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A Word dropped careless on a Page - Emily Dickinson

This is perhaps the most difficult of Dickinson’s poems to understand as it is wide open to divergent possibilities of interpretation.  A key to meaning can be recurring or sustained motifs, linguistic references or symbols.   

Rita Dove, a former American poet laureate claims: “poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful,” while Susan Sontag once wrote an essay advocating “an erotics of art,”: that poetry is for lovers, not cryptologists.  

All we can do is enjoy the poetry by letting the sounds flow over us and try to gain some insights.

As in This is my letter to the World, this poem is an example of Metapoetry – poetry that is aware of itself as a poem; how its construction can affect meaning.  Dickinson, like the absurdists later, understood the inadequacy or ineffability of language; the lack of genuine communication as words lose their meanings and language is not always a reliable tool for genuine discourse as misunderstandings and misconceptions commonly occur.

A Word dropped careless on a Page
May stimulate an eye
When folded in perpetual seam
 The Wrinkled Maker lie

Infection in the sentence breeds
We may inhale Despair
At distances of Centuries
From the Malaria-

The word “dropped” implies lack of intent, while the adverb, “careless(ly)”  reinforces this. Effortless, casual, or glib writing can have hazardous consequences.  Composers should take care because the danger of misinterpretation can be contagious as a disease. Words are powerful in their ability to influence people.   

The eye of the beholder(s) will “fold” – agonise or mull over a word for years (“perpetual”)  and the misconceptions could be compared to an “infection”  - “Malaria”   

Aldous Huxley- in Education on the Non-Verbal Level has seen the devastating effects of the abuse of language throughout history to manipulate the masses.

Children should be taught that words are indispensable but also can be fatal - the only begetters of all civilization, all science, all consistency of high purpose, all angelic goodness, and the only begetters at the same time of all superstition, all collective madness and stupidity, all worse-than-bestial diabolism, all the dismal historical succession of crimes in the name of God, King, Nation, Party, Dogma. Never before, thanks to the techniques of mass communication, have so many listeners been so completely at the mercy of so few speakers. Never have misused words - those hideously efficient tools of all tyrants, warmongers, persecutors, and heresy-hunters - been as widely and so disastrously influential as they are today. Generals, advertisers, and all the rulers of totalitarian states — all have good reason for disliking the idea of universal education in the rational use of language.  Aldous Huxley

Words communicate by association; they resonate through suggestion, nuances, innuendo so responders may glean or infer a variety of messages. 

The literal “seam” could refer to the folding and unfolding of the paper or figuratively be a pun on “seem” – that all is not what it seems.   The adjective “wrinkled” could refer to the paper from overuse of poring, or figuratively to the ageing composer.   

The reference to “at distances of centuries” indicates a hope that Dickinson entertains that she will be discovered and her poems analysed for years to come.   She wanted to be published - some see a lot of ego in her poems.  Dickinson hopes to be recognised in the future.

T.S. Eliot later examined the ineffability of communication in The Love-Song of J.Alfred Prufrock where he has his persona admit:

“It is impossible to say just what I mean!” …….. and later

"That is not what I meant at all./ That is not it, at all."

T.S. Eliot made many other comments that help us understand poetry such as:

“Poetry can communicate before it is understood”

And:

“The reader’s interpretation may be different from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better.  There may be much more in a poem than the author is aware of. “

(Ted Hughes, in a letter to Keith Sagar. THL 23 May 1974):

Poems belong to the reader – just as houses belong to those who live in them not to the builder” 

Writers write for a variety of reasons, but mainly to voice their concerns; some write to document the times – chronicle or crystallise experience and distil the essence of history to give it permanency, while others use it as an emotional release of pent up tension and some write for the edification or moral uplifting of the world. 

W.B. Yeats once wrote;  "When we quarrel with others, we make rhetoric; When we quarrel with ourselves, we make poetry".

As Sylvia Plath later, would use her writing as therapy; by a frank and full admission of her pain, hoping for some release of tension and an exorcism of the demons that haunted her, some of Dickinson’s poems, intensely emotional, yet never dissolving into sentimentality, reveal a troubled soul searching for understanding and acceptance.

Perhaps Dickinson is attempting what Franz Kafta – would later describe as  “Writing should be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.” 

Kathy Lette claims she writes because "it's cheaper than therapy".

Dickinson appears to despair that not only is she not accepted now, because of misunderstandings, but that even future generations may not understand or accept her.


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