The Daring Dickinson

Last weekend, the Dish featured three poems by Emily Dickinson – here, here, and here – alongside images of the “scraps” of envelopes or wrappers they were originally composed on. Hillary Kelly perceives an autobiographical dimension in the scraps, recently reproduced in the collection The Gorgeous Nothings:

The madcap pencil strokes, torn edges, and higgledy-piggledy line breaks are the work of a quick-thinking, passionate woman. But the carefully crossed through and reworked prose are the mark of a poet bent on perfection. The harmony between the content and use of space, most of all, reveals Dickinson’s self-awareness and inherent knack for poetic construction. One small triangle of paper reads, with the words forming an upside down pyramid, “In this short life/ that only lasts an hour/ merely/ How much — how/ little — is/ within our/ power.” That self-important word, “power,” is smirkingly wedged between a smudge and a tear. On another little rectangle, Dickinson merely wrote, “A Mir/ acle for/ all.” And on an envelope whose face bears a carefully calligraphed “Miss Emily Dickinson” and whose rear is covered with a more elaborate poem, Dickinson has gently pencilled, “To light, and/ then return —”

In a 1955 TNR essay, Jay Leyda defended Dickinson against rigid and confining interpretations of her life as “the poet no one knew”:

Richard Chase built a valuable critical examination of her work on a wobbly base of uncritical acceptance of biographical error. Thornton Wilder went further, allowing a fancied, arch, doll-like figure of the poet to show to him only arch and doll-like qualities in her poetry, and pushing most of her writing aside in the process.

The Dickinson critics who promoted flexibility in our attitudes to her have always been in the minority. It took the perception of Allen Tate to attack the legend: “All pity for Miss Dickinson’s “starved life’ is misdirected. Her life was one of the richest and deepest ever lived on this continent.”

Conrad Aiken was right to call her choice “deliberate and conscious” (but wrong to believe that she chose to become “a hermit”). In Amherst itself, where the temptation was greatest to create a peculiar figure named Emily, George Whicher’s was a lonely voice of objectivity; the insights of his biography. This Was a Poet, will survive factual correction. In a following generation, Henry Wells studied Emily Dickinson’s poetry without noise and with an ear for wit and sharpness, qualities often obscured by the legend; and F. O. Matthiessen examined “the private poet” and her work with a healthy skepticism.

Stefansson has a wonderful term for our reluctance to revise set patterns: “the standardization of error.” We’ve so standardized our ways of thinking about Emily Dickinson that we tend to resent anything that disturbs the neat, cold shape handed us—our fable convenue, our fraudulent monument.

In a recent interview, the poet CAConrad discusses falling in love with Dickinson’s verse as a child, and how “a few years later, she came up in class for the first time and I was disappointed immediately with the teacher’s conversation around her”:

The teacher made Emily Dickinson into this frail, scared, wilting lily. But the true story really is: centuries of poetry came up to her doorstep and she didn’t like any of it. She said, I have to make something new. That’s courageous. You don’t do that if you’re some frail, frightened being. I think she was a real badass, actually. I think that we’re in love with that story because she didn’t participate in the world the right way. But how could she? She was a woman in Amherst at a time when women didn’t have a voice. Period. … Emily Dickinson has zero counterparts in my opinion. She’s completely on her own. She changed everything for us. And the thing is I found out the older I got that story that we were made to accept about Emily Dickinson—living this particular way that made her look kind of spooky in her house in Amherst. It was a prevalent story but I also think it was wrong.