In a former life as a 20-something knowitall poetry snob, i hated Hated HATED Emily Dickinson’s poetry. That opinion resulted from excessive zeal in sIn a former life as a 20-something knowitall poetry snob, i hated Hated HATED Emily Dickinson’s poetry. That opinion resulted from excessive zeal in support of 2 idiotic articles of faith: (a) rhyming poetry is weak and (b) slant-rhyme is even weaker than “real” rhyme. Now that i’m merely a 40-something knowitall, i enjoy Dickinson’s poems more often than not.
Two friends of mine really loved this book, The Humans. They’re why i read it. Well, and because of my nebulous 2014 reading goal of “read science fiction almost exclusively.”
But i feel guilty when i do not love a book beloved by friends. Sometimes i’m so guilty that i lie about what i think. (Andy: The Brothers Karamazov is a 4 star book for me if i’m being honest.) It’s much easier to express one’s tepid feelings about a popular book when i just don’t know anything about how my friends think of it.
Guilt catalyzed action, though. I looked, i fretted, i searched, i worried, i strived, i agonized, and i eventually stumbled onto a path for enjoyment, kinda. The key? Ah, my friends. Salvation through devolution. Reverting to old habits. Namely, doing what i would’ve done as a 20-something poetry snob: i treated this book as if it were part of a college lit class. Once i started doing that, i experienced a surge of pleasantly neuroadaptive activity (213).
What follows is as good as anything i did as a graduate student (ie, i’d get an “Incomplete,” at best). Who cares! This ain’t an assignment and i don’t want/need a high mark. I merely wanted to be able to say i enjoyed this book.
Jeff’s Litany of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry in Matt Haig’s The Humans: A Platykurtic Distribution? [an honest working title, complete with obligatory colon and 25¢ word i’d never seen before reading this book]
This narrator loves poetry. He says so in the first pages of the novel. (Note: i shall call the narrator Alex Marti(a)n, to distinguish him from Alex Martin, the human whom he replaced. A less “clever” distinction is that Alex Martin didn’t love poetry.) Alex Marti(a)n’s creator, aka the author, aka Matt Haig, must want readers to think something specific about this narrator. I suspect that something is roughly, “Alex Marti(a)n has the soul of a poet.” We also can expect Haig to frequently display his poetic soul explicitly and via subtlety. Finally, since Emily Dickinson is specifically mentioned on page one, she must be the chief vehicle of poetic allusion.
Now the Dickinson quotes and allusions i was able to identify. Page numbers (above and below) are from Simon & Schuster’s hardcover edition (searchable at Amazon.com). I hope you enjoy reading all the great poems. They gave me great pleasure and added a ton to my experience of this book.
I dwell in Possibility — A fairer House than Prose — More numerous of Windows — Superior — for Doors —
Of Chambers as the Cedars — Impregnable of eye — And for an everlasting Roof The Gambrels of the Sky —
Of Visitors — the fairest — For Occupation — This — The spreading wide my narrow Hands To gather Paradise —
I took my power in my hand And went against the world; ‘T was not so much as David had, But I was twice as bold.
I aimed my pebble, but myself Was all the one that fell. Was it Goliath was too large, Or only I too small?
[1st line = title of Part One (4)] [source = Kindle free ebook Poems by Emily Dickinson]
How happy is the little Stone That rambles in the Road alone, And doesn't care about Careers And Exigencies never fears — Whose Coat of elemental Brown A passing Universe put on, And independent as the Sun Associates or glows alone, Fulfilling absolute Decree In casual simplicity —
[quoted in “Emily Dickinson” chapter (76-77)] [source = allpoetry.com]
The Soul should always stand ajar That if the Heaven inquire He will not be obliged to wait Or shy of troubling Her
Depart, before the Host have slid The Bolt unto the Door — To search for the accomplished Guest, Her Visitor, no more —
[misquoted in “Emily Dickinson” chapter (77) as “The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience”; see correct 2nd line above] [source = Kindle free ebook Poems by Emily Dickinson]
I held a Jewel in my fingers — And went to sleep — The day was warm, and winds were prosy — I said "'Twill keep" —
I woke — and chid my honest fingers, The Gem was gone — And now, an Amethyst remembrance Is all I own —
That it will never come again, Is what makes life so sweet. Believing what we don’t believe Does not exhilarate.
That if it be, it be at best An ablative estate — This instigates and appetite Precisely opposite.
[1st two lines = epigraph to chapter “How to See Forever” (197)] [source = Kindle free ebook Poems by Emily Dickinson]
“A King of Infinite Space” (ch. title; 206) sounded Dickinsonian to me, but Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the source. It’s from a discussion between the titular prince of pessimism and his ill-fated buddies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in which Hamlet says, “Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” [source = http://nfs.sparknotes.com/hamlet/page... ]
“The Art of Letting Go” (ch. title; 210) makes me think of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” which has the great first line, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” [source = http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/on... ] Yet Hamlet retains center stage in this chapter with 3 direct quotes.
And is it really possible that “Places Beyond Logic” (ch. title; 225) is not from Dickinson? Wow.
A Wounded Deer — leaps highest — I've heard the Hunter tell — 'Tis but the Ecstasy of death — And then the Brake is still!
The Smitten Rock that gushes! The trampled Steel that springs! A Cheek is always redder Just where the Hectic stings!
Mirth is the Mail of Anguish In which it Cautious Arm, Lest anybody spy the blood And "you're hurt" exclaim!
[misquoted 1st line = title of Part Three (229)] [source = poetry.rapgenius.com] [Note: “In which it Cautious Arm” is published in at least 4 other variations and none of the 5 seem grammatically capable of expressing what must be Dickinson’s point: People who suffer from Anguish might choose to be cautious and, therefore, protect themselves by donning a form of emotional armor known as Mirth.]
That’s the end of directly quoting or misquoting Dickinson, but Haig can’t be done using Miss Emily’s words and ideas.
There's something quieter than sleep Within this inner room! It wears a sprig upon its breast — And will not tell its name.
Some touch it, and some kiss it — Some chafe its idle hand — It has a simple gravity I do not understand!
I would not weep if I were they — How rude in one to sob! Might scare the quiet fairy Back to her native wood!
While simple-hearted neighbors Chat of the "Early dead" — We — prone to periphrasis Remark that Birds have fled!
[the chapter beginning on 257 is titled “The Second Type of Gravity”] [source = www.poemhunter.com]
Even less directly allusive than this but even more apposite is what i found while trying to find a Dickinson poem related to “The Melancholy Beauty of the Setting Sun.” The word melancholy is never used in the Todd/Higginson edition of Poems by Emily Dickinson except in the last sentence of Todd’s preface to the second series! (according to a Kindle search). So i searched for “setting sun” and found the following, much more interesting results.
God permits industrious angels Afternoons to play I met one, — forgot my school-mates All, for him, straightaway
God calls home the angels promptly At the setting sun I missed mine. How dreary marbles After playing the Crown!
[source = poetry.rapgenius.com]
Andrew Marti(a)n is a minion for the Hosts. The Hosts are like unto gods. Vonnadoria is like unto heaven. Therefore, Andrew Marti(a)n is an angel. Furthermore, the poem in the Todd/Higginson collection that immediately follows the one above about angels is as follows.
To know just how He suffered — would be dear To know if any Human eyes were near To whom He could entrust His wavering gaze Until it settle broad — on Paradise
To know if He was patient — part content Was Dying as He thought — or different Was it a pleasant Day to die And did the Sunshine face his way
What was His furthest mind — Of Home — or God Or what the Distant say At news that He ceased Human Nature Such a Day
And Wishes — Had He Any Just His Sigh — Accented Had been legible — to Me And was He Confident until Ill fluttered out — in Everlasting Well
And if He spoke — What name was Best What last What One broke off with At the Drowsiest
Was He afraid — or tranquil Might He know How Conscious Consciousness — could grow Till Love that was — and Love too best to be Meet — and the Junction be Eternity
[source = poetry.rapgenius.com]
Does this not sound like a synopsis of Andrew Marti(a)n’s life? Or maybe i’m reading this poem and this book incorrectly?
Conclusion: i surely don’t remember/understand the definition of a “platykurtic distribution” but i still believe this book does not exhibit such an allotment of Dickinsonian words/ideas. And who cares if it does? Nobody would love a novel about a fictional character who almost single-handedly revolutionized human society by proving the Riemann hypothesis, thereby ushering in an era of technological advances that inexorably change humans into passionless expressions of the ultimate equation, but many of us can love a novel whose extraterrestrial narrator’s philosophy echoes, supports, or enhances our belief in the value of human life....more
I almost romantically love Nicholson Baker. Is there anybody else who could describe what you see upon opening a peanut butter jar as "the lunar surfaI almost romantically love Nicholson Baker. Is there anybody else who could describe what you see upon opening a peanut butter jar as "the lunar surface"?! It seems that there must be at least one other such person, but what if NB is literally the ONLY one?
I've complained of other books for using "too many modifiers." And NB slings them almost as much as Jackson Pollock does paint, yet i love his prose. So maybe, for precision's sake, my complaint should've been that in books where the modifiers seem too plentiful, what i really don't like is that too many of them are uninteresting and/or ordinary and/or unenlightening.
Rarely does a writer's word choice activate my visual mind and link it to my linguistic pleasure center. NB seems to manage this rare feat at least once every 5 pages. He's known for his acute observations and i join the throng who say he earns such renown. I submit the following quote from p.4 as a description of how his observations work (emphasis mine): "a tricky lateral sort of comparison, in which the two terms threaten to be insufficiently disparate in some respects for the connection to work properly."
You will not find plot or story in this book, but you will find a lot of character, especially that of the narrator. If you can't abandon expectations of those common novelesque elements, then you'll probably struggle to enjoy this book.
Unless you can simply enjoy the language.
Or if you can appreciate what i think was NB's goal and that i feel are well expressed in the following three excerpts: I had been trying to reconstruct all the transitions between all the subjects (Bach on the radio, the theory of lift, the possibility of infinite-speed gearboxes, new bicycle designs that took better advantage of the thigh muscles, etc.) that we had talked about since we'd driven off at 6:30 that morning (p18) ...with a little concentration one's whole life could be reconstructed from any single twenty-minute period randomly or almost randomly selected (p41; e.g., the 20min a father spends rocking his 6-month old daughter to sleep) How could my mother ever have expected us to "draw the inside of a pillow"? Nothing ... could have prepared my sister and me for the impossible mental involution of attempting to imagine one's pencil investigating the poorly lit interior surfaces of one's own pillow (p54; the pillow, of course, being the analog of the narrator's life)
In the end, i felt this was the story of a man coming to grips with his actual mundane life, learning to appreciate the importance of being a husband and a father, and peacefully accepting that he will not achieve the exciting dreams of youth: Mike Beal won't compose a work for the symphony and he won't write a 400-page proslogium on the importance of the comma. Nicholson Baker will write a work that shows how valid Mike Beal's life is nonetheless. (I trust that the irony is not lost on the dreamers and other wannabe novelists out there, especially those who noticed the biographical similarities between narrator and author.)...more