January 4, 2014KR BlogBlogChatsReadingWriting

Esoteric and Exoteric: On Dickinson and Shakespeare

When I go back into my own archives—old floppy disks, ancient dot-matrix printouts off an Apple II GS—I find that my earliest poetry (written in my mid-teens) falls into two categories: The imitations of Emily Dickinson, and the imitations of William Shakespeare. Philosophical quatrains and five-act blank verse dramas. One of those quatrains, written when I was sixteen, is the earliest poem I’ve ever gotten published; I found it and submitted it over a decade later to Light Quarterly. It was called “Picnic”:


There is much casual in death,

Much random at our last,

As if God, chatting on a lawn,

Were picking at the grass.


Not something I’d collect in a book today, I guess, but I’ve written worse. Dickinson and Shakespeare have always been, and remain, my favorite writers. I think about them in conjunction sometimes, and I notice they stand at opposite ends of the spectrum: One’s poetry almost hermetic, the other’s stagey and public; one’s poetry rhyming, the other’s unrhymed and sometimes segueing into prose.

Recently, though, I noticed that they represent, to me, two entirely different impulses toward this art of lying we call poetry. I am happy to grant that the best poets are the best liars, and that “I heard a fly buzz—when I died—” is clearly a lie, holding the same relationship to fact as any of Shakespeare’s loquaciously humane, many-voiced confabulations. Let’s call both writers makers of poetic fictions, if “liar” sounds harsh. In any case, deceit is crucial.

Among nonhuman life forms, deceit almost always serves a single function: survival. Green wings are meant to deceive a bird into thinking this insect a leaf, not worth eating. Possums play possum. Chameleons change colors to disappear into their own stillness. When it comes to poetry, deceit can have a similar purpose: to live on, to gain literary immortality, to write something “that will last.” It’s not like this leads to bad writing—John Keats, Horace, and Shakespeare himself (in the Sonnets: “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”) have expressed this idea in some form. And it strikes me that it may be much more common a motivation than writers themselves let on: This wish to have the book “go forth and multiply” copies, to influence subsequent writers (spawning, as it were, clones, or offspring), to gain self-perpetuation through the book or poem. For a novel to become a bestseller or get turned into a movie—these means and modes of dissemination gratify a writer immensely. Shakespeare, who wrote for the stage, whose own definition of “success” was probably how many tickets a play sold, is the supreme model of this kind of creative lying. With Shakespeare, there is a great sense of dance and display, of fanned plumage, of eagerness to entertain and delight (“Our aim, which was to please”). It is a display put on (and a put-on, in the sense of something ingenuine) not to attract a mate, but to attract a crowd. This is the most basic biological impetus to poetic or creative lying: To evade the predator, death, through endless reproduction. One may counter that Shakespeare didn’t collect all his own plays, as if he didn’t care about publication or perpetuation of the literary sort; but it is important to recall that many of his plays were printed, and became bestsellers, in their own time, and that he wrote bestsellers as early as the narrative poem Venus and Adonis.

Contrast that supremely extroverted writer with the supremely introverted one: Dickinson, who published so little in her own lifetime. She did not make her poetic fictions out of this crowd-pleasing, attention-getting, oblivion-evading impulse. With her, the poetry comes from some distinctly different impetus toward creative deceit. The impetus may well have to do obliquely with death, too; it was one of her central themes, after all. The only parallel in nature I can think of would be the singing of a bird just before a storm, when the sky has darkened and the air has changed. There are other animals that are known to vocalize immediately before storms, wolves and frogs among them; apparently, fireflies start pulsing with light more frequently, too. Her poems have this unwilled, physiologically reactive quality to them, as though they were not made or meant to attract us, hold us spellbound, or entertain us, though they do all three. Dickinson did seek out a few select readers, most famously Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and while she wasn’t a public person, she was certainly no recluse; judging from all the biographies, she had a very small number of deep, rich relationships. I feel like one of those friends or inner-circle members when I read Dickinson’s poems: I feel that I’ve been singled out of a crowd, not that I’m sitting in one (which is how I feel when I reading or watching Shakespeare). It’s the difference between a tete-a-tete and a packed theater. I do not exalt one kind of poetry over another. In fact, I have been attracted to both since my earliest interest in poetry. Shakespeare’s dramatic poetry seemed to exert a counterpressure against death; Dickinson’s lyric poetry seemed pressured out of her by death bearing down. To me, they still represent, in pure forms, the exoteric and esoteric tendencies within poetry, within literature itself.

It is very rare to see the two tendencies fully reconciled in one writer. Victor Hugo creates strange “parallel” oeuvres of popular novels (like Les Miserables) and recondite poetic works (like Le Fin de Satan). Shortly after the first version of La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, which his closest friends regard with horror and incomprehension, Flaubert writes Madame Bovary, which delights them and everybody else (except the censors). Less than a decade after Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy comes out with the first part of a now-unreadable Napoleonic verse megadrama, The Dynasts. If you consider Hardy’s bibliography, at one point in his life he switches on, and at another switches off his exoteric, public-novelist-self. Melville wrote two bestselling sea adventures, Typee and Omoo, and then his esoteric masterpiece, which was ignored or panned; his latter years were spent creating the verse epic of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Clarel. You will notice that there is frequently something overtly poetic or religious in the “hidden” works of these popular writers.

As far as reconciling the tendencies is concerned, the best candidate I can think of is Dante, whose work was at once intensely esoteric and religious, and quite quickly became popular, with Boccaccio giving the first Dante lectures to a thronged public square. Dante, we must remember, lived so far back that religion had not yet been exiled from polite literary discourse, as it began to be in the 19th century. I suppose that Dostoevky’s novels have a similar combination of idiosyncratic, personal religiosity and thrilling stage blood.

Today it remains a great challenge: The unification of the exoteric and esoteric, of please-the-masses blockbuster entertainment and personal religious quest/questioning. The only way to transcend these opposites is to collapse them into one thing. What that one thing is, what form and movement it must take, remains an open question. I wish you better luck than I have had at solving it.