C.K. Williams on Emily Dickinson

One of the functions of criticism is to let us read familiar poems with new eyes / ears. I was reading C.K. Williams' essay, "Poetry and Consciousness" yesterday for the paper I'm working on and was deeply affected by his treatment of this Emily Dickinson poem:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, And Mourners to and fro Kept treading – treading – till it seemed That Sense was breaking through – And when they all were seated, A Service, like a Drum – Kept beating – beating – till I thought My Mind was going numb – And then I heard them lift a Box And creak across my Soul With those same Boots of Lead, again, Then Space – began to toll, As all the Heavens were a Bell, And Being, but an Ear, And I, and Silence, some strange Race Wrecked, solitary, here – And then a Plank in Reason, broke, And I dropped down, and down – And hit a World, at every plunge, And Finished knowing – then –
This is poem 280 from the Collected Poems & I have known the poem since I was a teenager. Known it so well I didn't know it anymore. Here is what Williams writes about the poem:
What is it that Dickinson knows, and finishes knowing, at the end of the poem is almost too frightening to consider. She has confronted, in her investigation of a single emotion, the annihilation of consciousness, the loss of reason in its harrowing proximities to nothingness. She has enacted the terrifying closed system of depression, in which content, sense, reality all became functions of that closure. The images that occur, once the system has been impelled, after the vehicle of the funeral has been established, still partake of the kind of arbitrary mental event that I tried to sketch before, but their apparent arbitrariness only contributes to the tension and despair of the mental experience. A "Service, like a Drum": there is no drum in the funerals of life, only in the rituals of depression, in which the heart itself seems to become the enemy of the organism and of consciousness. [. . .] And the plank: is it the plank that a pirate's victim must walk, or a plank covering a dry well, the well of inexistence? The ambiguities are as crucial as the precisions: the layering of meaning and potential meaning in the poem are the very layers of consciousness. That this dire experience could be put into words, that the voice of the mind could make it cohere, that the language of the experience could, what's more, be organized into rhythm patterns, that there could even be rhyme, all the while upholding the dark integrities of the experience itself: this is not the product of mind, this is mind, and emotion, and the human soul alive to itself. [Poetry and Consciousness, 1998]
_____________________ Useful Dickinson resource page / research project here.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

2 thoughts on “C.K. Williams on Emily Dickinson”


    And then he looked down
    his cohunes squeezing out
    of his shorts an experience
    past knowledge

    the impropriety of the banality
    of sunshine was the first thought
    discarding the things
    we all hate about ourselves

    it’s the body’s purpose
    to fulfill then rule
    and then annihilate us

    the oldest wisest part
    holding all the secrets
    in its slippery hands.

  2. Yeah i totally agree with this.You made me see this poem from a different point of view. When i first read this poem i did think the tone was negative but i looked at it more as if she had lost her thought of innocence when she had learned that death could be presented at any time. I see depression expressed throuh this poem 280.

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