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. Continue reading