English majors become good at writing to survive.
There always have been and always will be those W courses where fifteen pages of revised writing means writing way more than the diminutive requirement so many of us are afraid of at the beginning of a semester. So, on top of pages upon pages of reading, even more writing, and other classes, writing fast and writing smart becomes essential.
Though some students become maniacal robots spewing analysis, a large majority of us truly do love to write.
But what about the kind of writing we English majors must learn? We are often responding to creative works. The analytical-response writing is drilled into our brains and fingers as though with a power tool. We read creative works of poetry and prose and write analytical pages: dissecting lines, word choice, and meaning.
Reading Susan Howe’s book My Emily Dickinson brings a new and colorful lens to reading, analyzing, and responding to poetry.
All 144 pages of the book are an analysis and response to one of Dickinson’s poems—“My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun (764).” Yes, one poem.
My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –
And now We roam in Sovreign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply –
And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through –
And when at Night – Our good Day done –
I guard My Master’s Head –
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow – to have shared –
To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
Or an emphatic Thumb –
Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without – the power to die –
How monotonous, you might think.
Wrong, whoever you are. Respectfully, very wrong.
Perhaps if written by any other than Howe, it would have been. Howe, however, manages to string word after word of poem 764 together with threads of creative, although sometimes crazy language, and analyzes and responds in a voice of veering, swarming creation.
Howe takes the line “Or an emphatic Thumb -” from the poem and responds solely to the word “thumb” for a number of pages. She writes:
“A slave was often referred to as a child, a Woman as a girl. An original Disobedience: A girl in bed alone sucking her thumb. Thumb: short thick first or most pre-axial digit of the human hand differing from the four fingers in having greater freedom of movement and being opposable to the other fingers. Thumb and Gnome have silent letters and rhyme wrongly with Gun and whom. For Freudians, thumb and gun are phallic and the same… Thumb a nursery word rhymes crookedly with ‘time’ riddled back to Jack Horner who sat in his corner, eating a Christmas Pie.” (Page 119).
This is analysis on a whole other level. She extrapolates into the word/into the weight/into the significance in a stream of conscious dialogue that travels channels of her own mind without sounding analytical.
This response is a new way for people to experience and understand literature. Even if sense is not always fully made, the stream of conscious narrative elicits feeling page after page.
This is a medium we should explore more—both in terms of activating our brains while reading literature in a way that casts an emotional light and understanding the work, and also because this creative analysis produces stunning results.
Shannon Hearn is a student studying journalism and English with a concentration in creative writing at the University of Connecticut. She is Editor-in-Chief of Long River Review.