As I mentioned previously, our household has two patron poet saints, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. In some ways Uncle Walt is an easy person to like. He’s enthusiastic and authentic. He loves almost everybody. He seems like a great guy to have a beer with. (Of course, you would be buying.)
Emily Dickinson is a harder sell. She’s intense and intensely strange. She writes about death, and snakes, and bees. She has a reputation for being a hermit. Academics tend to get into arguments about whether she avoided company because she was “shy” or because she had work to do and didn’t want to spend all day complementing visitors on their hats and offering to pour them some more tea. Yes, I’m in the latter camp.
Here’s why you should read some of her poems:
- She believed in science: “Faith” is fine invention
- She was unimpressed by fame: Fame is a bee
- She never uses two words when one will do. (Refer to almost any poem.)
- She observed the natural world in telling detail: A Bird, came down the walk
- She was totally cool with skipping church: Some keep the Sabbath going to Church
- She couldn’t be constrained by language: They shut me up in Prose
- She knew you didn’t have to leave home to travel a world away: There is no Frigate like a Book
If you want to know more about Dickinson’s life and poetry, the Poetry Foundation has a comprehensive essay with insights from Dickinson’s letters that will get you started. And– I just discovered this today– Susan Kornfeld is blogging all of Dickinson’s poems in chronological order, and providing critical context for them as well. Sometimes the internet is a wondrous place.
Finally I have to share my favorite Emily Dickinson poem with you all:
I’m Nobody! Who are you? (260)
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
As Kornfeld notes, this isn’t Dickinson’s best poem. I love it anyway because of how cleverly Dickinson skewers the ‘somebodies’ with economy and wit. Sometimes when I tire of the relentless self-promotion of our age, I think of this poem and it makes me smile.