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The Making of The Oxford Canon: Conclusion

Well, Friday has finally arrived and as happy as I am to have the long weekend, I am quite sad to see David Lehman’s column end. Below is the last installment, but if you haven’t been keeping up be sure to read part one, two, three and four.

Today’s column may be called “Hope against Hope.” Or maybe “High Hopes.” Yesterday I promised a solution to Dickinson’s choice of “Despair” at the end of her poem # 510 (“It was not Death, for I stood up”). Why, in the heart and mind of a shipwrecked sailor, would a “Report of Land” evoke despair, rather than hope?

Let me answer the riddle with another riddle. Consider these lines from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem about Robinson Crusoe marooned on his island (“Crusoe in England”):

One billy-goat would stand on the volcano/
I’d christened Mont d’Espoir or Mount Despair/
(I’d time enough to play with names),/
and bleat and bleat, and sniff the air.

OK, what’s the difference between Mont d’Espoir or Mount Despair and how does this “play” on words help us understand what Dickinson is doing in #510?

Give up?

If you did give up, you have understood instinctively the meaning of Dickinson’s lines. But I can spell it out this way. If trial equals error, then hope becomes a synonym for despair.

As Wallace Stevens argues in “Esthetique du Mal,” the greatest poverty is to live in a world where desire and despair are indistinguishable.

Emily Dickinson seems almost to thrive on despair, “that White Sustenance” as she calls it in one of her most powerful poems (# 640: “I cannot live with You — ”). Yet in a different mood she can conjure up the “thing with feathers” that “sings the tunes without the words” and “never, in Extremity,” asks anything of us in return: a magnificent metaphor for hope.

In a hopeful spirit I want to ask you, dear readers, for your thoughts on another subject: popular songs. Let’s say you were editing an anthology of twentieth-century American poetry. You’d like to include some popular songwriters from the Great American Song Book (1915-1960), but you have very few pages to work with, and your permissions budget is lean while song lyrics are notoriously expensive. As a result you can have ten songs. What would they be?

Well aware that my choices may change from day to day, on this day I think of these ten:

Tomorrow I might come up with:

See what I mean? It isn’t easy. OK, people. Let me know what ten you’d choose.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed posting my thoughts this week. If you like what you’ve read and you make your feelings known, perhaps I’ll get to occupy this space again come April. I hope I will. Meanwhile, thanks for the memory, as Hope would say – Bob Hope, that is.


David Lehman is Poetry Coordinator of the New School Writing Program in New York City. His most recent books of poetry are The Evening Sun and When a Woman Loves a Man. He is the author of five books of critical prose, including The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets and The Perfect Murder: A Study in Detection. He founded The Best American Poetry series in 1988 and continues to serve as general editor of this prestigious anthology. He also edited Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present and co-edited The KGB Bar Book of Poems, based on the reading series he and Star Black directed in New York’s East Village.

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