Emily Dickinson was Chinese in another life. I'm sure of it. She is everything the Chinese love in art and life.
Chinese literature: terse, tight, short, concise, hard as a nut, nature, painterly and intellectual. Goes for the jugular, humorous, impish, a puzzle, musical and tonal (E.D.'s prevalent form and meter is the hymns she learned to sing in church.) Excellence in Chinese literature is mainly signified by the phrase, "hidden dragons, concealed tigers," (in English cannons under roses), whether in poetry or in novels or paintings (not the gaudy, overworked tourist stuff.) The more economical the better.
If you want to get a sense of Chinese literature, read Emily Dickinson. Some of her flower pieces are like a miniature Chinese painting in the "birds and flower" genre. And then her broader vision akin to Chinese landscape painting. Her mystical work is Zen (Chan in Chinese-same character). Oh, and she is an ecstatic as the Zen poets.
Highest ideal of the Chinese life: meditative, reclusive, living beyond the world of the "red dust." Emily Dickinson was reclusive but she loved people and was gregarious, frequenting the Evergreens--the home her brother and sister-in-law built right next door on her father's property--for evenings of laughter and literature among intellectuals.
(E.D. would be happy in the above painting by my father, Joseph Yang.)
Emily, for me, was hard won. When I first approached her, some years ago, I said to someone, I really want to understand her, but I am coming up against a barricade. My friend replied, Well, there are other great poets, start with the ones you can understand.
But I refused. I like difficulty, I like puzzles and I wanted to enter her world. So I began to memorize her when I took my evening walk until I could really made her mine. I had a little Shambala edition for my back pocket and memorized over two dozen poems, just in case I was kidnapped, imprisoned and had to resort to the library in my mind. I now own over a dozen Emily Dickinson editions. My favorite biography is Alfred Habegger's "My Wars Are Laid Away in books."
Learning Emily is like learning to ride a bicycle. You fall every which way and scrape your knees, but once you are upright and going forward, you can't fall even if you try. Sure, there are plenty of poems, I can't decipher, but to continue the bicycle analogy, there will be difficult terrain and you'll love the precariousness of it. When you "accomplish" a Dickinson poem, when you decode it, when you solve it, you feel intensely rewarded.
I love poetry, but I am not a poet. I will continue to write a little enough to love and appreciate the craft. Doesn't a good poet need equally good readers?
We cannot all be concert pianist, but isn't it grand for us to learn to play enough to enjoy others and applaud them?
Emily Dickinson said she knows it's poetry when she feels that the top of her head has been taken off. Life continues to take the top off my head every day.
Belle of Carmel
PS--E.D.'s grammar is oftentimes odd and Chinese. Where the noun or verb should be plural or singular, she does the opposite. I need to find an example for you later.
Here is poem 901 in the Franklin edition. I've not seen it in an anthology.
The Soul's distinct connection
Is best disclosed by Danger
Or quick Calamity
As Ligtning on a Landscape
Exhibits Sheets of Place
Not yet suspected - but for Flash
And Click - and Suddenness.
Causes Belle Yang Supports
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