Monday, October 5, 2015

Poem of the Week 10.5.15

Poem 314 - Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -

And sore must be the storm -

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -

And on the strangest Sea -

Yet - never - in Extremity,

It asked a crumb - of me.
* * *
I like Emily Dickinson. In fact, I may love Emily Dickinson. While, of course, I'd known of her before - there are some names that it's fairly impossible for an English major to not know, and Dickinson is one of them - I'd never studied a variety of her work. I knew the verses asking me whether or not I was nobody, and I knew the personification of death as a kindly carriage driver, and I knew the image of Dickinson as a recluse, closed off to the world except through her poetry. I didn't know she wrote almost two thousand poems, that she dressed all in white and dropped presents to visitors from her bedroom window, or that like so many other writers, her work was edited posthumously and had to wait decades for full restoration. Not that she wanted her poems published anyway, a fact that's always been disquieting to me. Emily Dickinson is probably spinning in her grave the more I continue talking about her.

For me, poetry is often motivated by emotion, and emotions are messy things, not as clear cut as we'd ever like them to be. Therefore, I like poems that muddy the waters of emotional expression and fully communicate the unique conflict of human feeling. At the same time, though, I really kind of love how Dickinson presents everything she thinks and feels as a fact. Here, hope is a specific thing: a bird in flight with soft-turning feathers and a beautiful song to sing, something that remains with you and asks nothing in return. Her other poems make the abstract factual as well. Death is a specific thing - a carriage driver, or the image of a person lying down. Remorse is a specific thing - a memory of having houseguests and the feeling of an empty home. Dickinson doesn't flinch away from the cut and dry realities of life and yet simultaneously waxes poetic about them, refusing ambiguity but still letting her stanzas flow like the birdsong of hope.

The image of Dickinson the recluse carries a rather negative connotation, one that was never told to me directly yet somehow implanted in my brain. Surely a woman who spent most of her life in her bedroom, who only left the place where she was born very briefly, didn't know much of the world, right? And surely writing uncomplicated and easily accessible verse denotes a simple mind? Somehow Dickinson is reduced to naive girlhood, despite being extremely educated and maintaining regular contact with the world through correspondences, newspapers, and books. I don't think it's an accident that one of the first, and still one of the most famous, female poets in the American canon is dismissed this way. It's no mistake that her work was tampered with to better fit the era's poetic aesthetic when really, Dickinson was ahead of her time with a more modernist approach to grammar and punctuation. As if she didn't know what she was doing! Of course she did. She almost foresaw this meddling:

They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me "still" –

Still! Could themself have peeped –
And seen my Brain – go round –
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason – in the Pound –

"Because they liked me still." Quiet. Silent. Locked away in a bedroom or else dead and buried, where you can't correct the stories they write about you. As with so many other writers, poetry was Dickinson's escape from the trappings of the world. She knew who she was and where she was; she knew what the world meant to her. She defined it so precisely that there's no margin for error. Reading Emily Dickinson almost feels like correspondence, having a conversation with her, hearing her innermost thoughts, and that's what strikes me the most. I like the idea that she's still talking through her poetry.

Deep down I hope that when I'm gone off on that long carriage ride into eternity, the words I leave behind will do the same.


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