Emily Dickinson

This is from a zine I called “The Breakfast of Lampoons”. Many people found it incomprehensible, so later I wrote explaining the breakfast.

Emily Dickinson is one of the biggest jokers in poetry.

883 (variant “Lampoons”)

The Poets write Lampoons—
Themselves—in doubt—
The Laughs they simulate—
If very loud

Inherited of Sons—
And of their Friends—
Disseminating their

I say “variant ‘Lampoons’” because the variorum edition of Dickinson’s poems includes an alternative. She’s smart—even her jokes have winter coats of meaning. In the second line, Dickinson uses her habitual ellipsis to ironic ends. What is it that the poets are in doubt of? It must read, the poets write lampoons, despite their own doubt in their sense of humor. They’re so unsure, they have to pretend to laugh. In short, the poetic satirists, who ought to be the experts, doubt their own competence.

“Inherited of Sons” cleverly reinforces the point, in a way most 19th centurions wouldn’t have noticed. At the time she wrote, major property was customarily passed down to sons. In fact, women’s property rights were barely protected by law. A radfem, she saw this financial disenfranchisement as socially damaging—in a word, stupid. So the propagators of this system are stupid, including the poets themselves.

Here’s a better known one. (No variant, this is the main version.)


I would not paint—a picture—
I’d rather be the One
Its bright impossibility
To dwell—delicious—on—
And wonder how the fingers feel
Whose rare—celestial—stir—
Evokes so sweet a Torment—
Such sumptuous—Despair—

I would not talk, like Cornets—
I’d rather be the One
Raised softly to the Ceilings—
And out, and easy on—
Through Villages of Ether—
Myself endued Balloon
By but a lip of Metal—
The pier to my Pontoon—

Nor would I be a Poet—
Its finer—own the Ear—
The License to revere,
A privilege so awful
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun myself
With Bolts of Melody!

This is subtler and more blatant. If you read it as a statement from Dickinson herself, it’s self-contradictory: “Nor would I be a poet.” So you must take it as the statement of a fictional speaker. But to come up with such a poem, mustn’t the speaker be the poet? The work shows a poet’s creativity and attention to detail—it’s unmistakeably Dickinson. Clearly, this poem is also about stupidity. It’s about the reader’s stupidity, in falling into the facile trap of wondering whether the speaker is the poet (the “bright impossibility”). It’s about the poet’s stupidity too, in wasting time on silly cognitive loops when she could be bashing her brains out with language (“to stun myself/With Bolts of Melody”). [Surely nobody could write such a loopy poem without this ability; she’s lying when she says she doesn’t have it.] The speaker themself manages to temporarily rise above the contradiction, as a figurative balloon, but is finally captured by the comical “pier to my Pontoon,” which grounds the balloon just as the pier connects the pontoon to land.

catch the irony (it’s an epidemic)

It’s odd that so little is known of Emily Dickinson’s life. But the oddness multiplies when you realize that the other great poet of the English language, Shakespeare, is even less well biographized. What can account for the strange coincidence of ignorance? I believe that Dickinson and Shakespeare were actually the same organism, a microscopic ocean plant, under the influence of unholy forces. The evidence implicates the metal alien giraffes of planet Baryon Number Four, who on October 25, 1962, caught a stony-irony asteroid in a carbon-carbon reticular formation, and fired it to April 15, 1862, where the blue Cerenkov light of relativistic ideas burst about the startled phytoplanktonic energumen, inspiring it in new transtemporal might to retroactively compose the works of Shakespeare, and proactively the three volume 1955 Harvard variorum edition of Emily Dickinson. All the rest is illusion. You may quote me.

updated 28 June 2000