If vital light

As of tomorrow, former poet laureate Robert Pinsky undertakes the duties of the Washington Post Book World Poet’s Choice columnist. His inaugural column presents for consideration the claims of “our national poets [Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson], both writing about poetry.” Contrasting Dickinson with Whitman, Pinsky writes:

Dickinson takes what seems to be a different view of the poet, and of how poetry works across the generations. Her image is not the voice of a swooping hawk, but a lamp, even a part of a lamp. But her terrain, like Whitman’s, expands to the largest proportions and her vision too extends into the future:
The Poets light but Lamps —
Themselves — go out —
The Wicks they stimulate —
If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns —
Each Age a Lens
Disseminating their
Circumference —
Dickinson’s “vital Light,” like Whitman’s “good health to you nevertheless,” projects itself beyond mortality. You could argue that of the two she makes the grander claim: Whitman shakes his white locks at the runaway sun, whereas Dickinson imagines a genuine poem (“If vital Light”) emulating the sun, with a radiant optical precision, infinitely enlarged. Both poets, in their radically different manners, declare that the poem endures on an immense scale — and yet lives on an intimate scale in the reader.


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