Thursday, September 24, 2020

ModPo 2020 Analysis: The Poets Light But Lamps by Emily Dickinson

It's ModPo time again!  I've participated in the, by now famous, Modern and Contemporary Poetry (“ModPo”) course since it began in 2012.  Every year is different, informed by the many changes in our lives, in the world, and in the overall material that comprises the course, which are ever expanding. One of the many things I like is how the essay subjects continue to change, so that there are new poems to dive into. This year, the Emily Dickinson poem is number 930, "The Poets light but Lamps".  My essay follows.  If you haven't joined ModPo, I heartily recommend it.  It's free, there are no constraints (you can do as much or as little as you want - now, or throughout the year), it's open to all levels, and it's very engaging!  

The Poets light but Lamps--
Themselves — go out —
The Wicks they stimulate
If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns —
Each Age a Lens
Disseminating their
Circumference —

“The Poets light but Lamps” is one of Dickinson’s shorter poems - with just two quatrains of no more than 5 words per line with a very regular syllabic structure of 6/4/6/4 for each of the quatrains. There is no punctuation other than the em(ily) dash which adds space without slowing the reading down, thereby energising the piece, as it draws the eye forward. The poem ends with the dash, which, except in the work of Dickinson, is rarely used for the ending of something, and hints at the ongoing nature of the work - visually indicating that this is not an ending as such, but something that will continue - poetry being immortal. 

The dash also provides a visual representation of a wick, thereby picking up the “Wick” in the third line, stimulated by the Poet’s light - or the light of poetry. Unusually for Dickinson, the first word of each line is capitalised. Assuming this was Dickinson's intention rather than the work of an overzealous editor, this creates a regularity that is also strengthened by capitalisation's emphasis as it creates a mirroring of "The Poets" with "The Wicks". There is also an alliteration between "If" and "Inhere", thereby linking lamplight with sunlight. The poem utilises an extended metaphor conflating the work of the poet (a lamplighter stimulating a wick - perhaps the impetus for the poem) with the Sun itself - or Suns (?) - some broader category of star shine than simply our own Sol. 

Three words stand out for the number of syllables they contain and seem to connect to one another: stimulate, Disseminating, and Circumference. Though there are all quite different words, without too much in common other than the scientific quality and the multisyllabic sound, but they also provide a sense of sonic expensiveness, as if the very nature of these longer words were able to extend the reach of the poet - moving outwards from the point of stimulation in an expansionary way, spreading outside of the circle of life. You could almost visualise the light (of poetry) spreading in that way through through the work and outwards from it. 

“Inhere” is an unusual word which means “to exist essentially or permanently in”, as in inherent. It’s possible to read the first line of the second stanza as relating to the vital light of poetry as being part and parcel of what we need to survive - as life-giving and in need of dissemination by each age. The one word which doesn’t quite fit semantically is “If” which is a point of uncertainty in the overall piece adding in a condition that could undermine the work’s thesis. If the light is not vital then perhaps there is no immortality - perhaps only some poetry is vital and work that is not vital can be forgotten. Or, it may be that the condition is one that sits with the reader. ‘If’ the reader judges the work as vital, then there is a mandate to disseminate the poetry for the sake of humanity, vital poetry being as necessary to life as sunlight, against the ephemeral darkness of each age’s fashion.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Compulsive Reader Newsletter for September is out

The September Compulsive Reader Newsletter has now gone out. This month's issue features three great giveaways including Anthropica by David Hollander, The Holy Conspiracy by Kristi Saare Duarte, and The Rehabilitation of Thomas Mark by Tom Crites. We also have ten terrific new reviews/interviews, and a full literary news roundup from around the world. If your copy hasn't arrived or you want a preview, you can click here to view it online.  To sign up, visit: