Tuesday, June 7, 2011



I dwell in Possibility -

A fairer House than Prose -

More numerous of Windows -

Superior - for Doors -

Of Chambers as the Cedars -

Impregnable of eye -

And for an everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky -

Of Visitors - the fairest -

For Occupation - This -

The spreading wide my narrow Hands

To gather Paradise -

The "normal" opposite of Prose is Poetry. Reflecting on that tired contrast, Dickinson renames poetry "Possibility", a witty gesture that requires her to describe her "dwelling" place. Prose is normally considered to be far more roomy than poetry, able as it is to house many points of view, to have more acreage, even to exhibit more "ways in" to its theme than a poem could offer. A novel may be thought sturdier, more resistant to abuse, than verse. Not so, says Dickinson, and proposes her own view.

Poetry is, in the first place, more beautiful than prose—and hardly anyone will argue that point. She claims for it more vantage points on the world. And since she herself would eventually display almost 1,800 of such windows, what novelist could exceed that number? How is poetry, as a dwelling, superior to prose in terms of "Doors"? I am not entirely sure, but doors are for going out as well as for coming in, and the "possibilities" of poetry seem to Dickinson to allow for her readers much mental passage in and out of the concerns of their lives. Ordinary prose houses are built of pine; her house is built of the everlasting Cedar of Lebanon. Ordinary houses are subject to inspection by others, but Possibilities — those shimmering and ever-changing fantasies — being inner, cannot be seen from outside. And prose — with its expository linearity, even in fiction — is a closed form, whereas the whole hemispherical sky, with its cloudy "Gambrels" and "Roof" is open to Possibility.

(Domhnall Mitchell suggests (personal communication) that these Doors are "Superior" because they are harder to open. He also proposes that Dickinson's hands — one steadying the page, the other writing — are extending over her (graphically) narrow poem.)

...Dickinson ensures that we come away from this exercise in Possibility with a very strong contrastive picture of the House of Prose. It is an unattractive dwelling, with ineffective doors and an insufficient supply of windows (therefore with stinted light and no vistas), with chambers of shoddy materials, easily invaded by others' peering, and with a roof preventing a view of the heavens. This is as "realistic" as one could wish, and Dickinson's aim in leading us into the Paradise of Possibility is precisely to make us realize, by comparison, the limits of our own "prose" shelters. By affixing the verb of habit, "dwell", to the limitless abstraction "Possibility", Dickinson generates a host of particular features constituting her spectacular dwelling place. Through the poet's enumeration of its splendors, Possibility becomes (imaginatively speaking) real to us — so much so that we, now ashamed of our dreary Houses, might begin to construct in our mind a new House for ourselves, with sturdy doors, multiple windows, and an exalted "Roof". Visitors might come to such a House, fairer visitors than we have yet encountered.

~ Helen Vendler

selected poems & commentaries
Helen Vendler
(Belknap / Harvard 2010)

Dickinson grave site, Amherst, MA.