Archive for November, 2012

The Vaster Economy of Desire: Richard Wilbur on the Sumptuous Destitution of Emily Dickinson

November 16, 2012

Philosophers are bound to paradigms and past pronouncements. But no paradigm comes close to capturing our multifarious world. That’s why my favorite philosophers are mostly poets. Poets are less likely to get boxed in by theory or even worry too much about what they were saying a week ago.

Richard Wilbur notes that Emily Dickinson (“not a philosopher”) was “consistent in her concerns but inconsistent in her attitudes” (10; 5). One of Miss Dickinson’s major concerns is the limited capacity of human beings to absorb even a fraction of what we crave. Our gargantuan appetites are ill-fitted to our frail, finite, and terminable bodies. But instead of lamenting this unsuitable arrangement, Emily Dickinson celebrates privation for its own sake:

Heaven is what I cannot reach!

In his 1959 article “Sumptuous Destitution,” Wilbur explores Dickinson’s “huge world of delectable distances,” where desire trumps actual possession (11). As Wilbur explains Dickinson (“Linnaeus to the phenomena of her own consciousness”) the poetess finds anticipation far more enticing than actual possession because “once an object has been magnified by desire, it cannot be wholly possessed by appetite” (4; 8). Employing physical hunger as a metaphor for all human desire, Dickinson explains in “I had been Hungry All the Years” how she “found”

That hunger was a way
Of persons outside windows,
The entering takes away.

Frustration is the inevitable consequence in Dickinson’s world of perpetual want where itching vanquishes scratching. The vigor of Dickinson’s yearnings are “magnified” by elusive wants:

[N]ot only are the objects of her desire distant; they are also very often moving away, their sweetness increasing in proportion to their remoteness. “To disappear enhances” one of the poems begins (11-12).

When Dickinson asserts that

Success is counted sweetest
By those that ne’er succeed

she is “arguing the superiority of defeat to victory, of frustration to satisfaction, and of anguished comprehension to mere possession” (9). Wilbur posits convincingly that, for Dickinson, the dead soldier in “Success is Counted Sweetest” made “the better bargain” than his compatriots who survived the victorious battle because his “defeat and death are attended by an increase of awareness, and material loss has led to a spiritual gain” (10).

Emily Dickinson chose her seclusion, and “At times it seems that there is nothing in her world but her own soul, with its attendant abstractions, and, at a vast remove, the inscrutable Heaven” (12). The God of Emily Dickinson’s capacious consciousness is immense and mysterious. We can spend our lives contemplating Him, but He can only be ingested in small bites.

The creature of appetite (whether insect or human) pursues satisfaction, and strives to possess the object in itself; it cannot imagine the vaster economy of desire, in which the pain of abstinence is justified by moments of infinite joy, and the object is spiritually possessed, not merely for itself, but more truly as an index of the All (11).

In his poem “Hamlen Brook,” Richard Wilbur discovers sumptuous destitution when he is nonplussed by overwhelming natural beauty.

How shall I drink all this?

Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.

by Richard W. Bray

Vitamin Me

November 3, 2012

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzvitamins

You could see your doctor for some tests
He’ll say “drink some juice and get some rest”
Beg your pardon if I’m actin lewd
But I’m the one to fill you up with fluid

It’s time to take your Vitamin Me
To inoculate against insanity
I’m a remedy for everything that bores
I’m rejuvenating and and I’ll clear your pores

You could call a nurse who gives advice
She’ll say rest and relaxation should suffice
But Honey, I got processes planned
To leave you felling like a hundred grand

It’s time to take your Vitamin Me
To inoculate against inanity
I’m a remedy for everything that bores
I’m rejuvenating and and I’ll clear your pores

We might havta break a couple laws
But it’s better than a weekend at the spa
My treatments obliterate the blahs
But it ain’t the kinda thing you tell your ma

It’s time to take your Vitamin Me
To inoculate against insanity
I’m a remedy for everything that bores
I’m rejuvenating and I’ll clear your pores

by Richard W. Bray