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Faith and spirituality can be explored in the poetry of the New England poet Emily Dickinson and the Southern poet Charles Wright. Dickinson seeks for inspiration in the Bible, while Charles Wright looks to Dickinson as a source of information, guidance and inspiration. Wright suggest that “[Dickinson’s] poetry [is] an electron microscope trained on the infinite and the idea of God…. Her poems are immense voyages into the unknowable.”(Quarter) Charles Wright whose poetry captures a compilation of influences states that "There are three things, basically, that [he] writes about — language, landscape, and the idea of God." Dickinson and Wright centered their poetry in their belief in God and both share the influence of the Bible.
Although, Emily Dickinson physically isolated herself from the world she managed to maintain friendships by communicating through correspondence. Ironically, Dickinson’s poetry was collected and published after her death. Dickinson explores life and death in most of her poems by questioning the existence of God. Dickinson applies common human experiences as images to illustrate the connection from the personal level of the human being, to a universal level of faith and God. This can be seen in Dickinson’s Poem (I, 45).
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!
Dickinson employs vivid impressions of death in this poem. In the first line, she employs the analogy between sleep and death; sleep is silent but death lives within silence. She uses the word “it” to help identify something other than human. She declares that “it….will not tell its name” as thought it refuses to speak and then resents the dead for its stillness and laziness. Then she acknowledges the attraction she has to death by doubting its “gravity”. In the third stanza, she expresses that she would not cry for the dead because not only is it offensive to the dead but it might panic the soul to return to dust. Christians believe that from the earth we are made and once we die, we return to the dust of the earth.
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Death becomes to Dickinson the mountain of vision and the supreme educator of mysterious reality. This enlightenment can be seen in Wright’s poem “Words and the Diminution of All Things” from his book Buffalo Yoga.
The brief secrets are still here,
and the light has come back.
The word remember touches my hand,
But I shake it off and watch the turkey buzzards bank and wheel
Against the occluded sky.
All of the little names sink down,
weighted with what is invisible,
But no one will utter them, no one will smooth their rumpled hair.
There isn't much time, in any case.
There isn't much left to talk about
as the year deflates.
There isn't a lot to add.
Road-worn, December-colored, they cluster like unattractive angels
Wherever a thing appears,
Crisp and unspoken, unspeakable
in their mute and glittering garb.
All afternoon the clouds have been sliding toward us
out of the
All afternoon the leaves have scuttled
Across the sidewalk and driveway, clicking their clattery claws.
And now the evening is over us,
Small slices of silence
running under a dark rain,
Wrapped in a larger.
In the first Stanza, Wright refers to secret still there and the coming back of the light both of these lines refer to Dickinson’s poems the secret of the names in Dickinson poem 45 and the light which refers to poem 258 “There's a certain Slant of light”. In the third line, Wright’s reference to the word “remember” which touches his hand, recalling Dickinson’s poem 45. He plays off her last line “Birds have fled” as they literately fly. The first stanza sounds more like an answer to Dickinson’s poem 45. Carefully analyzing the last three lines in the first stanza he answers Dickinson by saying it does not matter the names of the dead no one will rejoice their names.
Dickinson and Wright use The Bible to assist them to address both faith and the existence of god. In the book of Hebrew enlightenment of both subjects can be seen through this passage, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen…Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear." (Hebrews 11:1-3) Notice the use of the words “weighted” in Wright’s poem and “gravity” in Dickinson’s poem, there is a direct correlation with both words they are a form of science and measurement. The same correlation between the words “invisible” in Wrights’ poem and the “quiet fairy” in Dickinson’s poem, both words are used as a justification for the belief of God. “Fairy” and “invisible” are things that are not there but are said to exist just like God. The word Faith means the firm belief in something for which there is no proof. In science, if there is no proof in something then it does not existence. Dickinson and Wright similarity correlate science and faith. Science looks for concrete evidence for belief, on the contrary, spiritualist seek for the Bible for justification.
Traces of Dickinson’s phrases can be examined in most of Wright’s poems Dickinson’s 258 is one of the poems that Wright mirrors throughout his book Zone Journals,
There's a certain Slant of light,
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes--
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us--
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are--
None may teach it--Any--
'Tis the Seal Despair--
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air--
When it comes, the Landscape listens--
Shadows--hold their breath--
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death--
In the first stanza, Dickinson speaks about a “certain slant of light” which is uplifting in such a cold season just like music in a church. The light can be a ray which comes and goes like a shadow passing through a room. Just like faith which comes and goes in different stages in a Christian’s life. The faith in God can be painful but yet refrains from leaving marks on the outside. When the faith is gone death looks for those who believe in nothing. Dickinson’s employs landscape to reflect the powers that God holds on everyone including the earth. The earth such a huge object knows the power that God has on it that is why the earth listens to God’s commands.
Charles Wright refers to Dickinson’s “Slant of light” in many of his poems especially in his book Zone Journals. In the poem “Journal of the Year of the Ox”, the evidence of the influence by Dickinson’s 258 can be observed:
And now it's my turn, same river, same hard-rock landscape
Shifting to past behind me.
What makes us leave what we love best?
What is it inside us that keeps erasing itself
When we need it most,
That sends us into uncertainty for its own sake
And holds us flush there
until we begin to love it
And have to begin again?
What is it within our own lives we decline to live
Whenever we find it,
making our days unendurable,
And nights almost visionless?
I still don't know yet, but I do it.
This poem reflects the light of Dickinson which he seeks as he addresses his own faith. The light in this poem is the faith that we hold within us. Faith has the tendency to come and go just like the ray of light. We never know the certainty of faith or god. The poems in Zone Journals are examinations of faith and the belief of God. Zone Journals is a reflection of Emily Dickinson’s influence on Charles Wright. Thomas Gardner calls Wright’s Zone Journals “his strongest book… [which] is a responds to what he hears in Dickinson.”(Kenyon Review)
Dickinson and Wright both reflect their spirituality in their poems as religion plays a great deal of influence on both of their work. Dickinson’s interest in death is drawn from the doubt she had in religion and in her faith. Her poems reflect many of the verses in the bible. As Wright seeks answers to Dickinson’s questions he uses her poetry to answer questions from the bible.
The Holy Bible: King James Version, New York: American Bible Society,
Gardner, Thomas, “Charles Wright’s Zone Journals and Emily Dickinson”, Kenyon Review, Restructured and Restrung, Spring 2004, Vol.26 Issue 2, p 149, 26p
Johnson, Thomas H. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Toronto: Little Brown and Company
---. Halflife: Improvisations and Interviews, Ann Arbor: University Michigan Press, 1988
---. Quarter Notes: Improvisations and Interviews, Ann Arbor: University Michigan Press, 1995
---. Zone Journals, Farrar Straus Giroux, NYC, 1988
---. The Academy of American Poets, April 30, 2005