This is no. 68 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
During the pandemic, with so many doors locked and shuttered, I lived in the corridors of my house. Thom Gunn describes the corridor as a “separate place between the thought and felt”—a place of uncertainty, where thoughts are unformed and feelings suppressed. It’s probably not surprising, then, that the few poems I managed to eke out were meandering, confused, and muffled.
As the architecture of my house extended into what I wrote, I started looking for poems about houses—either set indoors or using the “house” as a metaphor for the craft of poetry. I was trying to work out what kind of house poetry should be, and how much confusion that house might be able to contain. Soon enough I turned to Emily Dickinson:
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
I always read this stanza with the ironic hint of the estate agent in her tone (“Superior—for Doors” is particularly funny), which seems to mock the idea you could ever really compare poetry to a house. Though it can feel like using a conceit means committing to it entirely, here the analogy is loosely held, self-consciously tenuous: “If you look to your right, you’ll see some windows. How many? Numerous. And if you look down there, yup, superior doors. You won’t get that with Prose.” The lightness of tone is part of the image she projects about poetry.
But I read it with another, darker Dickinson poem in the back of my head, this one taking the house less as a metaphor for poetry than for the poet’s interior life:
One need not be a Chamber – to be haunted –
One need not be a House –
The Brain has Corridors – surpassing
These lines suggest that when you forgo “Material Place” and build your house in “Possibility” you open yourself up to a particular danger: being haunted. Where the other poem began with a confident assertion of habitation—“I dwell”—here the speaker expresses horror at the idea of being dwelt in: “The Brain has Corridors.” The tone is repetitious, fevered, as though the speaker has been running up and down their internal corridors for hours. The effect of this is compounded by the use of the impersonal pronoun “One” and that definite article before “Brain”—not my brain but the brain—which suggests a traumatic detachment from the body; and “surpassing,” hanging at the end of the line makes it feel like those brain corridors are only getting bigger, longer, more labyrinthine.
What’s missing from the second poem is a door of the kind Dickinson thought made poetry so superior—and without one, there’s no means of escape. Door and corridor may sound related but there’s no etymological link between them. The word door comes from the Old English duru and has always meant the same thing. Corridor is from the Italian corridoio, referring to a “running-place.” They represent two forms of possibility, each reliant on the other: The door is a portal, signifying insight, while the corridor is an in-between place, signifying uncertainty and confusion.
An important way to understand the corridor might be via the horror film in which a shadowy figure always seems to be lurking at the other end, or the protagonist is trapped, running down an endless dark passage full of locked doors. Where the corridor represents terror, the door is freedom.
During lockdown I also turned to Bhanu Kapil’s book How to Wash a Heart and stopped at this section:
When what you perform
At the threshold
Is at odds
With what happens
When the front door is closed,
Then you are burning
And you are letting the butter
The front door is where the internal becomes public, even if briefly. But in order for an act to be meaningful, what you “perform” at the threshold must have some relationship to what happens behind it. Kapil’s lines make me think of those people in expensive houses who voted to privatize Britain’s National Health Service last December and then stepped out onto their doorsteps this spring to clap enthusiastically in support of nurses and carers. They make me think of what the threshold can conceal. The door only has meaning in relation to the corridor.
In early July, Bhanu and I did a reading together on Zoom. She began hers by lighting a small candle. She had some shallots next to her that she’d picked from Wittgenstein’s garden in Cambridge. The effect of these gestures wasn’t just to welcome the listener in. It was to create an open space into which the poem could emerge, where we could meet it. In trying to harmonize inner and outer, in letting out what festers, the distance between our two screens fell away.
After the reading, I thought back to Dickinson’s haunted house poem. It’s driven by a claustrophobic fear of the internal. Even the “External Ghost” or hidden “Assassin” (other threats that feature in Dickinson’s poem) are less terrifying than the prospect of “self encounter.” The self is a more ambiguous, volatile element. It could stay hidden forever: “Ourself, behind ourself concealed,” reads one line in the poem. You might think you’ve turned a corner, the front door in sight, only to find yourself lost down another passageway.
But this is only a nightmare if you’re looking for a door. The beauty of Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart lies in its openness: “I want to be split / Into two parts / Or a thousand pieces.” The self that’s been split into a thousand pieces has nothing to lose. What’s not whole cannot be broken. Likewise, the poem doesn’t have to form a coherent whole—a portal to insight. It doesn’t have to involve finding the right door and standing outside of it proudly. It can also mean walking the corridors, afraid and confused.
Will Harris is the author of the poetry collection RENDANG (Wesleyan University Press, 2020), which was selected as a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. He has worked in schools and led workshops at the Southbank Centre and currently teaches for the Poetry School. A contributing editor at the Rialto, he lives in London.Thumbnail: Kilarov Zaneit