on to the next poem.

After only a brief time, however, I recalled why I had ordered the volume from Folio in the first place. It was because of a particular poem they had printed as a teaser in their lavish fall catalogue. The poem begins, "The World is not Conclusion, / A Species stands beyond...", and the specific passage which arrested my attention was this:

"Much Gesture, from the Pulpit --
Strong Hallelujahs roll --
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth --
That nibbles at the soul."

I went looking for this poem in the table of contents, and only then did I discover the random joy of Emily Dickinson, as I strolled through her decontextualized first lines.

Not only could many of these lines stand alone, like Zen koans, worthy of meditation, but read sequentially, one first line after another as though together they composed an unintended poem, their very randomness moves the mind from grief to revelry more eloquently than some of the finest poems I had ever before experienced.

The first eight first lines in the table of contents, for example, read as follows:

•"There's something quieter than sleep”
•“I never lost as much but twice”
•“Success is counted sweetest”
•“Exultation is the going”
•“I never hear the word 'escape'”
•“Our lives are Swiss”
•“As by the dead we love to sit”
•“These are the days when Birds come back--"

Other examples, again, plucked at random:

•"The Spider holds a Silver Ball”
•“I Years had been from Home”
•“Our journey had advanced”
•“It makes no difference abroad”
•“The Lightening playeth -- all the while”
•“I watched the Moon around the House”
•“The Brain -- is wider than the Sky”
•“I cannot live with You”
•“Me from Myself -- to banish"

Of course, Dickinson's first lines have been mined for years, as when Woody Allen took her “'Hope' is the thing with feathers" as the cue to title a collection of his bleak humor Without Feathers. And I would highly commend spending time alone with one after another of these lines which work like distilled spirits to restore the imagination:

•"Water, is taught by thirst" evokes a longing that is itself more satisfying than many of the things we seek so vainly.

•"I'm 'wife' -- I've finished that --" could stand by itself as one of the finest short poems ever written.

•"Much madness is divinest Sense --" invites us to see with dervish eyes by which life comes finally into focus.

Certainly I commend the poems in their integrity, each in its entirety, but I also suggest you take up a volume of Dickinson sometime soon for the sake of random joy in this deconstructed world just to remember how much wonder lies in that which was never intended to go together.

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