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Poetic Forms: Emily Dickinson

“. . . at her best . . . she writes . . . close to the bone, concentrating the very essence of what she saw and felt in phrases that strike and penetrate like bullets, and with an originality of thought unsurpassed in American poetry.”

from Selected Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson

When considering Emily Dickinson’s possible purposes for writing poetry, the reactions of those she chose to consult about publication, and her decision to share her poems in private correspondence rather than as a public offering, it is important to take into account that Emily Dickinson was ahead of her time. Although she lived a quiet, secluded life, she wrote with abandon. But, this abandon is not only reflected by the number of known poems published after her death. It is also revealed in the traditional forms she abandoned and the unique forms she forged and adopted as her own.


“Her extensive reading in contemporary poetry and resistance to her friends’ efforts to edit her work indicate that she knew what nineteenth-century poetry was supposed to look like; she just didn’t want to write it that way.”

from Susan VanZanten’s Mending a Tattered Faith

Before explaining how Emily Dickinson personalized her poetic style, it is critical to note that she was educated beyond most women of her day. She attended Amherst Academy and then went on to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. She kept a copy of Webster’s Dictionary close at hand. She would have studied classical literature as well as languages, mathematics, and science. We see her love of botany in the poems she produced. She also had a vast knowledge of hymns, psalms, and scriptures. Her education and knowledge found its way into her writing. But, she found her own voice beyond the cadence and timbre of those before her. Quiet and shy though she may have been, she was a rebel when it came to putting her words on paper.


“The dashes produce a rhythm, add emphases, generate spaces of silence, and–most noticeably–create a deliberate ambiguity in grammar and syntax.”

from Susan VanZanten’s Mending a Tattered Faith

Two of the notable identifiers of an Emily Dickinson poem are her uses of dashes and irregular meter. Her poetic predecessors established strict poetic rhythms such as iambic pentameter. I am a poet, and I still find scansion exercises to be challenging. Emily Dickinson used rhythm, but it was less strict. She employed common meter, which is often found in familiar hymns. Her use of dashes serve various purposes, which lends to her poetry being best when read out loud.

“Dickinson used dashes as a musical device, and though some may be elongated end stops, any ‘correction’ would be gratuitous. Capitalization, though often capricious, is likewise untouched.”

from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Another noticeable difference between Dickinson’s poetry and those of her predecessors and contemporaries is her use of capital letters. This deviation from the typical could have been her way of personifying her subject or it could have been something she learned when studying German. For a grammarian such as myself, I would be red-lining these misuses if I were grading a formal essay. But, as I often told my home education students and remind myself, poetry often breaks the rules.

“As is inevitable for a poet who worked in solitude and without criticism, her writing is uneven, sometimes baffling in its concision, sometimes provoking in its disregard of rhymes and rules.”

from Selected Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson may well-be one of our first rule-breaking poets. She employed free verse, which is prevalent in most contemporary poetry. She also used slant rhyme. To the reader, the deviation from the traditional can seem abrupt and startling. To the poet, this breaking away from the standards is a call to pay attention and to see the world from a different perspective. It is not forgetting about what we know, but rather remembering why what we know is essential.

“She rarely uses the gold standard of metrical poetry, the weighty iambic pentameter of Shakespeare or Milton, preferring instead to write most often in common meter–the meter that is sometimes called ‘sixes and sevens’ and is frequently employed in traditional hymnody.”

from Susan VanZanten’s Mending a Tattered Faith


“If diction is the needle in Dickinson’s sewing kit, metaphor is her thread.”

from Susan VanZanten’s Mending a Tattered Faith

Emily Dickinson was not the first poet to use metaphor, but she mastered the technique. One of the poems that reflects metaphors is “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.” (In fact, if you are clicking on the links, you will notice that this poem is an example for many literary devices used by Dickinson.) We sense the tenuous nature of hope in the way that Dickinson compares it to birds, birdsong, winds, storms, and seas. It is a poem that many identify with Dickinson and one packed with deep meaning and truth.

“. . .Dickinson’s poetry is permeated with biblical language, images, allusions, quotations, and thought. She had a scriptural imagination, and her wrestling with God often took the form of poetically engaging in God’s Word.”

from Susan VanZanten’s Mending a Tattered Faith

When reading Emily Dickinson, it is important to incorporate all of the ingredients that make up her poems. They are methodical, metrical, and metaphorical. They become the musical hope Dickinson desired to hold and set free at the same time.

“Dickinson’s poems are. . .distilled. They achieve a single moment of intensity, of thought condensed to its essence, like oranges pressed into juice that is further squeezed into concentrate.”

from Susan VanZanten’s Mending a Tattered Faith

Categories: poetry month

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