Roll on, River: Semester Mantra Fall 2017

The Brain, within its Groove
Runs evenly – and true –
But let a Splinter swerve –
‘Twere easier for You –

To put a Current back –
When Floods have slit the Hills –
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves –
And trodden out the Mills –

Like so many of Dickinson’s poems, these stanzas read like a parable where the “splinter” points not to one reading but multiple. And the image is so fierce!—a Splinter in the Brain!! Something has “slit” the Brain, the psyche—the soul/mind—that has caused a massive disruption in that person’s inner-being, so much so (and I dangerously paraphrase) that it would be easier to put a current back after it has run its banks and wreaked havoc on the countryside blasting through mills and other structures than to put the force that has been unleashed from within the psyche back into the groove of the brain from whence it came.

We should keep in mind that Dickinson wrote this poem in 1863, a year she wrote 295 poems—which followed 1862 when she wrote 227 poems. In these two years, some “Splinter swerve[d]” that unleashed a tremendous amount of creative energy from Dickinson’s psyche. And it continued. In 1864, she wrote 98 poems and in 1865 she wrote 229 (see Dickinson, Poems 637).

Again, the “splinter” could be anything, and as it is parable-esque, we can apply the poem’s wisdom to multiple contexts beyond the biographical. One context suggests that the splinter is simply a poem, or a story, or a work of art, or music.

Need more convincing? In a letter to Oskar Pollak, Franz Kafka admonished “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” (16). Axe or Splinter—river or frozen sea—both writers point toward watershed moments (pun intended) that a poem or a book can initiate.

My hope, this semester, is that students will discover at least one passage, one stanza, one work of literature that creates such a revolutionary epiphany in her psyche that her life is changed for the better. This is one of the reasons why literature is so important. It can generate transformative moments in how we understand ourselves and our place in the communities within society and on this earth.


Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. “The Brain, within its Groove.” Emily Dickinson Archive, Imported 21 October 2013, Accessed 2 August 2017.

———. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R. W. Franklin, Reading Edition, Belknap Press, 1999.

Kafka, Franz. Letters to Friends, Family and Editors. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2016.

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