This piece was also published by The Houston Chronicle in the Gray Matters section on 10 December 2014.
Emily Dickinson was born on 10 December in 1830, but on Monday at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C., they celebrated early with a day-long marathon reading of her poems–over 1700 of them, in order. How many other American poets would get this kind of birthday recognition?
I may be far away in Texas, but as Dickinson herself wrote, “There is no Frigate like a Book,” and I can be all the way in Houston and feel her angst (and joy) in my beaten-up, highlighted, and dog-eared collection of her poems. Sometimes it takes awhile to wrap your mind around her poems, because she can turn on a dime, turn it up a notch, even turn on you–sometimes even before you know it. Like all drama queens, she keeps it lively, even 184 years after her birth.
If you read her poems individually, you might think you could figure out her position on a few things. The doyenne of the declarative statement, she can define things with confidence, letting you know that “Publication– is the Auction/ Of the Mind of Man–“, or that she would rather be “Nobody” rather than “Somebody” if it means that one is praised by “An admiring Bog.” Yet, there is a wistfulness, a desire to be heard, by someone, maybe a better reader than most of us are, as when she wrote the famous Atlantic Monthly editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson. She wanted to know if her poetry “breathed.” In an age of click-bait and Buzzfeed, it might be hard to comprehend that she didn’t care so much about crunching the numbers or what would be the equivalent of “breaking the internet,” but that doesn’t mean she did not want to be heard at all. Her poems were her “Letter to the World,” but she was also okay with selecting her own “Society.” Dickinson has something to say to us about being “discriminating” before that word became so politically charged.
You cannot read her poems individually and figure out her final word on anything. You have to see her as a poet who can channel the contradictory emotions we all feel through the venue of the poem. Think of the poem as her stage, and her words as the monologues that fit her mood at that moment: it is great theater, something to see. Just when you think she couldn’t be angrier at God (a “burglar” who makes her lose twice–and that is “in the sod”) then you witness her turning to God for inspiration–a way to define the divine, even if she is conflicted about it. I know it sounds sacrilegious when Dickinson says “The Brain is Wider than the Sky” followed by “The Brain is just the weight of God”–but the point is her frame of reference is what she can imagine, and that changes. For someone who claims she doesn’t like “Paradise,” she sure spends a lot of time thinking about it. And, through Dickinson’s queenly decrees, so do we.
One minute Dickinson is a lowly “mouse,” small, contained, vulnerable. The next, she is the Queen of Calvary, her suffering unsurpassable, but regal and spectacular nevertheless. One moment Nature is her preferred drug, and she, like the bumble bee, is drunk on it: an “inebriate of air,” a “debauchee of the dew.” But hang on: that is not the end of the nature tour: it can be as callous as the bird breaking a worm in two, as ruthless as “the blonde Assassin”–the snow that kills in the most chilling way. Sometimes nature is her own personal cathedral, “With a Bobolink as a Chorister–/And an Orchard, for a Dome–“. All you have to do is blink and suddenly nature is the symbol of everything that is devoid of solace: “Death is like the insect/Menacing the tree/Competent to kill it/But decoyed may be.” Nature is joy, nature is pain–it depends on the day and the poem. In any case, nature can fool you, “The old–old sophistries of June–/A blue and gold mistake” making you think that it is not fall, but June, and not just an Indian summer, when the birds come back “To take a backward look.” Dickinson teaches us that it is perfectly sane to be of two minds. How could we not be in a contradictory and kaleidoscopic world?
One minute Dickinson is rejecting those who don’t get her, aren’t worthy. She shuts the door “unmoved,” closes “the Valves of her attention–/Like Stone.” Then just when you think she couldn’t get more exclusive, she is literally spilling her guts to her beloved, tortured by the lack of connection: “I cannot live with You–/It would be Life–/And Life is over there–/Behind the Shelf.” No wonder we identify with her longing, her “homesick eye.” It is lonely being Queen, and you can tell when she gets sick of it.
You are taught in school that Emily Dickinson was a recluse, and I suppose that is true. At times. But her father served in Congress, her brother was a lawyer. The Dickinson household had a lot of interesting people coming through its doors. In some ways, the world came to her: people, books, letters, imaginings. She tells us about things she hasn’t done: the volcanoes and moors she has never seen, the Switzerland she has never visited, the liquor she has tasted that was “never brewed.” Somehow, that has worked out just fine: her passport has stamps of the imagination rather than experience. We don’t know if she had “Wild Nights,” but she keeps us guessing. We know what rowing in Eden might be like, even if we have never been there. For Dickinson, emotional truth is as important as any empirical discovery, and sometimes, it is so searing that you don’t forget it, have to figure it out. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes–” and sometimes, if you are lucky, the form is that of a well-wrought urn of a poem, delivered, often, long after it was originally written. But the thing about Dickinson is that she doesn’t seem to have an expiration date–she has not been relegated to the museums of forgotten poets. Instead, she has listeners for all of her poems, during her birthday week, in the nation’s capitol.
In a time when we seem more polarized than ever–our Congress, our politics, sometimes even neighborhoods–Dickinson has something to teach us about the value of doubt. She didn’t have God, nature, art, love, emotions, and humanity all figured out–she wrote almost 1,800 poems thinking those things through, often in extreme ways. When Dickinson “feels a funeral” in her brain, so do we–every time experience makes us change our minds, think of something in new way. She tells us doubt “nibbles” at our souls, and if it doesn’t, maybe it should. Maybe certainty is not our friend, at a least not all the time.
When you read Dickinson, you may think her emotional vicissitudes are too much of a roller-coaster, that she is too hard to pin down. Hey, she is intense. She doesn’t put things in caps and use those dashes for nothing: love her or hate her, you cannot ignore her. Maybe a snake doesn’t make you feel “zero at the bone,” but you know what she means. Maybe the wryness of “I like a look of Agony,/ Because I know it’s true” is too catty, not nice! But it is hard to argue with her desire for authenticity in this world. It is hard to conclude if her dashes are the hubris of the Queen of Calvary, her expertise on pain so profound that you much stop in your tracks, listen to her edicts. Or, if those dashes are the stutters of grief and desire, form embodying the truth of our halting speech, our tenuous ways, the punctuation that reminds us that things can pivot so quickly, take a turn for, who knows what? But a sharp turn, and one that dramatizes the uncertainty of things, the inevitable changes of direction for which there is no swerve.
Pain or joy–pick your poison. But, there is this: wonder.
“Wonder–is not precisely knowing/ And not precisely knowing not–/A beautiful but bleak condition/He has not lived who has not felt.”
Dickinson knows we are hypocrites. In four lines she devastates our pride, our “knowledge”: “‘Faith’ is a fine invention/When Gentlemen can see–/But Microscopes are prudent/in an Emergency.” So, we aren’t sure, but we can be sure of our failings, our limitations, through the force of her forceful lines. She casts a cold eye, but demands we acknowledge the “white heat” of our most intense and private emotions. She is our national psychologist, refusing to let us ignore our issues, even if it means revealing some of her own.
Sometimes, it feels like we live in a world of Know-It-Alls, and you know what I mean. You can’t go anywhere without hearing an “expert” on something, even if the event just happened and hit us like a ton of bricks. Dickinson, in her supreme need for a certain kind of attention that did not involve fame or money, stands alone as the artist who isn’t afraid to remind us that doubt and a lack of expertise are what make us the most human, the most alive. It is our doubts, our insecurities, our wonderment that prove we still have a pulse, even if it is racing. Emily Dickinson is so right: “Narcotics cannot still the Tooth/ That nibbles at the soul.”