Episode 18

It sifts from Leaden Sieves by Emily Dickinson 

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘It sifts from Leaden Sieves’ by Emily Dickinson.

Poet

Emily Dickinson

Reading and commentary by

Mark McGuinness

It sifts from Leaden Sieves

by Emily Dickinson

It sifts from Leaden Sieves –
It powders all the Wood.
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road –

It makes an Even Face
Of Mountain and of Plain —
Unbroken Forehead from the East
Unto the East again –

It reaches to the Fence –
It wraps it, Rail by Rail,
Till it is lost in Fleeces –
It flings a Crystal Veil

On Stump and Stack – and Stem —
The Summer’s empty Room –
Acres of Seams where Harvests were,
Recordless, but for them –

It Ruffles Wrists of Posts
As Ankles of a Queen, —
Then stills its Artisans – like Ghosts –
Denying they have been –

 


Podcast transcript

This is not one of Emily Dickinson’s most famous poems. So it’s quite possible that this is the first time you’ve heard it. And if that is the case, I have a really basic question for you. What do you think it’s about?

Because all the way through, the poet is talking about ‘it’:

It sifts from Leaden Sieves –
It powders all the Wood.
It fills with Alabaster Wool

… and so on. So what do you think ‘it’ is?

Now maybe it seems really obvious to you. Or maybe you don’t have a clue, the poem flew by you so quickly. Or maybe, like me, the first time I read it, you think you probably know, but you’re not 100% sure and you wouldn’t mind going back for another listen or another look, before you decide.

So if that’s you, then perhaps you might like to rewind the podcast and listen to the poem again. Or if you want to look at the text, you’ll find it in the archive on the website

Okay, if you’re sure you’re ready to go on, then I will give you the answer to the riddle… which is ‘snow’. And that might have been obvious to you from the beginning, or you might be thinking ‘Gosh, I would never have guessed that at first listening,’ or you might be feeling slightly relieved because you thought the answer probably was ‘snow’, but it’s nice to have that confirmed. So whatever your response, just notice what difference it makes now that I’ve given you the answer to the riddle.

Because I’m serious when I refer to the poem as a riddle. Like many of Dickinson’s poems, it has a definite riddling quality to it. Now, a riddle as we all know, is a guessing game. A very old form of guessing game where one player describes the attributes of something, in a vivid and imaginative way, often involving imagery, without telling us what it is. And then we have to guess the answer to the riddle, based on the clue, or quite often there’s a series of clues in case we don’t guess it first time.

And the art of a good riddle is that it is clear enough and obvious enough that it is possible to guess it. But also unusual and imaginative enough that it’s not too easy to guess because, there would be no fun in that. As Dickinson wrote in another short poem:

The Riddle we can guess
We speedily despise –
Not anything is stale so long
As Yesterday’s surprise.

Now there is a very interesting book about the nature of poetry called Roots of the Lyric by Andrew Welsh, published by Princeton University Press in 1978

As the title suggests, it focuses on lyric poetry, which is the kind of poetry we are most used to reading these days. Probably the easiest way of defining it is to contrast it with epic poetry, which was long stories about monsters and dragons and heroes and so on, and dramatic poetry where the verse is spoken aloud as part of a dramatic performance, like the ancient Greek theatre or the Elizabethan theatre, exemplified by Shakespeare.

These days most poets don’t writer epic or dramatic poetry, they focus on the lyric, which in the modern era is typically a short, reflective poem, about a personally relatable experience, and how we think and how we feel about it. To us, it’s the default mode of writing poetry, but it’s interesting to reflect that there are other kinds of poetry, and that our kind of poetry has only been mainstream for a few hundred years, which is the merest blink of an eye in the story of poetry.

And what Andrew Welsh does in his book is looks at the roots of the lyric, i.e. the historic and even prehistoric art forms and cultural traditions that have come together to create modern lyric poetry. And these include images and emblems, magical charms, musical singing and chanting, and also the riddle.

Welsh points out that many riddles involve vivid mental imagery, so that they are close cousins of poetic devices such as metaphor and simile. He says that a riddle is ‘a metaphor with one term concealed’.

What does he mean by that? Well, a metaphor is a way of talking about one thing as if it were another. For example we might describe a man by saying, ‘He was a bull’. We don’t mean he was literally a bull, but that he had a lot of the characteristics of a bull. So maybe he was strong, powerful, overbearing, clumsy and/or dangerous. And with a metaphor we’re given both sides of the equation, in this case a man and a bull.

But with a riddle, we’re only given one half of the equation. We’re given the mental image that is used to describe a thing, but we’re not given the thing itself. Because the thing itself is what we have to guess, the answer to the riddle.

And in the version of this poem I’ve just read to you, this is what Emily Dickinson gives us – it’s as though she’s the riddler and we’re the guessers and we’re playing the game together. She gives us one clue after another, to the point where the answer becomes obvious.

So she starts off by telling us it ‘sifts from leaden sieves’, and ‘powders all the wood’. Then she gives us this this extraordinary image, of ‘alabaster wool’ filling the wrinkles of the road. Which is really arresting because of course alabaster and wool are opposites in several ways: alabaster is a rock, so it’s smooth and cold and hard, compared to wool which we associate with softness and warmth.

Then she tells us that ‘it’ turns the whole landscape into an ‘even face’ an ‘unbroken forehead’ as far as we can see.

The following stanza is a bit more conventional, the snow ‘wraps’ the fence like a blanket or a fleece, and flings a crystal veil over various objects.

But after that things get weird again, with the surprising image of ‘summer’s empty room’ – because we’ve been so focused on winter and the cold, it’s surprising to be presented with an image of summer. And then we have those ‘seams where harvests were’, which I’m guessing is the snow highlighting the furrows in the field, which act as a kind of record, like an accountant’s ledger, of the previous summer’s harvests.

And just as we’ve started to get our heads around all that, Dickinson changes the channel again and we’re staring at an image of a queen with ruffles – ornamental frills made of cotton or silk – at her wrists and ankles, as a way of describing the appearance of snow on posts.

Then we get one final bit of mischief from the poet when she says the snow ‘stills its Artisans like Ghosts – / Denying they have been –’. I mean, this is the first time she’s mentioned ‘artisans’, so there’s no need to make them as still as ghosts, nor deny that they have been. So we’re left blinking at the spectacle of something disappearing before we’re even aware it’s supposed to exist. It feels like the poetic equivalent of the Indian rope trick, where the performer climbs the rope into the sky and pulls it up after themselves.

So one way of reading this poem is to see the poet as a clever riddler, presenting us with one startling image after the other, like pulling rabbits out of hats, and giving us the pleasure of being surprised and dazzled by the images, followed by the pleasure of guessing the answer and having our guess confirmed.

But a difficulty with this reading is that some of the easiest clues are at the beginning – the sieves and powder. So if she really did want to tease us, surely she start with more difficult clues? And there are different versions of this poem in Dickinson’s manuscripts, some of which include a title – ‘The Snow’ – which gives the game away altogether.

So I think it’s overstating it to say this poem is a true riddle, but it does have some of the qualities of a riddle, and these are crucial to its effects.

Firstly, the riddle format makes us take a fresh look at the world, by prompting us to use our visual imagination and to make pictures in our mind and relate them to different aspects of snow. And the special characteristic of a riddle is the fact that part of the equation is missing. So in a riddling poem like this, there is a hole in the poem where the subject would normally be.

And as I was thinking about this, I remembered an amazing book by Betty Edwards called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I read it when I was a teenager and I wanted to improve my drawing skills.

And one exercise that really stayed with me involved drawing a complicated object, like a tree or a bunch of flowers. Now normally this would be a very difficult subject to draw, especially for a beginner. When you first start out drawing, you typically find yourself drawing stereotypical images, like stick people or trees or flowers that don’t look remotely realistic. And Edwards’ argument is that this is because we are drawing the symbol in our minds, rather than looking at the actual object in front of us. So if we want to get better at drawing, we first need to get better at looking.

Then she does a brilliant thing with this exercise, where she suggests, instead of drawing the object, draw the space around the object. Look all the way around the edges of the tree and just draw the pattern of the sky against it. Or if you’re indoors with a bunch of flowers, look at the shapes of the wall behind the flowers, and draw all of those shapes. And when you do this, something magical happens.

I remember drawing a tree and for a while I became really absorbed in all the tiny little complicated shapes of the sky around the tree, a bit like the fjords around Norway. And then there was a moment where I blinked and looked at the page, and there was the tree and it was bursting out of that white space that surrounded it. And it was the best drawing of a tree I’d ever done. And the reason it was so much better than my usual efforts was because I was actually looking and seeing what was actually in front of my eyes.

And I think this is what Emily Dickinson does for us in this poem. She seems to have gone back and forth about whether the poem needed a title with the word ‘snow’, but she has clearly avoided including the word ‘snow’ in the poem itself. So what she has given us is the equivalent of the white space around the tree – the images that describe the snow in a series of riddle-like comparisons.

Think about the opening two lines. Imagine if she had written:

The Snow sifts from Leaden Sieves
and powders all the Wood.

That’s not bad, is it? But there’s no tension here – it’s a fairly obvious metaphor, comparing the falling of snow to a powdery substance being sifted through a sieve. But now listen to what Dickinson actually wrote:

It sifts from Leaden Sieves –
It powders all the Wood.

Notice how the use of ‘it’ introduces a note of dramatic tension – it prompts the questions: ‘What sifts from Leaden Sieves?’ ‘What powders all the Wood?’ There’s something mysterious, even slightly eerie, about this mysterious presence in the landscape. And I’d say this effect is even there subliminally in the version of the poem that includes the title ‘The Snow’.

And by deleting the subject, the poet puts all the emphasis on the poetic images, so we really see those sieves and that powder more vividly in the riddling version than in the metaphor version.

So that’s is the advantage of using a riddle instead of a metaphor. But remember, it’s not a true riddle – Dickinson has made it too obvious for that. And this has a consequence, because if it were a straightforward riddle, we could get the answer and be satisfied with that. Game over. But in poetry, of course, there are no right answers. There’s no final, ‘Oh, yes, now I’ve got it, I can stop thinking about it’. The game of poetry is never over. You can always read the poem again and find another meaning in it.

And so, even when we’ve guessed that the poem is about snow; even when Dickinson hits us over the head with the answer, in the versions titled ‘The Snow’; even when we can say to ourselves, ‘Oh, this is Emily Dickinson coming up with clever ways of talking about snow’ – it doesn’t quite settle the issue does it? We still feel that there may be further meanings and mysteries in the poem, waiting to be discovered.

So I find this quite an unsettling poem. The fact that somebody can look at snow and describe it with this collection of odd images, and without much effort to accommodate the reader. It feels like the poet is talking to herself, or the snow, or a mysterious invisible listener, rather than talking to us. And it’s not just the imagery, there quite a few oddities of phrasing and syntax as well. Just listen to that opening line again:

It sifts from Leaden Sieves –

Surely it would be more natural to say ‘it is sifted from Leaden Sieves’? Flour or sugar don’t normally sieve themselves.

Or what about the final stanza, which opens:

It Ruffles Wrists of Posts

I’m pretty sure she doesn’t mean that it ‘ruffles’ the posts the way the wind ruffles the sea or a hand might ruffle the curtains. The posts aren’t moving. The snow is adding ‘ruffles’, ornamental frills, to the posts. And it’s decidedly odd of Dickinson to use the word ‘ruffles’ in this way.

You may remember Kate Ling in Episode 17, saying that she likes poetry where the poet doesn’t do all the work for you, and asks you to join in as a reader and fill in some of the gaps. And I certainly think this is that kind of poem and Dickinson is that kind of poet.

So by using the riddle format, Dickinson demands that we join in the game, and take a fresh look at the concept of snow, by engaging with the series of startling images. And the fact that we can easily guess the answer to the riddle makes us question whether we have in fact got the right answer, or the whole answer.

And the result of all of this is, is we become highly conscious of the act of reading the poem or in our case today, of listening to it. We don’t get lost in this poem. We don’t find ourselves absorbed in it and then coming too a couple of minutes later, thinking, ‘Oh, gosh, I miles away, I was transported by the poem’.

No, we are very aware all the way through that we are reading a poem, and that we need to make a mental effort to decipher it. It’s a bit like reading the metaphysical poets from the 17th century or the Martian poets from the 1980s, where you’re presented with a series of startling images and you need to engage your brain to work them out.

And I want to emphasise this as a strength in Dickinson’s work, because the myth of her poetry has been fed by her lifestyle, which was considered eccentric – she famously withdrew from society and hardly left her house from her thirties onward. And of course there’s the elemental power of her most famous poems, with a lot of religious and natural and existential themes – and I don’t want to belittle that in any way.

But there is a danger of the cliche of the poet of nature, of God, of the elements and of the emotions, particularly with a female poet. And there’s a risk of limiting her achievement to feeling and mood and atmosphere, which I think does a disservice to her. Because as we can see in a poem like this, she was also an extremely intelligent writer. She’s a poet of thought and perception as well as feeling.

And I think her use of riddle in this poem is very clever and entirely appropriate to its subject. Because the way snow works on our perception of the world is very similar to the way a riddle works.

I think it’s no coincidence that snow transforms our world by adding a lot of white space. And this means we take a fresh look at our everyday world, and we actually see what’s in front of our eyes, instead of taking it for granted. And we rush out and we look at it and we walk through it and we take photos and put them on Instagram and and talk to each other about it. And a few of us write poems about it.

So when you listen to the poem again, listen for the answer to the riddle – the word that is everywhere in the poem, even though it never appears.

 


It sifts from Leaden Sieves

by Emily Dickinson

It sifts from Leaden Sieves –
It powders all the Wood.
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road –

It makes an Even Face
Of Mountain and of Plain —
Unbroken Forehead from the East
Unto the East again –

It reaches to the Fence –
It wraps it, Rail by Rail,
Till it is lost in Fleeces –
It flings a Crystal Veil

On Stump and Stack – and Stem —
The Summer’s empty Room –
Acres of Seams where Harvests were,
Recordless, but for them –

It Ruffles Wrists of Posts
As Ankles of a Queen, —
Then stills its Artisans – like Ghosts –
Denying they have been –

 


Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson was an American poet who was born in 1830 and died in 1886. She lived for almost her entire life in the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. She gained a reputation for eccentricity by rarely leaving the house, or even coming down to meet visitors. Her friendships were conducted mainly via her extensive correspondence. During her lifetime only a handful of her poems were published, in a heavily edited format. But after her death hundreds of poems were discov  ered by her sister Lavinia. Eventually her entire corpus of almost 1,800 poems was published and has established her as one of America’s greatest poets.


A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

You can hear every episode of the podcast via Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your favourite app.

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The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

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