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31 January 2024

Picking up the thread -- the spider holds a silver ball

I found Prowling Bee the way most people do. Probably the way you did. I was bewildered by an Emily Dickinson poem and I did a web search to help me figure it out.

The thing that drew me into Dickinson’s poetry initially was its music. I often find myself swooning over a line of Dickinson’s poetry. It's very seductive. You fall in love with it. The poems can be a lot of fun too, a constant source of delight. You smile often.

But sometimes they terrify you. If Beauty is the thing that got me hooked, the thing that keeps me going back is the way the poems reveal, bit by bit, glimpses of an ever-elusive Truth. 

Out to sea, fin set free from firmament, I began to read more and more of Emily's work. I got better at reading the poems, but I still found them consistently challenging. Few of the poems are “easy”, and even the ones that seem simple are usually deceptively so. Susan Kornfeld’s essays were extremely useful in forming my own relationship to the poems and in helping each one bear its fruit. (An apt metaphor, as Susan is also a first rate gardener.) At first I would only go to Prowling Bee if I was stumped, but eventually I would go every time, just because I enjoyed the writing.

There were other pilgrims that showed up in the comment section, people like PP, Patrick Gillespie, Larry B and the prolific Annie Nimous. Each of them shined their own light on new facets of the poems I hadn’t considered before. I found myself also adding to the commentary from time to time, going by d scribe. 

D scribe is a handle I gave myself when I was writing weekly newsletters for a music venue in Arvada Colorado called the D Note that I owned with my brothers from 2003 to 2013. This was the work I did before the job I have now, which is teaching English at St. Francis Preparatory school in Queens NY. I also write poetry on occasion, which is another reason I like to read Emily. She’s a great teacher, an absolute master of using form to express content.

After a few years of chronologically reading a poem every day or so, and reading Prowling Bee afterwards, I noticed that Susan was slowing down the rate of her posts. I looked ahead and saw that Fr685 was the last poem on which she had written an essay, her only one from the year 2023. And yet she was still active, commenting on people’s comments, including mine. Why did she stop? And what was I going to do when I got to Fr686? I was going to miss Susan’s reflections. I supposed I would have to wade out in the deep waters of Dickinson’s poetry alone. Good thing Wade is my middle name.

Dickinson’s poetry isn’t an easy nut to crack, but that’s also part of what makes it so enticing. The puzzle of the poem draws you in, again and again. Frustrating, but also enjoyably addictive, the poems tease you with their riddles. It feels to me like there are always JUST enough crumbs in the poems to lead me to the next set of crumbs and, because of Dickinson’s intellectual bravery and fierce kindness, I feel compelled to keep following them. I have a kind of Quixotic faith that these crumbs will, if followed to the end, lead me back, as Dickinson so beautifully puts it, to “the infinite power of Home.”

Sometimes the number of possible readings of a Dickinson poem appears to be infinite. For instance, I’m sure that no two people read the poem that begins “My Life had stood a loaded gun” in exactly the same way. The puzzle of the poem we are trying to piece together is, ultimately, one of a kind, since it is a reflection of a unique reader. You must arrive at your own meaning. But you still want as much help as you can possibly find. Unfortunately, for MOST of Dickinson’s nearly 1800 poems there is NO in-depth analysis at all online, let alone good in-depth analysis. This is why Susan’s blog is such a rare and valuable find. It has become a beacon in the dark for many readers over the last 10 years.

If Dickinson’s poems serve as one of the best guides for the self-same spirit I have yet found, then Susan is one of the best guides I have found to the poems. Take the name, for starters, a serendipitous echo of Emily’s beloved Susan Gilbert Dickinson, her sister in-law. (Have ever letters been written that were more romantic than Emily's to Susan? I can think of only two examples that compare; John Keats to Fanny Brawne, and Herman Melville to Nathanial Hawthorne.) It appears that Susans still haunt Emily, and vice versa, as my favorite book about Dickinson is by a Susan too, Susan Howe. How Susan walks into a room.

Much to my surprise, a few months ago, as I was somewhere deep in the middle of the 29th fascicle (according to Christanne Miller’s ordering of the poems), I received a DM from Susan letting me know that she was, for the most part, finished posting on the blog and asking me if I’d be interested in continuing it. While I was extremely honored that she would ask me, I wasn’t sure I was the best person for the task. I still feel like a novice. My reading of Dickinson’s poetry is not nearly so incisive, nor my writing nearly so concise, as Susan’s is. She is so good at what she does here, making something very difficult look easy.

But I thought about it and realized that SOMEONE should do it. And since Susan did ask me, and I owe her, how could I refuse? Plus I liked the idea. I may not be able to limn the poems with the grace that she does, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still be of service to other readers. If I can be even a fraction of the help to others that Susan has been to me, it would be worth the effort. If nothing else, it will give readers something to read against, which may still prove quite useful.

See you in the poems.


Adam Wade DeGraff

30 January 2024

Dear Readers

It’s no secret that I’ve been exceedingly slow to post new prowling Bee content over the past few years. This dereliction is not due to loss of interest, personal tragedies, or an exciting new career. May I suggest, Reader, that after 685 poems I’m just … ready to be a responder rather than a composer? 

The Prowling Bee was born in 2011 – twelve and a half years ago. Despite having loved Dickinson poems since grade school and taught Dickinson in community college classes, I’d barely begun making my way through the Franklin Reading Edition. My older collections didn’t include the most passionate, difficult, or challenging poems so I was flabbergasted almost daily. When my excitement, wonder, and marginalia started getting out of hand, I began composing my thoughts at the computer rather than the easy chair. This was the beginning of the blog. When I read the wonderful poem ‘Bloom – is Result – to meet a Flower’ (Fr1038) where I encountered ‘the prowling Bee’, I knew that’s what I wanted. To be the Bee.

The Flower, Dickinson writes, must try to ‘escape the prowling Bee’ – it’s part of a flower’s ‘profound / Responsibility’. I take this as the poet’s challenge. Her poems are often elusive, ambiguous and enigmatic. Take the Bloom poem: why should the flower be concerned about a bee?  Any bee worth the honey prowls about the flowers.  In fact, Dickinson writes in an earlier poem (Fr235), ‘The Flower must not blame the Bee – / That seeketh his felicity / too often at her door–’.  

So the Flower is a bit of a tease. But the Bee is up for it. I may be bowing out of the commentaries, but the Bee will prowl on. 

(bit of a drum roll here)

Reader, there is a new Bee! Adam DeGraff! He will be introducing himself in the next post, but many of you have already encountered him in the Comments where he posted under the moniker ‘d Scribe’.  For some years I’ve looked forward to his responses – they are unfailingly insightful and interesting. He addresses the heart as well as the logistics of the poems.  He clearly – and most importantly -- loves Dickinson’s work. I’ve been enriched by his commentary and am thrilled and grateful that he is donning the bee-ish mantle.

Please welcome Adam to the fascinating dance of Bee and Bloom and may he ‘seeketh his felicity’ at the flower’s door for at least a thousand more poems.

As a final note:
Poetry lovers from all walks of life and from all over the world read the Bee. As of today there have been 3.5 million page views and 5077 comments on the 685 poems. Although many of the comments are from readers expressing their appreciation for the Bee project, most are responding to the poems. These comments are the heart of the Bee. They range from discussions of meaning to analysis of poetic forms and techniques to musings about Dickinson herself. Sometimes they grapple with the poems and sometimes they add contextual and biographical information. Some long-time and frequent posters have become part of the Bee family. To you, I give special thanks. I feel we go hand in hand forward. I know Adam feels the same way.