There has been so much written about Dickinson that I hesitate to add anything to the chorus. But considering the title of Susan Howe's study, MY EMILY DICKINSON, I suppose everyone is entitled to their own Emily. My Emily Dickinson was a terrifying poet who wrote one of the scariest, most insidious, most violent poems ever written, which I'll discuss below. She is other things to me, as well, but when I teach her to my students I begin with this poem, just to counteract all that they might assume about her.
One thing I find to be consistently frustrating is how she is often characterized as the polar opposite of Whitman. It seems too convenient, to me. Yes, while Whitman was at the bedsides of wounded soldiers, Dickinson was in her room in Amherst, sewing her poems into fascicles (scholars believe that the fascicles were put together from about 1858 to about 1864). Whitman famously reviewed his own book (he would have been wonderful on Twitter), while Dickinson was "reclusive," spoke to visitors through the door, wore white, etc. We forget that she drowned kittens, broke plates, refused to go to church with her family.
The movie, A QUIET PASSION, is a terrible film because it reinforces all of our presumptions about her. To watch the movie is similar to watching a bad movie about a novel you love (ANNA KARENINA with Kiara Knightly would be a good example): you have to work, as if trudging through drifts, to get the novel arranged in your head the way it was before you entered the theater. I've had to do a bit of work to get Dickinson arranged in my head since suffering through A QUIET PASSION. It would be the worst movie about a poet I've ever seen (and I've seen pretty much all of them) if REACHING FOR THE MOON, about Elizabeth Bishop (allegedly about her) wasn't worse.
But back to Dickinson. As soon as the title A QUIET PASSION flashed on the screen the movie lost me. Of course, I knew it was called that when I bought my ticket, but something about seeing it up there struck home, and I knew we were in for it. Props to Cynthia Nixon for a valiant performance, but one has the sense that everyone else on the set is bored to tears. In this film Dickinson comes across as the difficult and rebellious daughter, who triumphed over her own limitations and was beloved in spite of herself. "Oh Emily, you're so DIFFICULT! But we love you all the same." Whoever the Dickinson of A QUIET PASSION is, she isn't the poet who wrote the poem I'm going to share below. Not sure why Richard Brody of the The New Yorker called the movie "a drop-dead masterwork." I simply wanted to drop dead, along with the half dozen or so octogenarians I saw the film with at 2:30 in the afternoon in Berkeley, two of whom had the wisdom to leave early.
Contrast this failure of a film with BRIGHT STAR, Jane Campion's movie about John Keats, which I think gets something of Keats's life, the sadness of it, the intricacies of his friendship with Brown and his relationship with Fanny Brawne: one gets the sense that Campion loved Keats, and decided to make a movie about him, whereas one gets the sense that Terrance Davies wanted to make a film, and stumbled upon Dickinson as a worthy subject. Indeed, he says in an interview that he started reading Dickinson about fifteen years ago. Would it be unfair of me to demand that a director have read a poet for at least three decades before they decide to convey their life on screen? Probably. But I demand it anyway.
What does all this have to do with self-publication and fruition? I would argue that our notions about Dickinson's reclusiveness, accurate as they might be, end of getting yoked to her working methods, so that we see her in her room, sewing her fascicles, as if this was something she was forced to do by circumstance, rather than a courageous artistic decision. To jump ahead to my meditation on the work and career of the famously irascible poet Bill Knott, it has been said of him that he was "forced" to self-publish when no one would publish his work. There may be some truth in that, but it strikes me as being just as likely that something about the directness of the blog, the fact that its content was in Knott's hands and not in any others', created the perfect environment for his creative work to flourish.
In reading about Dickinson's fascicles, almost no one discusses WHY she made them. Those that do take up this question seem to suggest that she made them because these years were such a prolific period in her poetic career. Indeed, her most prolific. From "Emily Dickinson's Life" by Paul Crumbley: "Much critical attention has been devoted to the years of Dickinson's greatest poetic production, when her output is estimated to have accelerated from 52 poems in 1858 to 366 poems in 1862, and then declined to 53 poems in 1864. What provoked such a sudden and rich abundance of creativity? And why did Dickinson take the time to carefully gather fair copies of 1,147 poems and bind 833 of them in the individual packets known as the fascicles?" To me, the answer to this question very well may be in the fascicles themselves. In other words, why assume that, because she was writing so many poems, she felt compelled to gather them together in these sheafs? What if the idea of the fascicle, of bringing her work to that kind of personal fruition, encouraged her to write more than she otherwise would have?
There are plenty of holes in my argument, of course, the biggest of which might be the following: if fascicle-making was such a fruitful process for her, then why did she stop making them? I don't know how to answer that, except to suggest that maybe the fascicles served some psychic purpose in those years that they ceased to serve around the end of the Civil War.
But all that aside, what I find so moving about the fascicles is the fact that they were, for her, a way to gather her poetic production, in the same way that a farmer makes hay and puts it up in the barn. Dorothy Hauf Oberhaus describes the process on the Modern American Poetry site: "Although the poems of Emily Dickinson remained virtually unpublished during her lifetime, she did engage in a private kind of self-publication from about 1858 to 1864. During those years, she made copies of more than eight hundred of her poems, gathered them into forty groups, and bound each of these gatherings together with string to form booklets. While she sometimes sent a friend a copy of one of the poems from the booklets, there is no evidence that she showed them in their bound form to anyone." There was a pleasure, I'm sure, in reaching the end of a fascicle, in threading the needle with string, in piercing the paper, in tying the knot, in setting the fascicle with the others in the drawer, perhaps taking the old ones out from time to time and reading them as if they weren't hers, but another's.
This is the key, I think: the experience of publication is the experience of otherness: what one has created stands apart from oneself, and for the first time can be regarded and appreciated. Whatever the poem can give back to its creator, it can only give back then, across that distance that has yawned between them. And my point here is that, if we can create this dynamic between us and our work ourselves, then why do we waste so much time and energy and money trying to get someone else to do it for us?
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Now some might ask if I consider the Instagram poets like Rupi Kaur to be doing something similar when it comes to self-publication. I would say no. Regardless of the quality of the work, which I don't feel like wasting time discussing, there is the expectation of the work being read, and not only being read, but being liked, and forwarded, and tweeted, etc. The desire is the same, to cut out the unnecessary step of having the work vetted by an editor, but the intention is completely different. I doubt if Dickinson were alive today she would be posting her poems on Instagram. I'm not saying this to be funny or ironic. I'm simply wondering, considering the technology of publishing today, and the fact that there are other avenues available to poets for getting their work into the world, how she would behave. I assume she would do something similar to what Bill Knott did: she might place her poems in some corner of the internet, where they stood a chance of being found, as she must have known her poems stood a chance of being found in her desk. To me, what Rupi Kaur and the other Instagram poets are doing has more to do with marketing than with publication. If it had everything to do with publication, they wouldn't be signed by major presses, who, correctly guessing what sort of readership these poets will garner based on their followers and their poems' likes, can't even be said to "take a chance on the work." The chance has already been taken by the poet, and the poet has the metrics to prove that the chance paid off. Ironic, yes, that the publishing world is now limping behind its writers, trying to catch up to them, to harness the work they posted "for free" and make a profit from it, for themselves and for the poet. But it is too outward, public and self-concerned a practice to count as "fruition."
Again, the quality of the work is besides the point. People love to criticize MILK AND HONEY, but there is worse poetry published every year, poetry so bad no one can even admit that they don't like it. Just an anecdote on this: I was once at a reading for a very well-known, hip press. It was one of those off-site readings at AWP, in a gallery with a scuffed floor and exposed pipes in some major American city. A number of well-known poets who were published by this particular press were reading. My friends and I were in the back, drinking, misbehaving. Why? Because we were jealous, perhaps, of the attention these poets were being paid. But then I looked closer: I noticed that people were only pretending to pay attention. I decided to conduct a kind of poll: I asked a woman standing next to me, in a whisper, whether she liked the poems she was hearing. She looked at me in surprise, then glanced around, then looked at me again and shook her head. I asked half a dozen people. No one liked what they were hearing. They seemed relieved to have been given the opportunity to admit it.
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Back to Dickinson. Here is the cruelest poem ever written:
'Twas just this time, last year, I died.
I know I heard the Corn,
When I was carried by the Farms-
It had the Tassels on-
I thought how yellow it would look-
When Richard went to mill-
And then, I wanted to get out,
But something held my will.
I thought just how Red - Apples wedged
The Stubble's joints between-
And the Carts went stooping round the fields
To take the Pumpkins in-
I wondered which would miss me, least,
And when Thanksgiving, came,
If Father'd multiply the plates-
To make an even Sum-
And would it blur the Christmas glee
My Stocking hang too high
For any Santa Claus to reach
The altitude of me-
But this sort, grieved myself,
And so, I thought the other way,
How just this time, some perfect year-
Themself, should come to me -
When I teach it to my students, it always goes over their heads at first. It went over mine for years before it sank in what the speaker of the poem is saying. Not Dickinson. Dickinson was a living poet when she wrote it. The speaker of the poem is dead. Not necessarily Dickinson, not necessarily a woman, even, but a person who has died before her father has. The tone of the poem suggests that the speaker is not a child, but is somewhat childish, and so I've always imagined the speaker of the poem to have died somewhere between the ages of 18 and 24. They died a year before the poem ensues. Exactly a year: "'Twas just this time, last year, I died." Indeed, the one-year anniversary of this speaker's death seems to be the catalyst of the poem, the reason the dead speaker begins speaking. To us. Why us? Because we're the only ones who can hear them. The speaker cannot visit their family, only us.
But I never begin this way when I teach the poem to my students. Instead, I ask them what's so weird about this poem? They blink and look at me blankly for a moment and invariably some kid wearing gray sweats raises his hand and says, "They're dead."
"Isn't that marvelous?" I say, "that you can write from the perspective of the dead?" I assume they've never considered it before. They've never considered writing from the perspective of a living person who is not themselves, much less a dead person who is not themselves. This poem proves to me that Dickinson's imagination was extraordinary, that she had the same vision that Keats has when he writes "This living hand - I hold it out to you..." the same vision that the short story writer Breece D'J Pancake had when, at the end of "Trilobites," the narrator feels his fear move away from him in waves for a million years. It's an intelligence that goes so far beyond publication, Submittable, AWP, MFA programs, all the perhaps necessary but no less pointless garbage of being a successful literary citizen, that it makes me laugh out loud out of sheer relief.
But what is it that makes this poem so cruel? Let's look at it more carefully. The first thing to notice is how brilliantly organized it is. The poem has a structure, based on the months of the year, based, more specifically, on the rituals of agriculture and of the holidays, all that gives human life its meaning.
Stanzas 1 & 2: The speaker claims that it was "just" (a word we might read as meaning "precisely") last year that they died, but they only know what time of year that was because they know they heard the corn rustle as they were carried, in the coffin, past the farms. At this point, I like to quiz my students about the stages in the maturation of corn. They usually guess every month from April to July until someone ventures August. The speaker died in August. I love the cartoonishness of the image: the corn had the tassles on, like women in church hats. There's a jollity to the image, as if the dead didn't quite believe they were going where they were going. It's only when the speaker thinks, naturally, of the next stage in the corn's maturation, the putting on of ears ripe with yellow kernels, the September work of taking it to the mill, that the speaker realizes their predicament. Now they're really scared. They want out, but like someone who's about to be buried alive but who cannot move or speak, something is preventing them from letting it be known that they don't want to be under the earth, where things are changeless, but above it. It is the thought of the future without them being there to see it that makes the speaker panic. The rest of the poem will proceed from this moment of fear.
Stanza 3: An interesting effect of this poem is that, recalling this day a year prior, when the speaker died, the speaker is both telling us what they envision is going to happen, while also implying that, from the perspective of the speaker on this one-year anniversary of their death, these things have already happened. And so, when the speaker says that they thought of the apples ripening and falling to the ground, and the pumpkins being taken in (both October images: so you can see how we've proceeded from August to September to October in the first three stanzas), we know that these things have happened, and that, in the same way that the speaker can only imagine them happening in the future, they can only imagine them having happened in the past. This poem is the perfect dramatization of how life continues without us. Nothing will change because the speaker is dead: Richard, the proverbial farmer, will still bring the corn to the mill; the apples will ripen and fall to the ground, wedged between straw stubble; the carts will go slavishly stooping round the fields to take the pumpkins in, as is their fate. I love that word "stooping": it conjures the weight they must bear, as when we stoop under a burden, and also a kind of stubborn somnolence. Another season has come to pass. Corn, apples, pumpkins have all reached the end of their maturation. For them there is no death, only fulfillment: the corn is milled, the apples pressed to cider, the pumpkins taken in to be carved into jack-o-lanterns and made into pies. The speaker alone longs to reverse time.
Stanza 4: This stanza, clearly a November stanza, what with Thanksgiving, is somewhat difficult to parse, but I've always read it as being the moment in the poem when the speaker, still in the coffin a year prior, still unsettled by the fact that something is holding their will and they cannot get out, turns away from the natural processes of the land and towards the domestic world where, like a ghost hovering outside the window, they observe preparations for the Thanksgiving meal. They wonder who misses them least. Not most, but least. It doesn't matter if four of them are still wearing black, drowning in the depths of mourning. Though these four might vie for the prize of missing the dead daughter or son most, the speaker is more curious about which of her family members misses them least. They fix upon their father as perhaps the most likely culprit. After all, he has a household to manage. Students have interpreted the beautiful but complicated imagery of this stanza in many ways, but the way I read it is that the speaker considers the table, how, in the speaker's absence, there is an awkwardness there, a place-setting to conspicuously removed. And so the father invites a friend, perhaps a widower, or a bachelor who might marry one of his eligible daughters. An even sum: tidy up that side where the speaker was sitting last Thanksgiving so as not to drag everyone down.
Stanza 5: I love this stanza, which brings us to December, the way that the speaker envisions Christmas as a gleeful brightness that their absence might blur, the way their absence from the Thanksgiving table might ruin the meal. This is Dickinson at her most cutting regarding traditional notions of where the dead go when they die. I read this stanza as sarcastic. The speaker wonders if her family will be saddened when, looking for their stocking hanging over the fireplace, they instead look up to Heaven, imagining their dead brother or sister somewhere above them, their stocking still on their foot, too high for any Santa Claus to reach them. But of course the speaker is not in Heaven. They're in the coffin, which is in the cemetery. The idea that they are at some unreachable altitude might well blur the Christmas glee, but it's implied that it also protects the family, allows them to consider their dead child and sibling as being safe in Heaven.
Stanza 6: Then, as my dear friend, the brilliant teacher and poet and critic Michael Theune would say, "The turn!" All this thinking was making the dead feel too fucking sad at that time last year, when they were being led away from the world towards the family vault. More literally, the line says: "This sort of thinking grieved me..." Having imagined the family moving on, having Thanksgiving dinner, celebrating Christmas, the speaker thinks, "Why should I bum myself out?" It's as if they've taken a lesson from their imagining of their family's resilience in the face of their death. They decide to cheer up, to think the other way: in other words, instead of thinking back on their life, to look forward to their family members' deaths. Now we have the echo of that phrase: "just this time" - just this time, some perfect year, they will come to the speaker. It may not be quite fair to say that the speaker longs for their family members to die: nothing in the poem suggests that the speaker wants them to die SOON. But the fact is, it cheers them up to think that they're only going to be alone there for some earthly period of time. The poem perfectly dramatizes the inevitability of death, through a dead speaker, while also accusing the living of complicity with death for merely surviving.
My whole point being that I don't see how a poet who has the genius to dramatize something so difficult to conceive of that she had to write from the perspective of the dead to even approach it, could have given a shit about whether The Atlantic Monthly published it or not. This is perhaps why, in her correspondence with Higginson (who acts as a kind of Watson to her Holmes), she dances circles around him, not just because she was wittier and more brilliant, but because he is operating in the confines of a world that she has taken leave of imaginatively so often that its strictures and rules have ceased to matter to her. As Coleridge wrote in a notebook: "No one can leap over their own shadow - poets leap over death." Read More