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Poet of the Week: Emily Dickinson

As I considered the poet I had chosen for this week, I felt trepidation. I know that in part it is because Emily Dickinson has been a cursory poet for me. I have read her work. I have taught her work. But, there are unknowns about Emily Dickinson–that unlike Robert Frost–make her somewhat unapproachable. Emily Dickinson remains one of America’s most prolific poets and yet there is vast speculation about who she was as a person and a poet. I found reassurance during my research that I am not alone in my concerns when delving into the work–and therefore, the life–of Emily Dickinson. Based on my reading, I came to the following conclusions.

Misunderstood

“Depending on which poems and biographies we read, we find many different Emily Dickinsons.”

from Susan VanZanten’s Mending a Tattered Faith

Several years ago, I reintroduced myself to Emily Dickinson. I am not sure if she wasn’t a familiar poet for me because I felt daunted by the volume of her work, because I was turned off by the inferences about her relationships, or because I simply preferred poems with standard grammar. But, with the help of Susan VanZanten’s Mending a Tattered Faith, I discovered renewed appreciation for Emily Dickinson’s poetry and person. I realized that her poetry was her way of communicating with God as she struggled with her faith. I suddenly sensed a connection with Dickinson I didn’t have in my previous readings.

“Reticence was a Dickinson characteristic, and most of what we know or surmise about Emily’s emotional life comes by inference from her poems and letters.”

from Selected Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson

What I didn’t understand about Emily Dickinson and myself is that I do understand the much-misunderstood Dickinson. I felt misunderstood many times during my childhood until I discovered poetry and experienced the release of written self-expression. I can be quite a different person with my husband and sons than I am with my extended family with its various hierarchies. Understanding MBTI as I do, it makes sense to me why I feel kinship with Dickinson.

Depending on which source is viewed, Dickinson is classified as an INFP or an INFJ. Although she could have been Introverted-Feeler, I suspect she is an INFJ–an Introverted-Intuitive. The reason I think this is because we become more introverted with age (yes, even extraverts). When Dickinson was in school she was described as “‘one of the wits of the school, and there were no signs in her life and character of the future recluse.'” After her most prolific year of writing in 1862, she gradually retreated from society. Several circumstances could have prompted this isolation as have been documented and surmised, but I wonder if she simply enjoyed being alone with her own thoughts and keeping life simple.

If you are interested in writing a poem based on your MBTI, check out this challenge.

“It’s inaccurate to describe Dickinson as a total recluse; she merely became quite particular about whom she would see and when she would see them.”

from Susan VanZanten’s Mending a Tattered Faith

A year ago, I chose to read The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson as edited by Thomas H. Johnson. I thought that she would be the best poet to read if I had to be sequestered at home. I was right. But, I still didn’t get through the entire volume. No matter, as I have my place marked. I also thought that, at this time in our history, it would be a good time to consider what it must be like to write and gaze out the same window every day. It was a profitable exercise and one that helped me complete my own collection of a year’s worth of poems. Yet, even while reading her work, I knew I was missing something about her.

If you are interested in writing a poem every day, you can start by doing this challenge.

Misinterpreted

“Dickinson was oddly both a Queen of ambiguous complexity and an Empress of vivid detail; her poems raise pointed questions and consider possible responses but seldom in Definite Answers. But such open-endedness can lead to pondering.”

from Susan VanZanten’s Mending a Tattered Faith

One of the most intriguing aspects of Emily Dickinson’s poetry is that one reading is not enough to grasp each poem’s complexity. Certainly we can take the first line, “‘Hope’ is a thing with feathers” for what it is. We can consider the opposites, that hope is fleeting even as it makes us feel as if we can fly. But, in reading Dickinson’s poem, there is more to it than that. We cannot take her lines out of context because each leads into the next. We cannot stake a claim that we understand the first stanza without contemplating the ones that remain.

“Despite the brevity of Dickinson’s poems, many people find them difficult to read.”

from Susan VanZanten’s Mending a Tattered Faith

This statement by VanZanten is a key truth in interpreting Dickinson. Short poems are not necessarily simple. Sometimes minimalist poetry is more difficult to understand because we have less to interpret. But, Dickinson makes the brevity of her poems more challenging because she kept the meaning open for interpretation. One reader can a approach a conclusion from one standpoint and be as correct as another reader coming at the poem from a different angle.

“What embarrassed Higginson about the poems was his inability to classify them. . . .He was trying to measure a cube by the rules of plane geometry.”

from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Even those closest to Dickinson and those privileged enough to read her poems at the time they were written were confused by them. On April 15, 1862, Emily Dickinson sent Thomas Wentworth Higginson four of her poems to get his opinion about them. It is fair to say that Higginson didn’t know what to make of them. She sent him three more later in the month, but by June, she had decided that she would not be a well-known writer if ever known at all.

“While such technical matters may seem unimportant, editorial choices contribute to the open-endedness of Dickinson’s poetry. As we have seen, she herself left some decisions unresolved, refusing to decide upon a single word, sending alternative versions of poems to different people. Her editors have, at times, interpreted her handwriting or the dating of her poetry differently, or made other editorial choices that contribute to a poem’s meaning.”

from Susan VanZanten’s Mending a Tattered Faith

Higginson and Austin Dickinson’s mistress Mabel Loomis Todd collaborated on the first collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Yet, their attempt revealed to later editors that Dickinson’s original intent for each poem–if this intent could be known–was skewed by Higginson’s and Todd’s discretionary changes and assumptions. Later editions reflect the original poems in wording and construct with Johnson’s collection being seen as one of the best.

Misrepresented

It would make more sense that during her most prolific writing years–and 1862 especially–when the country was experiencing its second year of the Civil War that she began to look at herself internally and how she might impact the world. Partings with friends and death of loved ones also affected Dickinson’s outlook on life. No doubt the relationships in her own family created a confusing dynamic. Lavinia, Dickinson’s unmarried sister, was the one to find the unknown fascicles of poetry amassed over decades. The family knew Emily wrote poetry, but not to the discovered extent! Lavinia implored Susan Dickinson, Austin’s wife and Emily’s friend, to create a collection. But, it was too much for Susan or she didn’t do it to Lavinia’s liking. So, the project was turned over to Higginson and Austin’s mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd. To complicate the matter further, Emily had requested that all her letters and her poems be destroyed. She had shared her poems with family and friends, but she never intended to share the full extent of them with the world at the time of her death.

“If fame belonged to me…I could not escape her; if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase, and the approbation of my dog would forsake me.”

Emily Dickinson, 1862

Mystery

Emily Dickinson in many ways continues to be an elusive poet. Her reclusive lifestyle kept her literal door closed to most of society, yet her literary door remains as wide and open as the ocean. She wrestled with desiring approval and affirmation for her work while resigning herself to the reality that her poetry was not for the masses. Her poetry was for those she chose to bless within letters as possible words of encouragement. VanZanten describes this as Dickinson’s ministry, and most likely it was, although Linscott alludes to the confusion of those who received these poems. These versions of her poems–perhaps many of them the same ones we find in collections edited by Linscott, Johnson, and others –may have contained personalized words and lines for the recipient. These versions are lost to us. Yet, we must remember we may never have experienced Dickinson’s poems at all if her wishes had been carried out, that she wanted her poems to be destroyed along with her letters. What more might we have known about her if those letters–all of them–that Emily stored in those drawers with her fascicles, revisions, and rough drafts had survived? I suspect Emily is grateful that some of her secrets remain hers. I would not be surprised if she is smirking at our surmising of meaning within her poems. After all, she would know she never quite knew herself what she meant by them. Perhaps in that respect she would accept our misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and misrepresentations for in them we keep the mystery of the real Emily Dickinson very much alive.

Categories: poetry month

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