Friday, March 27, 2015

Emily Dickinson's "We Grow Accustomed to the Dark" (for the Common Core Crowd)

I. Reading

This poem begins with the word “we,” instead of “I.” Dickinson presumes to speak for all of us, and we are invited to see ourselves in this poem. So when I read the first stanza, I have to ask myself: is this true of me too? And Dickinson’s poem convinced me: yes!

“We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye—“

What does it mean to “grow accustomed?” Usually that means getting used to, or adjusting (a word she also uses in the poem’s last stanza) to something alien, something unfamiliar, something we didn’t want or that makes us uncomfortable, like an immigrant having to learn the customs of the country in which she finds (or loses) herself. Darkness, then, is contrasted to the light. And it’s true, in our society, light is often more valued than dark. Dickinson doesn’t say the sun is setting, she says, “light is put away.” There was no electricity in Dickinson’s time, but there were candles (and lamps lit with whale-blubber), designed to stave off the dark (and in a way extend the feeling of daylight beyond its naturally allotted time).

But this first stanza is not just about light and dark, or day and night, it’s also about what happens when you’re left alone. The most striking image here involves “the Neighbor.” It’s interesting that she says “the Neighbor,” rather than “a Neighbor.” This particular Neighbor is obviously a very important, close friend, and she’s leaving, and taking the light with her (so she can see herself leaving).

In the second stanza, Dickinson is left alone with the night, so she offers physical examples of how we “grow accustomed” to the dark.

A Moment -- We uncertain step

For newness of the night --

Then -- fit our Vision to the Dark --

And meet the Road -- erect --

I have definitely felt something like this when trying to walk and see at night. It takes awhile for the eyes to adjust, to “fit our Vision to the Dark,” but they often do, especially once you realize that darkness is often not entirely dark.[i] It may seem totally dark at first, in the “newness of the night,” but that’s because we’re comparing it to day (or to the lamplight). There are degrees of darkness, just as there are degrees of brightness: it’s not really a matter of “black” and “white” (as they say), but more of yin and yang.

Dickinson’s use of her characteristic dashes in this stanza is very artful, and helps show her own stumbling, her own “uncertain step(s)” in this seemingly alien, but ultimately very natural, darkness. Her capitalization of words like “Vision,” also suggests that this “Vision” is not mere physical sight, but a matter of consciousness. People often speak of the word “vision,” as their “world view,” or their insight. And this word leads her to the next stanza:

“And so of larger—The Darkness—
Those Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or star—come out—within—“

As she moves from a specific moment, a specific example, of leaving the neighbor and walking back in darkness (presumably to her own home) to these “Evenings of the Brain,” the poem becomes “larger” in its meanings, but also more “internal” and private. For Dickinson, “The Brain is wider than the Sky,” as she put it in another short poem, and in “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark,” everything she says about the darkness of the sky can be at least as true about the brain (or you can call it mind, or soul, or consciousness).

Here the darkness is definitely absolute. There’s no “Moon” to “disclose a sign” or
“Star—come out—within—.” Both the moon and the star become symbols
instead of images. A moon, or even one little star, can give meaning, direction, and
even hope: a sign. The analogy she makes between the physical world and the
interior world in this stanza seems more hopeless. It’s not just “A Moment”
of uncertainty that takes up only two-lines in the previous stanza. This despair takes
up an entire stanza of “Evenings.”

Her use of the word “Evenings” in this stanza is interesting for several reasons.
We usually think of evenings as happening between day and night, light and dark.
They happen earlier in winter than they do in summer (when the nights are
shorter). They are called “evenings” because they even the balance between light
and dark; both are necessary in nature. But in Dickinson’s poem these “Evenings”
are entirely dark, but her use of the word evening—rather than the word “night”
actually gives her a little hope that it is not endless night.

Still, these evenings of darkness can be treacherous, and we must be brave to cope with them. In fact, they’re much more treacherous than walking back from the Neighbor. We can “sometimes hit a Tree/ Directly in the Forehead.” This line is actually very comical, even in its pain and violence. It sounds like she’s saying the “Tree” has a “Forehead” too! Because the subject of this stanza has now switched from the first-person plural (“We”) to the third-person plural (“The Bravest”), I wonder if Dickinson herself actually still identifies with “The Bravest,” and if “we” can “learn to see” as she says they can. “But as they learn to see,” she writes:

“Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.”

At the end of this poem, she has established her analogy (or her metaphoric conceit) between the physical darkness and the “larger—Darkness…of the Brain.”
But there are other crucial differences between what happens in the first two stanzas, and what happens in the last three stanzas, aside from the change from “we” to “they” (The Bravest).

As the seeing becomes not just physical seeing, but rather an interior Vision that could allow the bravest of us to cope with the darkness of despair (beyond the “irritable groping for certainty,” as John Keats puts it in one of his famous letters), something changes, but Dickinson can’t really figure out what changes. She offers two versions of “learning to see,” two perspectives, and two ways of saying the same thing. The darkness itself may alter—or change. This could mean the darkness becomes less dark, or “alters” could even suggest a religious significance; the darkness starts being seen as sacred! Again, Dickinson’s mastery of choosing single words with suggestive double-meanings is simply stunning!

“Learning to see” could also mean that “something in the sight/ Adjusts itself to Midnight.” This adjustment is similar to the way we “fit our Vision to the Dark” in the second stanza. But, here, it’s not us doing it; it’s not even “they” (the bravest of us) doing it. It’s “something in the sight,” something we may not really have any control over. So even though she locates this “something in the sight” inside the bravest of us in contrast to the “darkness,” which she had considered as outside of us, in this final stanza the difference between the inside and the outside seems to vanish! We’re becoming accustomed to our own darkness.

All she knows is that something changes, or adjusts, but since these “Evenings of the brain,” are so much more difficult to deal with, the final line of the poem makes one more contrast with what she wrote about mere physical, everyday (or every night) darkness. She ended stanza two, by concluding confidently, that we can “meet the Road---erect—,” but here she ends with “And Life steps almost straight.” The word almost is the key word here. Her comparison between the physical, external world, and the “evenings of the brain,” actually ends up emphasizing the contrasts, the difference between the two.

Dickinson’s little five stanza poem becomes more complex the more you look at it. “The World is Not Conclusion,” she wrote; and this poem offers no conclusion. “Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant,” she also wrote, and here the “almost straight,” is certainly slant---but maybe it’s more true, and accurate, than “meet the Road—erect” in a deeply profound way.

II. Formal Structure & Music (And  Interactive Class Activity)

Dickinson’s poems are the only two poems in this “Common Core App,” that can easily be set to music!  Have you ever heard a gospel song like “Amazing Grace?” Or maybe you’ve heard the blues song (made famous by The Animals and Bob Dylan, “House Of The Rising Sun”)? Or have you even heard “The Gilligan’s Island theme?
Those are just three examples of song melodies and structures that you could use to sing, and to study, both “We Grow Accustomed To The Dark” and “Because I Could Not Stop For Death.” In fact, thinking about singing these songs is the easiest way to teach, and learn, Dickinson’s formal structure, without all the technical jargon.

In considering those three melodies, and songs, one may notice how different they feel from each other. “Amazing Grace” is an uplifting sacred song (and still sung in both white and black churches), while “House Of The Rising Sun,” is dark and minor, and The “Gilligan’s Island” theme is a comic seafaring song. If you sing Dickinson’s poem to each of these melodies, you’ll hear how different they make her words sound, and feel. This could lead to a very productive class-room discussion about how to interpret the meanings of Dickinson’s poem, and also a fascinating discussion about poetry’s relationship to songs.

After all, the word “interpretation” can mean both “your reading of a poem,” but also the way you perform a song, as a cover version, or even a play: each performance of a Shakespeare play is an “interpretation” of this poem. And these two Emily Dickinson poems have been interpreted (read) in many different ways: some read her poems as very uplifting (like “Amazing Grace”) and others read the poems as much darker (like the melody to “House Of The Rising Sun”).

One possible class exercise is to listen to these two songs as a group and ask students which melody works with better with the lyrics, or to try to find other melodies that these poems could work with. Some of your students may even come up with their own songs. Exercises like this can help make the poem come more alive to the students, and also show that there was a practical basis originally for the technical terminology used to describe rhythm and meter in formal poetry.

That practical basis has tended to get lost as most poetry is written for the page, and not often memorized to be sung as songs are. But it’s still a practical concern in the craft of songwriting today, which at its best, is not that different from poetry. It helps emphasize the physicality of the rhythm. In my experience, it’s been exercises such as these that allow students to actually see a point to all the daunting talk of trochees, iambs, and dactyls. After doing these exercises, it’s much easier to bring that up.

Like many of Dickinson’s poems, the meter alternates between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, but there are some deviations from it (noticeably the use of the word “Either” in the last stanza, which departs from the rhythm). All the stanzas generally rhyme the 2nd and 4th line, but there is only one exact end rhyme (“Tree” and “see”). All the others are “close rhymes” or “eye rhymes: (“Away” and “goodbye” in first stanza; “night,” and “erect” in the second stanza; “Brain” and within;” and “sight and straight”). In Dickinson, her use of these rhymes, and even her deviation from her standard metric form usually tells us something about what she’s saying as well.

[i] A personal example: I go to the bathroom to brush my teeth, and turn on the light. The light seems dimmer than usual. Too dim, but I can see enough to brush my teeth. Brushing, I take my attention off this general light to focus more specifically on the process of brushing (which isn’t entirely visual). But when I look back at the general light in the room coming from the ceiling, it now suddenly seems brighter. Did the electrical current just take awhile to kick in, or did my retinas or something else in my eyes, in fact, adjust? It’s a mystery, but a pleasant one.

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