Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Monday, December 10, 2007

Emily Dickinson: "Because I Could Not Stop for Death"

On December 10th, 1830, Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. Although she belonged to a family that listed well-known public figures among their members, including statesmen and community leaders (her father was a lawyer and Congressional representative, while her grandfather helped found Amherst College), Emily Dickinson apparently lived a very private—and eventually almost reclusive—life, perhaps partly a result of vision problems that plagued her and led to a series of eye treatments, possibly even operations.

Those details today’s readers have about Emily Dickinson indicate she may have been a modest woman, perhaps even a bit insecure, who did not seek public attention for herself or for her poetry, which she pursued for personal satisfaction or as an entertainment to be shared merely with family or a few friends, mostly in letters. Indeed, the small number of poems published during her lifetime only appeared as a consequence of an ongoing correspondence with Samuel Bowles, a friend who also edited the Springfield Republican newspaper, where the poems were printed anonymously and heavily edited.

Not until after Emily Dickinson’s death in 1886 did relatives discover more of her poems, and a thin volume of edited selections from Dickinson’s poetry was released in 1890 as a tribute to her. Unlike her contemporary, Walt Whitman, who often expressed confidence his poems would be read for generations after his death, Emily Dickinson would be most surprised to find her poetry continuing to be read and cherished more than a century after her passing. In fact, it took nearly a century for the full treasure of her work to be revealed and inform the world as to the magnitude of her poetic achievement, when a three-volume edition of her Complete Poems finally was published during the 1950s—totaling over 1700 poems, including the hundreds of hidden pieces uncovered in the time since that first slim volume had been released.

Throughout the decades since her death, but especially since the full extent of her production was revealed about fifty years ago, Emily Dickinson’s reputation and influence have grown so that few contemporary American poets could exclude her from the list of significant predecessors who have helped shape the current climate for poetry writing. Dickinson’s importance has been established in words of homage spoken both by prominent poets and perceptive critics. For instance, Charles Wright has recognized Emily Dickinson as a primary force behind his poetic approach: “I admire and revere and am awed by a good many writers; I have been in thrall to several. But Emily Dickinson is the only writer I’ve ever read who knows my name, whose work has influenced me at my heart’s core, whose music is the music of songs I’ve listened to and remembered in my very body.” Harold Bloom has expressed his high regard for her work, suggesting she is one of America’s four greatest literary figures, alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, and Walt Whitman.

Nevertheless, Emily Dickinson’s individual style and personal perspectives continue to exist as unique, sometimes even quirky, examples that cannot be readily imitated by many subsequent poets as the work of fellow poet Walt Whitman so frequently seems to serve as model for those who have followed in his literary footsteps. Poets influenced by Emily Dickinson, such as Elizabeth Bishop, wisely have avoided an appearance that mimics Dickinson’s singular style.

On this day of her birth, to choose one poem as truly representative of Emily Dickinson’s output would be a fruitless task. Despite her swiftly identifiable style, I find myself frustrated by an inability to display the subtly wide range of possible selections that might easily be seen as significant pieces. Still, today I offer the following poem that repeatedly has struck readers with its view of typical themes usually associated with Dickinson—nature, faith, mortality, death, God, and the possibility of an afterlife—as well as its demonstration of Dickinson’s careful crafting of elegantly rhythmical lines and even a little of her recurring dark humor. Allen Tate once declared that he regarded this Dickinson poem, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” as “one of the greatest in the English language.”


Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
And Immortality.

We slowly drove—He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility—

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess—in the Ring—
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—
We passed the Setting Sun—

Or rather—He passed Us—
The Dews drew quivering and chill—
For only Gossamer, my Gown—
My Tippet—only Tulle—

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground—
The Roof was scarcely visible—
The Cornice—in the Ground—

Since then—‘tis Centuries—and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity—

With the beginning lines the poet personifies Death, portraying the figure as a friendly and cordial suitor courting the speaker on a pleasant carriage ride. Describing Death with words that characterize him as being “kindly” and exhibiting “Civility,” Dickinson offers a more positive view of death than most people normally hold or that even she usually has presented in other poems. Although fully engaged with life, the speaker suddenly must face her own mortality. However, Death brings with him a present, “Immortality,” maybe the greatest gift one can receive and an offering that may assuage any fear by allaying concerns about an afterlife.

Indeed, as readers will see by the close of the poem, perhaps by delivering reassurance of an afterlife, Dickinson’s attempt to reinforce one’s faith in God becomes a priority in this piece. The verb tenses in the poem even switch from past to present in the last stanza with “feels,” signaling an ongoing spiritual presence after death. This conclusion proves even more promising and optimistic than some other Dickinson poems. For instance, although “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” also contains a persona speaking from the grave, suggesting an afterlife, that poem ends with the moment of death after a possible display of faltering faith and a brief bit of uncertainty.

The speaker here relinquishes all of her life, “labor and leisure,” similar to the manner the persona in “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” had “signed away” all her earthly belongings. Yet, Dickinson then cleverly depicts the couple’s journey “toward Eternity” with scenery symbolizing the various stages of life: the innocence and leisure of childhood, the productiveness and labor of adulthood, and an aged one’s awareness of mortality in the image of “the Setting Sun.” In doing so, Dickinson reviews life at the moment of death, as though in the cliché about life flashing before one’s eyes, but with an accompanying notion that death is also a natural stage in the cycle of life. Indeed, the children are described as they “strove” during their “Recess—in the Ring.” (In an earlier and less effective published version of this poem, titled by editors as “The Chariot,” the children simply play and the image of the ring is absent.) Like Death, nature is personified when “gazing” modifies “Grain,” and with the poem’s instances of personification, death and nature achieve an equal stature with human life.

In that previous version, the editors also had omitted stanza four. But the images in this stanza signify clearly that the journey represents a funeral procession, the carriage is a hearse, and perhaps the speaker is dressed in the flimsy materials of her burial gown, though impractical for the cold of this physical world and perhaps as elegant as a bridal gown, which some could believe would be appropriate for her fresh start with the new suitor.

Finally, Dickinson further comforts readers about the prospect of death by labeling the grave as “a House,” perhaps connoting a pleasant domestic dwelling where the spirit will live on forever. Indeed, the speaker reports the centuries since her death have passed so quickly that the time feels “shorter than the Day,” which the poet already has metaphorically presented as representing a mortal lifetime. For the speaker, eternal life with God is so joyful that time flies by, as another cliché now might state.

Consequently, the speaker encourages readers to have greater faith because one who has passed through life to death now has reassured them about what bliss they can expect afterwards. Thankfully, in her many poems that have been retrieved and preserved (like the lone existing daguerreotype photograph of her accompanying this post), though now more than a century has passed since her death, Emily Dickinson continues to speak so eloquently to us.


Leslie Crabtree said...

I composed a song on "Because I Could Not Stop For Death". Please, check my web site www.crabtree.narod.ru and go to the section "Works for Voice and Piano".
To get a full version, please, write to me.
Leslie Crabtree

Because I could not stop for death said...

You have done great research. I really appreciate your understanding of her poems. It is not that easy and requires a creative mind.