Friday, March 20, 2009

Dickinson II

Journal #22
Posted by Michael Fong
March 20, 2009
Emily Dickinson

"This is my letter to the World / That never wrote to Me - / The simple News that Nature told - /With tender Majesty/ Her Message is comitted / To Hands I cannot see - / For love of Her - Sweet - countrymen - / Judge tenderly - of Me" (Emily Dickinson)

What a beautiful set of letters that Dickinson left to the world! The Loaded Gun, the Yellow Eye, the Fly Buzz - everything from a woman who spent the majority of her adult life in seclusion. This is a general observation that could be applied to other poets and other works, but it is interesting as to how the poet immortalizes him or herself through immortalizing certain ideas/people/emotions in their poems. By describing love, religion, and so many other forms of emotions in such a vivid and powerful way, Dickinson left us with the greatest letter of all, the immortalized form of herself: Dickinson, the poet. I find it extremely difficult to write about poems, for what more could be written about them? I mentioned that Whitman's poetry possesses the same sort of timelessness and universal appeal that few poets (e.g., Rumi) have, and I would say that Dickinson's poetry has that same quality too.
I suppose this is a good way to end the quarter, as I have been asked numerous times by my parents and friends: What is practical about being an English major? There's no money in it, there doesn't even seem to be a decent job in it. But literature is so much more than merely reading poems, stories, novels and discussing them and watch professors snipe at each other in universities about them. It is more than making one seem sophisticated by sipping coffee in an outdoor cafe while nodding and reading poems at the same time. It is more than an impressive shelf of books to show to visitors. Literature is the caricature, the representation of humanity at its best (or worst), and it is up to us, the present generation, to preserve it, and to admire it at the same time. This is where the Dickinsons, the Shakespeares, the Austens, the Twains, and others come in. That's what being an English major's about, at least for me. That, and, of course, the joy of reading that comes with it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dickinson - Wild Nights-Wild Nights!

Journal #21
Posted by Michael Fong
March 18, 2009
Emily Dickinson

"Wild nights - Wild nights! / Were I with thee / Wild nights should be / Our luxury! / Futile - the winds - / To a Heart in port - / Done with the Compass - / Done with the Chart! / Rowing in Eden - / Ah - the Sea! / Might I but moor - tonight - / In thee!" (Emily Dickinson "Wild nights - Wild nights!"

Sometimes I wonder if we as readers could dismiss the biography of the poet, as least for a moment, and just read the poem as a piece of work that stands alone. Relatively speaking I am rather unfamiliar to Dickinson's poetry, but this particular poem is one of the first that I have read since I first started reading poetry. I knew nothing at that time. Nothing about iambic pentameters, nothing rhyming, nothing about Emily Dickinson, nothing. And the first thing that struck me was, "Wow, this is a really beautiful poem!" If someone asks me at that time what do I think the poet is saying I do not think that I can give a definite answer. Now I might be able to say that this possibly a love poem, but still much is left blank. However, does it really matter if she wrote it to Susan Gilbert, or to Higginson, or to herself? Does it matter if she's heterosexual or homosexual? Does it matter there is indeed sexual connotations intended?

Higginson once said that he feared that malicious readers might infer much more from the poem than the virgin recluse intended there to be. My position is similar. As a poem, as a piece of art, Dickinson's poetry possesses a transcendental nature. Her depiction of love, pain, and emotions is simply beautiful. As readers, I think it is best to just stand back for a moment once in a while, and admire the poetry, the use of language, and the wit of Dickinson. One may say that further understanding of Dickinson's life may enhance the pleasure derived during reading the poem, but I do not see it as of any importance (unless you're an English major). People always seek to understand and to make sense of everything. But poetry is not logical, one cannot seek to "understand" poetry. Instead of trying to determine who's the lover in Shakespeare's sonnets, why not just admire them instead? I am sure that admiring the secret smile of Mona Lisa is just as well as satisfying without knowing who she is, or why Da Vinci drew her.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Song of Myself

Journal #20
Posted by Michael Fong
March 12, 2009
Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"

"Every kind for itself and its own, for me mine male and female, / For me those that have been boys and that love women, / For me the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be slighted, / For me the sweet-heart and the old maid, for me mothers and the mothers of mothers, / For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears, / For me children and the begetters of children." (Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself")

I wonder if the title for this poem could be more appropriately named. As the biography shows, opera plays a huge part in Whitman's "Song of Myself". While I said that I was greatly confused when reading his poem, one thing that did not escape my attention is that how he groups his poetry into "movements", so to speak. Whitman creates a silent sort of tone in the beginning which usually ends in a climax of repetitions. That is, in a way, very similar to opera, or even classical music. True, Whitman does not have the conventional form of poetry, but he does exhibit certain subtle forms of music in his poetry.

My knowledge about operas is painfully limited, but I do remember the time when I first heard Luciano Pavarotti sing. His nine high Cs in La Fille du Regiment could still bring shivers, and who could forget his version of "Nessun Dorma", one of the most powerful versions that I have ever heard. His repetition of the nine high C notes is very similar with Whitman's constant repeptition of phrases and words in his poetry. It also has the operatic quality of the telling of a story. It makes the audience "feel" the music; the audience feels saddened when the tragedy of two lovers is unfolded, and rejoice when the villain is slain. Similarly, readers are invited to embark upon the "roller-coaster" of "Song of Myself". It is definitely not for the faint of heart, and indeed, a lifetime could be spent upon this single poem entirely. Is it perhaps because of lack of experience in life that makes the poem so difficult to comprehend for me? One way or the other, I do hope that someday I could be able to feel the music myself, and understand "Song of Myself" more completely.

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

Journal #19
Posted by Michael Fong
March 12, 2009
Walt Whitman, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"

"What is it then between us? / What is the count of the scores or hundreds of ye
ars between us? / Whatever it is, it avails not-distance avails not, and place avails not, / I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine, / I too walk'd the streets of Manhattan island, a
d bathed in the waters around it, / I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me, / In
 the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me, / In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me, / I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution, / I too had receiv'd identity by my body, / That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body." (Walt Whitman, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry")

In Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry", he muses about his place in the flow of time, and examines the identities of individuals as well as himself.  He includes images of ferries and buildings in the poem, and seems to say that the experiences that he has and the things he has gone through are, to some extent, similar with those of others.

I will not attempt to say that I understand the poem fully, but I have also gone to some lengths to refrain myself from looking up the synopsis/analysis of Whitman's poem online, as I feel that I should "get" the poem myself.  My impression of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" is the intriguing notion put forth by Whitman concerning one's individuality.  Not long ago I have heard an idea from a friend of mine who is currently majoring in sociology: Everyone claims to be unique in this world, and that is what makes everyone similar.  For Whitman to break all barriers of time, location, and place and say that everyone is, in a sense, not so different from others and that he understands everybody is an extremely bold idea to be said in his time.  Using simple, down-to-earth images of people boarding ferries and the river flowing
 by to make his point is ingenuity upon
 Whitman's part.  At the end of the day, we may all be only small particles of water constituting to the river of time.  We are not as significant or important as we perceive ourselves to be, but instead, we only are tiny pieces that are put together to create the big picture.  At the same time, such interconnectedness makes us not that much different from each other.  This is roughly what I myself got from "Crossing Brooklyn Bridge".  Whitman's poems are indeed organic, and who knows, twenty, or even forty years from now I may finally "get" and connect with the poem myself.  I might even be interviewed about my thoughts on Whitman's
 poetry with the camera rolling in my face on Columbus Ave/Broadway (or so I hope...)

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Awakening

Journal #18
Posted by Michael Fong
March 6, 2009
Kate Chopin, The Awakening

"'The trouble is,' sighed the Doctor, grasping her meaning intuitively, 'that youth is given up to illusions. It seems to be a provision of Nature; a decoy to secure mothers for the race. And Nature takes no account of moral consequences, of arbitrary conditions which we create, and which we feel obliged to maintain at any cost.'" (Kate Chopin, The Awakening)

After witnessing Madame Ratignolle give birth, Edna feels uneasy, and goes out into the open air. She engages in a conversation with Doctor Mandelot, in which she expresses implicitly of her desire to be alone and free from the bonds of her husband and children. The doctor, being an astute observer, realizes the implications behind Edna's words and utters this response, in which he addresses the desire of sex as a decoy set by Nature in order to ensure that humans do not die out. He then goes on to invite Edna to go to speak with him as soon as possible.

When taking Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" into consideration, it comes as a moderate surprise to me that the doctor in The Awakening appears as the only person who seems to have the capability to understand Edna. When I got to the part where the doctor is introduced, I almost half-expected that Edna would be locked up eventually in the story as a woman with the "female disease". He is the only life buoy, so to speak, that Edna could grab and hold on to. "Yes, I will blame you if you don't come and see me soon. We will talk of things you never have dreamt of talking about before." Oh if only Edna had gone to the doctor and confided him with her troubles, she may not have met her end as she did in the novel. If Edna is in the process of awakening during the novel, then the doctor is the "awakened" and the "enlightened" one.

However, in regards to the doctor's argument, I beg to differ. Can we blame who we are on Nature? We as humans pride ourselves to being different from animals in that we have a higher level of independence and individuality. It is therefore reasonable and logical to say that we owe responsibility to our own actions. Animals can act according to their instincts for that is what Nature made them to be, but as we are different from animals, the same consideration for them do not apply to us. Yes, desires and passions play a big role in the course of our lives and I am not saying that it is not a factor to a great many of our decisions, but I am saying that this should not be merely related as the main cause, or the main reason to what we do. Doctor Mandelot here seems to be saying that it is not the fault of youth, but rather, the illusions that Nature set up that is to blame. One can also make the relation to Twain's Letters from the Earth, where the yielding of mankind to sexual or personal desires is being addressed as well.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Storm

Journal #17
Posted by Michael Fong
March 4, 2009
Kate Chopin, "The Storm"

"As for Clarice, she was charmed upon receiving her husband's letter. She and the babies were doing well. The society was agreeable; many of her old friends and acquaintances were at the bay. And the first free breath since her marriage seemed to restore the pleasant liberty of her maiden days. Devoted as she was to her husband, their intimate conjugal life was something which she was more than willing to forego for a while. So the storm passed and every one was happy." (Kate Chopin, "The Storm")

Bobinot and his son Bibi are stranded at a store due to the storm, and while they are staying there during the night, Calixta, the mother, engaged in a romantic, intimate relationship with a Alcee Laballiere. The above quote takes place after the storm, when Alcee wrote to his wife Clarisse at Biloxi, where she is staying with the babies. She expressed her comfort of foregoing their "intimate conjual life" for a while. The story ends with no apparent conflict between any character.

Marital issues and challenges all seem to be so "20th century", that it is interesting as well as refreshing to observe the same problems in marriages in 19th century literature. I think that the way "The Storm" was described in class was extremely accurate; it is indeed a prelude to "The Awakening". "So the storm passed and every one was happy." Yet why is every one happy? If Bobinot or Alcee had any idea what their wives did or thought about during their absence surely raging storms would be inevitable. This reminds me of two quotes: "Ignorance is bliss" and "Marriage is built upon lies". We often dismiss these as corny sayings but it carries a certain amount of truth in it. No matter for what intention, lies are said every day, and within a couple, when lies come out into the open things tend to get ugly. All the characters in "The Storm" seem unscathed by their actions. One may argue that there is no conflict in the story. But I personally think that the significance of the story are the implied conflicts between a husband and wife; the storms that pass over them.

I sometimes wonder whether such occasional deception between a couple is a sure indication of the failure of marriages, or rather, the failure of the system itself. It is pessimistic to think about it this way, but as the divorce rate nowadays is higher than ever, one cannot help but lose faith in marriage itself. Couples consent to a certain number of vows and promises before the altar when they tie the knot, and yet over half of the marriages end up in divorce. Chopin's "The Storm" describes the root of a majority of problems in marriages: deception and yielding to one's personal desires. Mark Twain might be right after all in Satan's discourse of man in Letters from the Earth.