If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know about my annual affair with UPenn’s Modern and Contemporary American Poetry course (“ModPo”) taught by the great Al Filreis. I’m on my sixth year. This is no impersonal MOOC, though I share the course with some 30,000+ students, most of whom will return every year to re-engage with old and new poems, as the course is constantly changing, growing, and offering new ways to interact with both classic and very recent poetry and poets. The course runs for 10 weeks but remains open throughout the year with discussion groups, ongoing interpretations, regular ongoing meet ups and crowdsourced close readings, teacher and student resources and constantly good conversation. The course always begins with Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, effectively the mother and father of modernism - both representing separate stylistic poles that link and underpin all of the work that follows. Nothing is mandatory, but I like to do the essays each year, especially as they’re always a little different. And if you search the blog, you’ll see that I’ve posted each essay up here. This week’s is a brief 500 word analysis of Emily Dickinson’s "Love reckons by itself--alone”. Feel free to chime in with your own comments if you’re taken, or just read and enjoy the poem. Poetry talk is always welcome.
Love reckons by itself — alone —
"As large as I" — relate the Sun
To One who never felt it blaze —
Itself is all the like it has —
As with many of Emily Dickinson’s poems, “Love reckons by itself – alone”, begins with an almost puritanical constriction, appearing to spiral inward and tighten, but with each reading the work becomes more expansive, inflationary, even explosive and sensual. Even by Dickinson’s standards, this is a short poem of a single stanza, and appears, as her poems often do, to be a simple explication about the nature of Love’s grandeur and self-containment. The closer you look, the less simple the poem becomes, each word informed and changed by the structural context, the Dickinsonian punctuation, the unusual rhythm where tradition and atonality work side-by-side, and the multiple meaning of each word.
The poem begins with one of poetry’s most overused words, and Dickinson throws it straight out there - charging and distorting the word Love through personification, slant rhyme, and odd conjunctions undermining a saccharine sense of romantic love. Dickinson’s Love with a capital L could be God, or the equal of God in sensuality, or could be the human imagination or Poetry, or our ability to empathise and move beyond our individual selves. Following the word with the verb ‘reckons” turns Love from an abstract idea into a self-referential character, recursive – turning back onto itself as in resolving, self-contained and entire. Dickinson uses the dashes to set the word “alone” off, making the quality of this self-containment visual. Then she gives Love a voice, putting the next line in quotations and allowing Love to talk about how large it is, relating the heat of Love to the heat of the Sun, and how that blaze is both the perpetuator of life, and unknowable. Because it’s unknowable, we can only imagine it, even if we think we’ve experienced it, thereby undermining experience.
There are particular rhythms and rhymes in this poem. One of the more obvious is the equation of all the capitalised nouns: Love, Sun, One – each of these things not only rhyming but moving forward and backwards on the page to create a rhythm of motion and inevitability. There is a heavy use of alliteration, particularly the L sound which creates a somewhat languid but progressive rhythm from Love to itself, alone, large, relate, blaze, all, and like. The dashes not only set off the word “alone”, but then create a series of gaps or pauses which invite the reader to reflect for a brief moment, in those connective spaces. The ending on the last space leaves the poem open ended, on a sentence which is cryptic enough to allow for multiple interpretation, multiple reading. Free otherwise of punctuation, the poem is presented as iambic tetrameter, which is subverted by the dashes at the end of the first, third and forth lines. The second line could be enjambment with the following line (relating the sun to one), or more likely the lack of a dash functions as a full stop/period, as evidenced by the capitalisation of the word “To” next to One. This allows the third line to mirror poems like “Volcanoes be in Sicily”: a celebration of imagination rather than a celebration of experience. We don’t need to experience to know what Love feels like (in fact, we can’t get at this through the visceral). Instead we have all the correspondence (the ‘reckoning’) we need in our imagination.