Thursday, April 09, 2009

Dirty Dickinson

Quotable Goose Edition

Newsflash: The “ubiquitous and influential” Goose is quoted in a Time magazine report on this week’s epic brouhaha at QTU over the screening of the cheesy hetero-porn flick, Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge! Here’s how Laura Fitzpatrick describes the teach-in that a group of smart, angry students organized to protest the university’s decision to cancel a planned screening of the film in response to a state senator’s threat to cut off all funding to any state institution that showed a film marketed as XXX outside the context of a class:
Before a 30-min. excerpt [of Pirates II] — which included two threesomes and copious shots of corset-clad blondes — students, professors, lawyers and ACLU representatives stood up to defend porn on principle. English professor Martha Nell Smith, who noted that literature from Shakespeare to Dickinson includes pornographic elements, said it's a student's choice whether to study erotica and "our job together to contextualize it."
Loyal readers will recall that the same passage from Goose’s remarks figured into The Diamondback’s (QTU campus paper) report on the teach-in Tuesday. The Diamondback noted that Goose also mentioned Christopher Marlowe, along with Shakespeare and Dickinson, as an esteemed writer whose work has significant sexual content.

Given the play this particular comment has gotten and the amount of time Goose has spent this week fielding media inquiries, it’s surprising that no intrepid reporter has followed up with what seems to us an obvious question:

Dickinson – "pornographic elements" – WTF????

Since nobody else has bothered, we decided to put that question to Goose ourselves over a glass of port and some cheese crackers in her ivy-covered office this afternoon. (She’s an English prof, right? You guys expect a certain level of refinement in the atmosphere, right? You don’t really want to know about the Dolly Parton trashcan, do you? Wouldn’t that spoil your image of her?) Anyway, in an effort to pinpoint the alleged “pornographic elements” in Dickinson’s work, I read out some of the Belle of Amherst’s famous lines, and Goose explained their alleged pornographic significance. It all sounds a little nutty to me, but I am a dog and she is a highly trained professional reader. As is Moose, so she chimes in here from time to time.

Here is the transcript of our conversation.

Roxie: Let’s start with “They shut me up in Prose --,” which is often read as an allegory of the woman writer’s struggle to break into the male-dominated genre of poetry. Do you see any pornographic elements there?

Goose: Oh, certainly! It’s a total B&D fantasy – the secret thrill of forced confinement, the deep pleasure of the effort to escape. She even compares herself to a slave! Dickinson makes a pretty convincing bottom, I’d say. Wouldn’t you, Moose?

Moose: Indubitably!

Roxie: Wow. Okay. Let’s move on then to “Blazing in Gold and quenching in Purple.” Detect anything there?

Goose: (Over Moose’s laughter.) Yes, Rox. What we have here is a clear staging of a favorite porn plot device, the golden shower scene, also known as urolagnia.

Roxie: Really? Not a sunset? ‘Cause, you know, a lot of people say this poem is about a sunset.

Goose: That has been the traditional view, but I believe the evidence of the first line is clear. Gold equals –

Roxie: No, no, I get it. Let’s move along. I almost hate to bring this one up, because it seems too easy, but what about “I rose – because He sank?”

Moose: You’re right, Rox – way too easy. What Dickinson explores here is one of the occupational hazards of pornography, a hazard that was even more acute in her time than it is in ours. I’d say this poem is about a severe case of pre-Viagra OED, Orgy Endurance Disorder.

Goose: Very good, Moose. I concur with your reading entirely. No other way to read that “fainting Prince” propped up by the “straight,” “firm” speaker.

Roxie: Based on what you told me about the excerpt of Pirates II that you saw, I would guess that images of amply endowed women are a staple of pornographic fantasy. So --

Goose: (Interrupting.) I think I know where you’re going with this one, Rox. “Sweet Mountains – Ye tell Me no lie -- / Never deny Me – Never fly – "

Moose: No, no, she’s talking about, “Her breast is fit for pearls, / But I was not a ‘Diver’ –"

Goose: Or how about, “Unworthy of her Breast / Though by that scathing test / What Soul survive?”

Roxie: Guys, guys, come on, all right, enough already! You’ve convinced me: Emily Dickinson is a twisted sister, a vile pornographer every bit as disgusting as the tasteless purveyors of filth who brought us Pirates II. If Senator Harris were to get hold of this stuff and read it with the same deep scholarly attention you two do, he would ban Dickinson from campus, burn her books, and cover the ears of the children the next time someone starts quoting “A narrow Fellow in the Grass!” Isn’t that the logical conclusion to what you’ve been saying?

Goose: Well, “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” is a rather scandalous exploration of an unnerving encounter with phallic power –

Moose: But, no, Rox, we aren’t suggesting that Dickinson is pornographic in quite the same way that the makers of Pirates II are. And we’re certainly not trying to give Senator Harris an excuse to throw her off campus!

Roxie: You’re not?

Goose: Of course not, silly. Our point is that all literature, all cultural expression, good or bad, is shaped by fantasies and symbols that have their roots in sexuality – our desires, conscious and unconscious, our fears, the varied, complex roles we play in intimate relation to others. And so it is that we might find that great writers like Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Dickinson have some things in common with the makers of porn. They may from time to time draw upon similar themes, use similar tropes or devices, or guide their readers into spaces in the mind that might feel a little bit twisted. That doesn’t mean that Dickinson is a lesser artist or that the guys who brought us Pirates II are anything but hacks and misogynists. It just means that we need to keep our minds open and be willing to take a look at everything, to try to understand what fuels it and how it works. Using porn as a way to talk about Dickinson is admittedly provocative, but if it gets students to sit up and pay attention, to be willing to see her as something other than an uptight spinster who never left her father’s house, well, then it’s worth risking raising the hackles of someone like Senator Harris.

Roxie: Is that today’s lesson in porn?

Goose and Moose: (Laughing.) It is, Rox! It certainly is.

Class dismissed.

(Image Credit: Found it here.)


  1. Hey Rox--Wonderful summary of our conversation. Hey, we forgot to talk about "In Winter in my Room." You know, where the pink worm becomes a big ole snake mottled and rare. Talk about an encounter with phallic power!

    always yours,

  2. Last night I had a glass of port with a slice of Kraft American cheese. Does that make me a stereotype? ;)

  3. Amen, Roxie!

    Also, can you please ask Moose where I might procure a Dolly Pardon trash can? My office is in need of one, stat.

  4. Candy Man3:50 PM EDT

    Wonderful post, Roxie! The Diamondback would do well to offer you a place on their staff.

  5. Candy Man -- I should write for the Diamondback -- while MoDo holds forth in the New York Times? I don't THINK so!

    Lady D -- Bet you anything you can pick up one of those trashcans at or something like that. Goose just loves hers!

    Geoffrey -- Definitely a stereotype. I'm just not sure of what. ;-)

  6. I love my Dolly Parton trashcan and won't part with it for any amount of $$$. However, I'll try to find you one, Lady D.

  7. Candy Man3:32 PM EDT

    Roxie, most sincere apologies: I don't know what I was thinking!


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