The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature.
It is a sad fact that, for most Americans, "classic" literature is something we associate with school and, therefore, boring assignments. There are certain "giants" of American literature that, when we hear their names, we immediately think "school." Unfortunately, for me, this has been the case with Emily Dickinson. It's sad that we often have this "school" association, because that is most definitely not what the writers themselves had in mind when they were writing. For Dickinson, as for all great writers, writing was a way of dealing with and understanding life, with all its pain and beauty and confusion. Poetry was, for her, an intensely passionate, personal, and spiritual thing.
I think it is important, when approaching great writers like Dickinson, to try our best to remove the association of words like "school" and "assignment" and even "classic." Instead, I find it best to try to approach this poetry with new eyes, the eyes of a fellow human being who has probably suffered, and wondered, and experienced things the poet also experienced in her own way. It is best, I think, to see these poems not as boring assignments, but as the passionate cry of a human being, trying like hell to understand life, and to communicate with others, like me and you.
That's what I've been doing this morning--just reading Emily Dickinson's poems. Some of them confuse me, some require multiple readings, some of them I find a bit silly or strange, but occasionally there is the shock of beauty--a realization of some insight that, hopefully, helps me feel less alone as a human being. And while most of us fumble around with our words, there are a few rare voices whose words can clarify some unspoken truth we've been struggling to articulate, and maybe even help us in some way to deal with our complex and often painful lives, and loves, and relationships, and losses. Dickinson's concise, strange little poems are, sometimes, like little bells of clarity amidst the chaos.
Dickinson spent most of her life in a kind of seclusion in her family house in Amherst, Massachusetts. She had a few lovers over the years, but never married, and clearly she had some issues with intimacy, and the resulting loneliness. As she puts it, "The Soul selects her own society / Then--shuts the Door." Elsewhere, she writes of a lost lover...
I cannot live with you--
It would be Life--
And Life is over there--
Behind the shelf.
So We must meet apart--
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are--and Prayer--
And that White Sustenance--
For Dickinson, writing was a way to gradually, creatively, approach deep, internal things that were perhaps too painful to bear all at once. She puts it this way: "The Truth must dazzle gradually / or every man be blind." The ability to perceive this intensity of beauty is, according to Dickinson, "a privilege so awful," but one she embraced. I'm fairly certain Dickinson experienced major depression, because here is one of the most eloquent expressions of it that I've ever read…
Pain--has an Element of Blank--
It cannot recollect
When it begun--or if there were
A time when it was not.
Alone in her room, she was free to create, out of her suffering and loneliness, little things of great beauty, like this one:
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me--
The simple News that Nature told--
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see--
For love of Her--sweet--countrymen--
Judge tenderly--of Me.
Dickinson's father was a Calvinist, and her poetry is deeply influenced by the Bible. And yet, she is not limited by dogma or theology, but rather free to combine religious insight with her own personal experience of nature and the world…
Oh sacrament of summer days;
Oh last Communion in the Haze--
permit a child to join you.
Having experienced the death of loved ones, she was obsessed with death…
Because I could not stop for Death--
He kindly stopped for me--
The Carriage held but just Ourselves--
The Bustle in a House
the Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon Earth--
The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
What is the value, you ask, of reading poetry that so intensely confronts pain, and loss, and loneliness, and death? The value is that these things are a part of life. How we deal with pain and sorrow will determine the quality and richness of our lives. When viewed in this light, the poetry of Emily Dickinson is much more than "school assignments." It is a voice of solace amidst suffering--the voice of a highly eloquent human being saying sad things more beautifully than most can say them, and maybe helping us to feel less alone in our own internal worlds.
|Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), the lonely poet of Amherst|