“And Life steps almost straight”:  Words for a New Year

Jean Carwile Masteller

Professor of English

Convocation

Whitman College

Walla Walla, Washington

August 28, 2004

I love this day.  Maybe I love this day because it is one of only two times a year when I play dress up:  Convocation as we begin the academic year and welcome new members to our community, and Commencement—another symbolic day—when we send our graduates out into the world beyond Whitman.  Each moment in its own way symbolizes new beginnings.

I love the organ music, the academic regalia, the sense of meeting old friends and people whom I hope will become friends.  I love the symbolic marker of my transition as I’ve moved away from summer (in my case this year my sabbatical) when I was focused on my own work and family and toward the activity of another academic year, beginning anew as if I had not made this transition many, many times.

As a teacher of literature, I love the way the symbolism surrounding Convocation inverts the cycle of the seasons.  The academic year does not decline in the fall, but awakens.  So the symbolism of new beginnings seems especially important to me today.  In the case of Convocation, our rituals vividly celebrate our new start. Sights and sounds flourish on this day:  the colors of the academic regalia; the chatter that fills the air; the powerful sounds of the organ that usher us in from our everyday life outdoors.  We know something big is about to happen.

Symbols are powerful.  I know. After all, I not only teach literature; I teach Melville’s Moby Dick as often as I can.  I love big symbols, not just because it is fun to tease out their meaning, but because symbols are important.  Symbols (and metaphor), well-used, transmit meaning, focus our attention, challenge us to think about our circumstances. So let us begin to explore a symbol fitting our moment.

Think of this as a first day with no assigned reading.  So let’s start by reading a text.  The writer I’ve chosen won’t surprise many of you who know me; in fact, those of you who have been in a class with me probably won’t be surprised by the work.  Never fear.  I will not read Moby Dick (all 626 pages) to you.  We’ll start instead with a poem written in 1862 by Emily Dickinson, known as “We grow accustomed to the Dark.”



We grow accustomed to the Dark -
When Light is put away -
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye -


A Moment - We uncertain step
For newness of the night -
Then - fit our Vision to the Dark -
And meet the Road - erect -

And so of larger - Darknesses -
Those Evenings of the Brain -
When not a Moon disclose a sign -
Or Star - come out - within -

The Bravest - grope a little -
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead -
But as they learn to see -

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

                                                                                                                        (F 428) 

            Now if we were in class, we would never stop with one reading.  We would read it again immediately.  We need to hear a poem more than once.  Today, however, I want to give you a bit of context first.  I hope you have encountered Dickinson somewhere along the way.  For those of you entering Whitman, you may have read her in an American Literature course in high school.  If you did, you had only a taste of the work of this amazing nineteenth-century woman who wrote 1,789 poems, only ten of them published in her lifetime.  In fact, her complete poems were not published until 1955—69 years after her death—when 1,775 appeared together for the first time in the Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.  The most recent edition now contains 1,789 poems.  So she wrote and wrote and wrote and circulated her poems to her friends (her readers) and left her body of poems on little scraps and in little bound volumes she sewed together in what we call fascicles. 

            To many, especially those who know only a few poems, she seems eccentric, even weird.  You may know poems that begin “Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me” or “I felt a Funeral in my Brain.”  These poems that at first seem focused on death are much more:  they are poems of life; they are poems of the mind coming to terms with the complexities of life.  If we dismiss her as eccentric, then we miss so much.

Dickinson made the most of a life of the mind in an era that offered fewer choices to women than we now have.  Remember my comment at the beginning about loving dress up day?  I full well know each time I put on my cap and gown and participate in the ritual of Convocation that once I would not have had this privilege of teaching in a college, let alone of speaking to you today.  Though Dickinson had fewer choices, she used language to make sense of her world and her place in it.  She also used wit and humor to celebrate joys and to proclaim her identity as part of the human race. 

With a twist of our perception, she wittily asserted herself in a simple little poem:

I’m Nobody!  Who are you?
Are you - Nobody - too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don't tell!  they’d advertise - you know!                        


How dreary - to be - Somebody!
How public - like a Frog -
To tell one’s name - the livelong June -
To an admiring Bog!                                                     (F260; J288)   

                                               

Dickinson has identified two categories here:  the Nobodies and the Somebodies.  Inverting the scale to celebrate the Nobodies, she even finds a friend.  As the contemporary poet Adrienne Rich wrote in a poem about Dickinson, she had life out on her own premises. Rich has captured the ironies of Dickinson’s choices with all of the double meanings suggested by the word “premises.”  Though Dickinson’s space may have been limited, she lived by her own premises, not someone else’s.

            So let’s return to the first poem.  As is often the case, Dickinson uses an ordinary situation to describe an extraordinary moment.  We’ve all walked into the dark and stumbled as we try to see.  We adjust our sight or the environment changes, and eventually we grow accustomed to the situation.  From this ordinary experience, Dickinson gives us an image I think we can ponder this day as we begin a year of unexpected events.

We grow accustomed to the Dark -
When Light is put away -
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye –


A Moment - We uncertain step
For newness of the night -
Then - fit our Vision to the Dark -
And meet the Road - erect -

And so of larger - Darknesses -
Those Evenings of the Brain -
When not a Moon disclose a sign -
Or Star - come out - within -

The Bravest - grope a little -
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead -
But as they learn to see -

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

(If you wish to read the poem later, you will find copies available in the lobby as you leave.) 

Note that Dickinson is writing about much more than the difficulty of adjusting to the dark.  She is writing about “Those Evenings of the Brain - / When not a Moon disclose a sign - / Or Star - come out - within -.”  We all have “Those Evenings of the Brain.”  We all grope at times when we don’t know where we are or what is happening in our lives.  And sometimes we bump smack into barriers.  Life is often a challenge.  But Dickinson notes what happens to the “Bravest.”  Yes, the bravest grope around and bump, forehead first, into the tree, but they also are learning to see.  How?  She posits two possibilities:  “Either the Darkness alters - / Or something in the sight / Adjusts itself to Midnight -.”  Sometimes the world around us changes and we begin to see.  Or sometimes our sight changes.  Our sight—or shall I say insight—allows us to adjust to the unknown.  Either way, “as they learn to see,” then “Life steps almost straight.”  So we’ve moved far beyond an image of a dark night when a traveler leaves a neighbor’s porch and steps into the dark.  Dickinson has moved us to “Those Evenings of the Brain” when there is no light “within.”  And she ends with a view of “Life” (capital “L”).  She doesn’t expect “Life” to be simple.  Not even straight.  At the end of the poem, it is still midnight.  What is the result of the experience she describes?  “Life steps almost straight.”  And I emphasize the “almost.” 

All of us are in the dark at times:  on a new campus with new people and new demands; in new academic disciplines confronting unfamiliar ideas; in a troubled world where bombings, security screenings, and terror alerts, despite their color-coding—or because of it—intensify the darkness.   

            I often turn to literature, especially poetry, for the power of words to help us make sense of the senseless.  Immediately after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Walt Whitman wrote “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”  Yes, the occasion of the poem was the assassination of Lincoln, but as powerful elegies tend to do, the occasion initiates a much larger exploration of the meaning of death, the power of grief to teach, the significance of memory, and, perhaps most importantly, the development of the poet who gains his song and thus his power to create.  Out of darkness comes creation. 

            So not surprisingly, literature—and the other arts—gave many of us a way to express our grief after 9-11.  One of the most compelling responses I read was an article in the New York Times on “The Expression of Grief and the Power of Art.”  Examples came not just from literature, but from theatre—from Oedipus to the work of Tony Kushner—from painting, television, music, photography, dance.  But the examples from  literature—from the Bible, to Tennyson, Gwendolyn Brooks, and, yes, including Emily Dickinson’s "After great pain a formal feeling comes"—continue to remind me of the power of the material I so often teach.  Literature can offer us a way to learn about our world and to give voice to what we know and what we yearn to understand. 

And yet we live in a world where fewer and fewer Americans read any book, and apparently even fewer Americans have read a literary work for leisure in the last year —a novel, a short story, a poem, a play.  Or so suggests “Reading at Risk,” a study released two months ago by the National Endowment for the Arts. The report adopts the ominous the tone of earlier studies.  Some of us may remember “A Nation at Risk,” which in 1983 decried “a rising tide of mediocrity” in our schools.  This current study is also sparking vigorous debate.  Does the study privilege the book in a time when other modes of gathering information are available?  Does the study reject the significance of on-line reading?  Or too narrowly define literature by omitting non-fiction?  Or insufficiently acknowledge the diminishment of leisure time, and thus necessarily of leisure reading?  And what does it mean that more people are doing creative writing, but fewer nationwide are taking creative writing courses and fewer are reading other writers?  And on and on the criticisms of the study go. Does the study ignore ways campaigns to encourage reading may be having the opposite effect on young adults by steering them away from it?  We may even wonder what will happen to the joy of reading in the wake of the effects of “No Child Left Behind.”  We may also wish to think about what it means when a national leader brags about not reading.  One detail is clear.  Compared to surveys in 1982 and 1992, this recent study of more than 17,000 adults suggests fewer American adults are reading books and even fewer are reading literary works.  Apparently even book clubs and promotions by Oprah and Oprah-imitators have had too little impact to influence the dramatic decline in “literary” reading.  Whatever may be your answer to the many questions raised about the study, we still need to evaluate the consequences of this precipitous decline in reading habits, especially among young adults. 

Without debating the potential uses that could be made of this study, or debating whether the study is too book-centered, I know the effect this report has had on me.  It’s making me think about the way I use my leisure time.  I read all the time, but often that reading is related to my work.  OK, so I’m an academic and I read for a living.  But I will now be more conscious of an observation my daughter made a few years ago when she questioned whether I ever read anything, not related to my work, other than multiple newspapers.  I glibly replied that everything is related to my work, but I’ll have to keep struggling with that question.  And I urge you to struggle as well.  It may not be easy to read for leisure during the academic year, but it may be life saving or at least soul saving.

With my focus on symbols and poetry and the value of reading, I am ultimately urging us all (whether you are coming to this Convocation for the first time, or for the 27th time as I am, or for the 55th as Professor Plummer is) to consider ways we can make the most of this new beginning.  By using Emily Dickinson as my text, I hope you will see Literature and the Humanities as a way of making sense of our world.  Do not misunderstand me.  I am not simply making a pitch for taking English classes (though if you choose to do that, I would be pleased).  You can explore French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Chinese, Latin, or Greek, as well, during your time at Whitman.   And in all of these languages, you will encounter the power of creative writers, who invite us to think seriously about ourselves and our world.

I especially urge those of you who will not major in the Humanities to explore the power of artists of all kinds—those who write, paint, sculpt, compose, perform.  You have a rare chance during these four years at Whitman not only to focus on your area of interest, but to explore disciplines beyond your own.  But I equally urge those of you in the Humanities and the Social Sciences to learn more about the scientific world around you.  Emily Dickinson attended Mount Holyoke Academy only one year, but during that one year, the study of chemistry, geology, and botany were as important to her future poetry as her study of the classics.  From her study of science, she gained cosmological views that later infused her poetry, poetry, I might add, full of earthquakes and volcanoes.  In botany she continued her study of the plant world and throughout much of her life maintained her herbarium, complete with precise Latin names to identify each item in her collection.  If she were at Mount Holyoke College today, I hope she would also learn about ecosystems, black holes, genes, and, yes, about stem cells. 

The caricature of Dickinson—the recluse confined to the four walls of her home—is exactly that:  a caricature.  Her world spread far beyond the small town of Amherst, Massachusetts.  And we, too, especially today need to know more about the world, its peoples, and its religions so that we don’t so easily misunderstand the actions of others.  Our sight can’t be limited to the lens of one nation, one culture, or one religion.  So those of us who live in the Science Building, the Music Building, Harper Joy, Hunter, and Olin need to know more about what goes on in Maxey and the Social Sciences.

To a degree, by choosing to come to Whitman—as student, as teacher, as support staff, as administrator—you have already bought into my remarks, I hope.  You know that we need to see as much as possible in a sometimes dark world.  But I fear that we sometimes spout these nice generalizations at Convocation and then proceed to go about our own business.  We all—and I include myself—get too easily caught up in our own interests and too often forget to look to these other areas. 

Go beyond the PR of liberal arts colleges like Whitman.  Definitely take courses that allow you to follow your passions.  A couple of years ago I took Professor Heidi Dobson’s Plant Biology class.  I even took the lab quizzes.  I really didn’t have time to go to class and labs, but I’m so glad I nonetheless followed one of my passions.  I not only learned to see plants in new ways; I became a student in a classroom again and, I hope, a better teacher as a result.  So follow your passions, but also take courses that may make you feel as though you have stepped out into the dark night.  Yes, you may bump, forehead first into a tree, but the brave will learn to see.  

So what do I wish for you as you begin a new year?  I don’t wish for you a year without any bumps in the night.  I don’t wish for you a year that fails to challenge your sight (and insight).  I don’t wish for you a year in which all goes straight.   I wish, instead, a year when you struggle to see a bit more, to gain insight that takes us beyond the easy views.  I wish us all a year when “As [we] learn to see - / Either the Darkness alters- / Or something in the sight / Adjusts itself to Midnight- / And Life steps almost straight.”  In a world like the one we all face today, “almost straight,” is not second best, but perhaps just the way it should be.  May life step almost straight for all of us.       

Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily.  The Poems of Emily Dickinson:  Reading Edition.  Ed. R. W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA:  Belknap P-Harvard UP, 1999.

National Endowment for the Arts.  Reading at Risk:  A Survey of Literary Reading in America.  Research Division Report #46.  Washington: National Endowment for the Arts, June 2004.  Also available at www.arts.gov.

Strauss. Neil.  “The Expression of Grief and the Power of Art.” New York Times 13 September 2001: E1+.  Also 13 September 2001. 14 September 2001