Month: October 2018

Breaking Free of Restraint in “They shut me up in Prose” by Emily Dickinson

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Emily Dickinson’s “They shut me up in Prose” is a very short poem, but it conveys significant meaning in the context of restraint. The first line of the poem, which is used as the poem’s title, explicitly calls out the idea of restriction. The speaker was told as a little girl to confine herself in prose. The speaker compares being told to write in prose to being “put in the Closet – / because they liked me ‘still’ ” (3-4) which gives insight on her perspective on prose. She finds prose to be limiting, and she believes that she was told to write in prose because society wants her limited. However, the second stanza illustrates how society’s attempt at restraining the speaker was useless. She tells her audience that “they might as well have lodged a Bird / for Treason – in the pound. In other words, her ability to break away from prose to write poetry was just as inevitable as a bird flying away into the open sky. Trapping a bird without a ceiling is just as impossible as preventing the brain of the speaker from discovering poetry. Flight also symbolizes freedom, so the metaphor demonstrates that the speaker’s discovery of poetry helped her break free from the previous constraint of prose. However, the idea that poetry is freeing seems contradictory because rules and conventions limited poetry for hundreds of years. Dickinson and Whitman were both revolutionary poets in the way they broke conventions of form and meter, but prose does not have clear rules and conventions. The speaker might consider prose restricting because it lacks in the originality and creativity of form. There is only so much one can do with prose, and it is all based on the meaning of the words provided. Form presents countless options for creativity and individuality, so although poetry’s conventions might seem restrictive, conventions can be broken. It is the breaking of conventions and the invention of new form which makes poetry freeing in comparison to prose.

The Death of the Author

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Thinking about our discussion of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and “Beat, Beat, Drums” today reminded me of a famous essay by the French critic Roland Barthes, called “The Death of the Author.” Our discussion today focused to some degree on what we think Whitman intended for his poem (particularly the war poem), and also on imagining the author himself, as in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” as somehow reanimated by his poem. This is a kind of exaggeration or reenactment of what we do when we imagine poems as purely expressing not just what we think the author means in the individual work, but also in the body of her works more broadly. We imagine the author as a kind of unity, a focused and focussing personality (or identity) behind the work, giving it a full and unified meaning. Part of the brilliance of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is that the poem dramatizes that process so viscerally. We can’t really avoid thinking about Whitman as still living writer when we read the poem. But Barthes argued that this general practice is a mistake–that we falsify the text, language, and interpretation by privileging the author to this degree, making her or him a kind of God who stands behind the text (or texts). His essay announces a new practice, beyond that of the New Criticism, that argued for language and texts as primary, and as both highly contested and highly open for interpretation. The author, he argued, is a kind of figment of our collective imagination. Killing him (figuratively speaking, and echoing Nietzsche’s announcement of the death of God) gives us new freedom to interpret and create. This is what we did, more or less, when we explored the way that “Beat Drums” might actually be an anti-war poem. Barthes probably goes too far, but like Whitman’s poem he lets us see how much we seem to want or need the god-like author, and the perfectly meaningful and unified texts they control. We all know that writing isn’t actually like that–that we are never fully in control of our writing, and that our writing means less, more, or something else than we intend. (Or else we’d all get A+s on our essays, right?)

Here’s an image of Monsieur Barthes, not long before he was run over by a laundry truck and killed in 1980.


Reflecting on Environmental Poetry with Rosewood

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Much of last week’s discussion was centered around “A Musical Instrument” and “God’s Grandeur,” with we resolved both had motives pertaining to destruction of the environment. In the former, we talked about how Pan severed a reed from a bed and destroyed it to make a flute. In the latter, we acknowledged how Hopkins tried conveying that in spite of all that people do to destroy the environment, the world will live on, as “nature is never spent.” This idea of human impact on the environment amounting to so little contrasts a bit to the closing theme of “A Musical Instrument,” as the gods “sigh for the cost and pain– / For the reed which grows nevermore again.”

Nowadays, it’s apparent that permanent damage caused by resource depletion is a legitimate concern, and we have started taking actions to try and limit that depletion. An example I thought was relevant to our discussion of these poems, and our attempts to keep the grandeur of God was the revision of CITES regulations on the trade of rosewood and bubinga, highly prized woods used to make musical instruments. The primary motive in these revisions was to combat the deforestation of ecosystems containing these woods, which were primarily threatened due to the growing exquisite furniture trade in China, in which these woods (especially rosewood) is cherished for its appearance.

The two woods, as previously hinted, are equally as cherished in the construction of musical instruments, particularly guitars. Rosewood has been used to make fretboards of guitars of all varieties and price ranges, and in acoustic guitars, rosewood was a popular timber to use for the back and sides of higher priced instruments. Bubinga is less frequently used, and appears occasionally as a neck material (typically coupled with wenge). Guitar manufacturers prize these woods, especially rosewood, for their sonic qualities. With the change in regulations, and growing restrictions on the trade of these woods, manufacturers currently resort mostly to alternatives in making instruments. Fender Musical Instruments Corp., having previously offered rosewood as an option for fretboards for all instruments, now uses pau ferro and ebony, similar dark woods. Gibson Brands has been using richlite, a synthetic material, in the construction of newer instruments.

While the use of these woods in instruments does not contribute nearly as much to the deforestation in Asia as the Chinese furniture trade, the musical instrument trade definitely influenced the regulations on international trade of these woods. As Pan had damaged a bed of reeds in order to make a flute, instrument manufacturers worldwide have to obtain their materials somehow. With the decline in rosewood and bubinga in the construction of instruments, I’m not certain which woods would become the target of further deforestation (ebony and pau ferro aren’t in significant demand outside the instrument trade). For now, it is important to recognize the relevance of earlier environmentally-driven poems like “A Musical Instrument,” and how our indulgence in the arts and beauty come at a cost to the world.


An article on the impact of CITES regulation on the instrument trade:


Whitman’s Opposition to War

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At first when I started reading “Beat, Beat Drums” by Whitman, I was so caught up in the onomatopoeia that I was not really paying attention to the dramatic situation. However, I quickly realized that the situation Whitman portrays is a war scene. The scene begins with the bangs of war drums and the blows of the horns which sets up the chaos that is happening to the people and the area.

I did some research and realized that Whitman wrote this poem in September of 1861 and the Civil War began in April of the same year. Therefore, this seems like a direct response to the war. I also found that Whitman was in opposition of the war and did not take part it in. Rather, he went around to hospitals and gave little gifts, as well as listened and spent time with wounded soldiers.  This poem reads with the judgement of someone who has spend time seeing the firsthand effects of war.

The tone in this poem is also quite devastating, especially in the second stanza where the speaker asks rhetorical questions. The questions serve as a show of injustice. As a result of the war, there will be no normality; no one is living their day to day lives how they used to. The third stanza seems to be more of a response to the questions posed by the second stanza. Specifically, they broaden the critique to say that no one is free from the effects of war (not even the dead)–and that in itself is the problem.

Are the Dead Really Safe?

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This post reminded me of the conversation that we had in class about “Death be Not Proud.” I think that for Dickinson death has a particular influence on her poetry because of the personal experience she has with loving loved ones and her own three year struggles with ill health. It affords her a unique (though arguably not that unique) artistic focal point 

If one reads the poem at simple face value it would seem that Dickinson is promising eternal rest and happy slumber to Christians. With their satin ceilings and quiet chambers they remain aloof from the events of the living. They are not troubled by the rise and fall of kingdoms nor are they troubled by anything that bother the living. What is missing from this sweet promise, for me at least, is the happiness/life that Christians have in other poems we’ve covered. An acute example for me is “The Little Black Boy.” The dead aren’t troubled by anything but nor are they content, they simply are not. It seems to be saying that once you’re dead you really are dead. 

I also don’t think the dead remain safe. All too often tombs are pillaged, bodies unturned, and the names of the dead dragged through the mud. In one of Shakespeare’s sonnets he discusses the immortality that poetry can give those who reside between written lines. In this sense I think he’d disagree with Dickinson that the dead are truly safe. 

A Question about the uses of different conceits in “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers”

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After having read both versions of “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” I thought about how interesting these two were as they share a similar theme through death, but utilize entirely different vehicles to talk about that theme. The first version of the poem is focused more on how nature reacts to death, showing how the natural world just continues on its merry way, ignorant that any loss had actually occurred. The second version obviously focuses more on the human world’s reaction to death, showing again a lack of caring as “Grand go the Years” without the meek who have died. In this way, they are similar, as they both work to show how life, both natural and human, goes on without those departed, I think practically forgetting they were there.

They are also similar in the sense that they show that the dead are just as unaffected with the world as the world is with their deaths. This can be seen in the shared first stanza which states that the dead are “untouched by Morning – // and untouched by noon,” but also shown in their differing second stanza’s, as the first version describes the dead as “stolid ear[s]” which are ignorant to the world above them, and the second describes the human world as “Soundless as Dots, // On a Disc of Snow” to those who are safe in their coffins. Both these poems show a mutual lack of care the dead and either the natural world or human world have for each other.

I find this interesting because in my mind it brings up the question of why even change the poem at all if the meaning seems to be the same in either one. To this, I don’t think I have an answer, and I was hoping maybe I could find answers asking the class in the blog. What is the reason for this difference in conceit if the themes and endpoints seem to be the same?

Dickinson and Death

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I haven’t read that many poems written by Emily Dickinson, but the few that I have all have one thing in common: death. I had to read “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” quite a few times before understanding it (and I still feel like I don’t fully comprehend it), but the theme of death stood out from the very beginning, especially in the second version. She writes about the dead, and how they lie safe in their tombs (“Alabaster chambers”), the only ones untouched by time and the fall of kings (“Diadems- drop -“). It’s possible that she only meant “safe” as in, protected from those things, but it’s also interesting to note that she calls them “members of the Resurrection”–the idea of resurrections invokes the Christian belief of the afterlife and eternal salvation, and the only people who can reach it, are the ones who are dead. They are the only ones who are “safe.”

War and Whitman’s “Beat! Beat! Drums!”

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Walt Whitman’s “Beat! Beat! Drums!” is a free verse poem written in the mid-nineteenth century. From the title, we can infer that the poem centers around loud and disruptive subject matter. Whitman utilizes descriptive, banging sounds and the lack of form provided by free verse to highlight the disorder in the poem while the em dashes show how this disorder is followed by a pause. The poem appears to be about war and was written in 1861, the year when the American Civil War began.

Each of the three stanzas begins with the line, “Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!”. Drums and bugles were both instruments used in military signals. The em dash in these lines make it appear as though the drums are coming from one army and the bugles are the response from the other. The other em dashes throughout the poem highlight the way that war affects daily life. In the first stanza, the speaker says, “Through the windows—through the doors—burst like a ruthless force,/ Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,/ Into the school where the scholar is studying;” (2-4). In these lines, Whitman is showing how war crashes into our churches, schools, and lives, disrupting the peace and daily activities. The momentum of the war crashes through the doors, which Whitman emphasizes with em dashes, to show that barriers have no effect on the spread of disorder.

I think that the most powerful lines of the poem are the last three where the speaker says, “Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the/ hearses,/So strong you thump O terrible drums—so loud you bugles blow” (20-22). These lines show how war leads to the death of so many. The dead cannot even rest in peace because of all the violence and turmoil that the war continues to cause. This poem highlights the unsettling qualities of war and the effects not only on soldiers, but also civilians.

Travel and Reflections

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I think Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” might be my favorite poem we have read yet, and I think its largely because of how it speaks to some of my personal experiences. Pretty much wherever I go that it isn’t on Eastern Long Island, I travel on  a ferry in some shape or form. I’ll be taking one in a few weeks to get home, and then again to get back to Hamilton. I always spend the last 15-20 minutes of the ride out on the top deck, for a few reasons. One being that I miss being so near the water while up in central New York, so I want to soak up every minute of it (even though its usually horribly windy on the stern of the boat). Also during these times on the upper deck, I spend some time reflecting. I often think about where I’ve been and where I’m going, and how I’m happy to be able to travel between two places that are both homes to me for different reasons. Some lines in the poem I couldn’t help but feel a connection to.


“The similitudes of the past and those of the future,

The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, on the walk in the street and the passage over the river,

The current rushing so swiftly and swimming with me far away,

The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them,

The certainty of others, the life, love, sight, hearing of others.”


“Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word,

Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,”


I think these two excerpts are powerful in how they represent the deep thoughts of the speaker. Clearly, the ferry ride is not just representative of physical travel, but also prompts reflection–perhaps like “mental travel.” I think that the poem is simply just beautiful in the descriptive language it uses, and I think that overall the poem speaks to the acts of both physical and emotional travel, in the sense that we can literally pack up our things and go somewhere new or we can think about the past and future and what others are also thinking. Throughout the poem, the speaker takes the reader along on a journey as they connect to the lives of other passengers as well. Not sure if this is true for others, but whenever I’m traveling somewhere I’m hyperaware of the fact that others are traveling as well. So when I pass by someone on the thruway on my journey home, I’m somehow more aware of the fact that every other car with all of its passengers is also going somewhere. Perhaps they’re seeing their family, perhaps they’re traveling to a new job, or perhaps they’re just going out for a drive. I think this concept is amazing because everyone has important things in their lives and is going interesting things, and this reminds of how many people I have yet to cross paths with yet who will have amazing stories to tell about their journeys.

Somehow traveling prompts reflection and a kind of wonder about human interconnectedness, which I think Whitman’s poem exemplifies in a fascinating way.