DUFF BRENNA SAYS IN HIS DEEP AND SOMEWHAT sorrowful voice that he often thinks about Emily Dickinson. “A line of hers, ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,’ that line hit me. You’re not supposed to be able to bear to see the face of God. I don’t think you can stand to see truth straight on either. It would blow you away. I think that might be what she’s getting at. You come at truth in a slant-wise way. That’s one of her poems I have hanging in my office. ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.’ ”
Mr. Brenna says that when he imagines Dickinson, this is what he sees: “This wisp of a figure, dressed all in white, with this head of bright auburn hair and these great huge hazel eyes. Almost like a bright bird she is, flitting about. Mostly all head, though, is what I see when I envision her. She is all head in a way. You can’t get a good take on what her body must have been, other than to think of her as flat-chested and thin-armed and thin legged. So that all the power that she had was locked in her head, and that’s what made her so unique.”
“And scary too,” I suggested.
“Yes, scary too. She wrote some 500 poems focused on death. Some are almost terrifying. Others are accepting of death. There’s a calmness in them, about what it would be like to die.”
“And at times a longing for death.”
“Yes, a certain death wish. A fear of death at times, and at other times a longing for it.”
Mr. Brenna teaches English at California State University San Marcos. He has written novels whose principal characters, like Emily Dickinson, might be described as having something of a death wish — The Holy Book of the Beard, Too Cool, The Altar of the Body. And although Mr. Brenna now teaches college and leads a fairly quiet life out in Poway, going to bed early and getting up early and watching what he eats, he didn’t always live quietly. He’s been on his own since he was 15. He was a bad boy, something of a juvenile delinquent. He was a high school dropout and a hobo. He was in jail.
A bad boy who read books was what Mr. Brenna was. He first read Dickinson when he started college in 1975. “It takes a while to become insightful enough, or to have the ability to focus well enough, to get Dickinson. She isn’t a poet who just anybody can pick up and get right away. You’ve got to know the various ways that words can be used. A comparison I once made, strangely enough, was between her and Byron: they both felt the same about words. She wrote that words on a page may stimulate an eye after the ‘Wrinkled Maker’ is dead.”
A Word dropped careless on a Page
May stimulate an eye
When folded in perpetual seam
The Wrinkled Maker lie
Infection in the sentence breeds
We may inhale Despair
At distances of Centuries
From the Malaria —
“And Byron said, ‘words are things…falling like dew…that makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.’ And he compared the idea of the fragility of the page and the ink outlasting things like pyramids.”
But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think;
’Tis strange, the shortest letter which man uses
Instead of speech, may form a lasting link
Of ages; to what straits old Time reduces
Frail man, when paper — even a rag like this — ,
Survives himself, his tomb, and all that’s his.
— from Don Juan
“When I read Dickinson’s poem, ”Mr. Brenna said,“it recalled Byron’s. She believed in the raw power, and the timelessness, and the deathlessness of those words.”
I don’t know about you, but I never cease to be amazed at what Mr. Brenna calls the “deathlessness” of words. I never cease to be amazed that in 2002 we may repeat what Plato in 400 BC wrote on strips of papyrus: “Poets utter great and wise things which they do not themselves understand.” We may gaze into the computer screen at what Wordsworth wrote in 1807 in his long poem, “Resolution and Independence”:
We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.
We say these words from the past as if they were our words, as if they belong to us. They do. Most of these words were written by men, many of whom led busy public lives. Emily Dickinson, once she turned 25, rarely left home. She wasn’t at any moment in her 55 years, famous. Only 10 of the approximately 1775 poems that she wrote were published in her lifetime. “Publication — is the auction of the mind…” she wrote, and in secret she copied out her poems onto sheets of clean paper and sewed those sheets into booklets, which, variously, she called “my books,” “a little manuscript volume,” “portfolios of verses,” and “the little pamphlet.” She hid these pamphlets in her cherrywood chest of drawers and in a small black lacquer trunk. After Emily died, her sister Vinnie found the pamphlets and reported herself shocked and amazed at how much Emily had written. Here, thousands of miles from where Dickinson was born in Massachusetts, and almost two centuries since she was born in 1830, at least some people walk around with a grain or two of beach sand stuck between their bare toes and Dickinson words ready to roll across their tongues. They know that “ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers — / That perches in the soul —”or “My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun.”
I wish that more people knew more Dickinson poems. I asked Mary E. Montgomery, a Point Loma High School senior, to query classmates about Dickinson. She telephoned fellow students. She reported back, saying, “Unfortunately, the extent of their knowledge is that she was ‘some kind of a poet.’ ”
The textbook Elements of Literature, used in many San Diego high schools, has in it these Dickinson poems:
— Heart! We will forget him!
— Success is counted sweetest
— A Bird came down the Walk
— I died for Beauty — but was scarce
— If you were coming in the Fall
— I never saw a Moor —
— Tell all the Truth
— Apparently with no surprise
— To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee
Ms. Montgomery’s Honors American Literature class used Elements of Literature. However, she said, “We never got to the unit on poetry.” Ms. Montgomery, right off the top of her head, had quite a bit to say about the poet, but that, she said, was because in an American history class she gave a report on Dickinson.
Emily Elisabeth Dickinson, as I mentioned earlier, was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830. Her father, Edward, a lawyer, and her mother, the hardworking homemaker Emily Norcross, had been married one year when their first child, Austin, was born in 1829. Emily Elisabeth — a redhead like her father — was the couple’s second child. The third and last of the Dickinson progeny, Lavinia — “Vinnie” — was born in 1833.
When Emily Norcross Dickinson was delivered of Emily Elisabeth Dickinson, Amherst still was not much more than a few acres carved out of what one resident described as “primal forest.” Amherst College, central to the town of Amherst, had as one of its founders Emily’s paternal grandfather. The college laid its cornerstone in 1821. Established for “the education of indigent young men of piety and talents,” the college would be important to the Dickinsons. They regularly entertained visitors to the school, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Reverend Lyman Beecher, father to Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was author of the antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
To stretch the income from Edward’s law practice, the Dickinsons took in boarders, mostly young men from the college. So thrifty and industrious was Mrs. Dickinson that even during the late stages of her pregnancies she sheltered boarders and often did without household help. The picture left us of the Dickinson home often is one of gloom and sepulchral quiet. But in the early years, while the children were in school and after, through Emily’s mid-20s, the house was busy with family and friends and Amherst students.
Fred Moramarco for 33 years has taught in San Diego State University’s English department. Like Duff Brenna, Professor Moramarco was something of a tough guy as a young man. “I was a Brooklyn kid,” he told me on the day he and I talked (and when Professor Moramarco talks, you can hear the Brooklyn).
“Emily Dickinson,” he said, “would be the last sort of model for me coming from that environment. She took me a while. There are writers like that, that you need to grow into, that you appreciate more as you get older.”
I asked, “Do you think about her sometimes when, say, you’re peeling tomatoes from your garden or driving east on I-8 from home to school?”
“I do. She’s a strong presence in our culture and language. She’s given us memorable phrases and become part of our psyches. There are times when I’m doing something and, boom, an Emily Dickinson line pops into my head. A Dickinson moment. These moments happen in many different contexts. When my mother died after a long illness, all I could think was ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes…,’ which was read at my mother’s funeral. When I connect with people and don’t know why, I think, ‘The Soul selects her own Society — / Then — shuts the Door —.’ When I’m depressed, what comes to mind but ‘I felt a Funeral, in my brain,’ and when I feel elated I could shout out,
Inebriate of Air — am I —
And Debauchee of Dew —
Reeling — thro endless summer days —
From inns of Molten Blue.
“After you’ve read Dickinson a long while, she becomes part of your way of seeing the world. In some ways, I’m more attuned to Whitman. But we all have a little Whitman and a little Dickinson in us. Depending on mood and situation, one or the other dominates.
“Emily Dickinson I teach in contrast to Walt Whitman. I talk about Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself,’ which begins, ‘I celebrate myself and sing myself.’ I put that next to Dickinson’s ‘I’m nobody! Who are you?’ Those two are contrasting narrative personae. In some ways, they represent the poles of American literature. Whitman is the great, outgoing, social and cosmic poet. Dickinson is the poet of the inner life. She is the mother of our interior voices, just as Whitman is the father of our cosmic embrace.
“You can see the road coming from each poet, from Dickinson and Whitman. Over a half-century ago, Philip Rahv wrote in the Partisan Review, of which he was editor, about ‘palefaces and redskins.’ He divided American literature into these two aspects. Rahv described certain poets as being intellectual and inward and other poets as being wild and open and free; Whitman obviously is the redskin here, and Dickinson the paleface.
“Those two threads — paleface and redskin — run through American literature, right to the present. Allen Ginsberg certainly saw himself in the Whitman tradition. Sylvia Plath was more inward and more focused on her inner life, and more like Dickinson, although in many ways, quite different.
“One of the best definitions of poetry that I’ve come across is Phil Levine’s — ‘a poem is the inside of one person talking to the inside of another person.’ That’s what a Dickinson poem does. In some ways, she is more contemporary than Whitman, in that much of our poetry has moved in that direction — ‘the inside of one person talking to the inside of another person.’ ”
Rae Armantrout is a poet and a UCSD professor. Recently, a book dedicated to Ms. Armantrout was published — A Wild Salience: The Writing of Rae Armantrout, which includes essays and poems dedicated to Armantrout and a selection of Armantrout’s own poems. She is author of six books, including Veil: New and Selected Poems.
I asked Ms. Armantrout, who grew up in San Diego, when she first became interested in Dickinson.
She said, “I lived in San Francisco in the 1970s. But even then, it seems like I didn’t hear that much about Dickinson. Then at a certain point, I don’t know when, and maybe this is just parochial, or maybe it depends on who you’re talking to, but it seems like her presence became larger and larger among us. It is as if we’re just coming around to understanding once again how great she was. More poets talk about her more seriously, more enthusiastically, than ever. I think at her best that she is the greatest poet I’ve ever read. That’s saying a lot. And it’s saying as much as can be said.”
Ms. Armantrout teaches a survey class — Craft of Poetry — where she assigns Dickinson. “One thing I say to my students that always gets a laugh is that her poems are ‘like Norman Rockwell meets the Marquis de Sade.’ ”
When Ms. Armantrout talks with her class about metaphor, she’s likely to introduce Dickinson’s 1863 “Loaded Gun”:
My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun —
In Corners — till a Day
The Owner passed — identified —
And carried Me away —
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods —
And now We hunt the Doe —
And every time I speak for Him —
he Mountains straight reply —
And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow —
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through —
And when at Night — Our good Day done —
I guard My Master’s Head —
’Tis better than the Eider-Duck’s
Deep Pillow — to have shared —
To foe of His — I’m deadly foe —
None stir the second time —
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye —
Or an emphatic Thumb —
Though I than He — may longer live
He longer must — than I —
For I have but the power to kill,
Without — the power to die —
I asked,“How do you explain metaphor to your students?”
“There are so many reductive, formulaic ways to explain it. I start by telling them the basic definitions — that it’s talking about one thing in terms usually associated with another thing. That’s what it comes down to. Metaphor is at the heart of poetry. Some people say that all language is metaphorical. I like metaphors that are unstable. I get tired of extended metaphors that are laboriously worked out over the course of a whole poem. I like metaphors that are instantaneous. That’s why I love the loaded gun that then turns into a volcano, that then turns maybe into an image of an orgasm. It’s come and gone at the speed of light: one thing is another, is another, and then you’re out.”
Ms. Armantrout, like Duff Brenna and Fred Moramarco, finds Dickinson, as a poet, “scary.” About this, she said, “I think that she identifies as much with the dangerous thing as with the person that sees the dangerous thing and gets scared by it. I like that about her. I like, too, the way she tries on power. You see that in ‘My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun —.’ She appropriates, almost playfully, powerful roles and dangerous roles. Society won’t let her play those roles. But she makes free with them in her poems.”
Emily Dickinson began primary school in 1835. From her earliest school years, her written compositions won praise. When she was ten she entered Amherst Academy. She studied Latin, German, botany, grammar, the Bible. She was an eager botanizer. Like other girls of her age and class, she filled her herbarium — a book that held pressed flowers — with Latin-labeled flower specimens, most collected in fields and forests around Amherst.
She was an enthusiastic letter writer. Alfred Habegger writes in My Wars Are Laid Away in Books that these letters were spurred by unwelcome absences.“The basic pattern was already present: as she took up her pen she was flooded by memories of severed intimacy.” In 1842, when the poet was 11, her brother Austin went to Williston Academy in nearby Easthampton. A letter that Emily wrote Austin is the first Dickinson letter left to us. The letter ends with this — “There was always such a hurrah wherever you was.” Emily Dickinson and her sister Vinnie, from birth to death, lived in two houses — the Homestead, a brick house on Main Street that originally belonged to the Dickinson family and was lost by Emily Dickinson’s paternal grandfather when he went bankrupt, and the white clapboard house on South Pleasant Street that Emily’s father, Edward Dickinson, purchased in 1840. From 1830 to 1840 the Dickinsons lived in half of the Homestead, renting from its owner. In 1840, Edward Dickinson purchased the clapboard house. In 1855, Edward Dickinson was able to acquire and renovate the Homestead and to move his family back into the entire house.
Emily Dickinson and her sister Lavinia would live in the Homestead for the rest of their lives, Emily taking as her bedroom a second-floor corner room. She would be carried in her coffin out the back door of the Homestead to the graveyard.
But that gets us ahead of our story.
Professor Moramarco visited the Homestead. “I have a picture of it here — a huge house with a big fence around it. A lane that leads to the town graveyard goes by the house. You can see the graveyard from her window. So in poems where she’s talking about ‘Because I could not stop for Death — / He kindly stopped for me —’you can’t help but think about her view of the funeral corteges.
“In her bedroom, you can see hanging in the closet her famous white dress. Many people have thought that her wearing white had an association with virginity. But a scholar found that Dickinson had a skin ailment that caused her to be allergic to dye. She wore white because white didn’t give her a rash. This scholar found prescriptions in the town records for the medicine she took for the allergy.”
“How big a person was Dickinson?”
“Quite small. The dress was very small.”
John Granger teaches writing and literature classes at UCSD and SDSU. He came from Canada to San Diego in 1985. Dickinson was the subject of his doctoral dissertation.
Mr. Granger is more than a bit enamored of Dickinson, and he speaks fondly of her. “I was compelled by her, spellbound. I decided to do the dissertation because the problems of knowledge and reasoning and knowing in her work were philosophically interesting to me.”
“How old were you?” “I was 24 or 25. I was really moved by the poet Robin Blaser on Dickinson. It was a seminar. For me it was a life-changing seminar. It made me want to be in poetry and art, and not in school. So I left school. But when I came back, I was still interested in Dickinson’s work. I came back late. I don’t know how old I was. I have no idea — I don’t know if it’s Tuesday or Wednesday, and I don’t know how old I am. I think I would have been 36 or 37. I went back to get my Ph.D. because I was tired of being a clerk.”
“Do you know lots of her poems by heart?”
“No, I don’t know any. Well, I know a few by heart, by accident. But I’m not that kind of rememberer. I could probably get through ‘I heard a Fly buzz — when I died — ,’ or ‘My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun —,’ or a number of well-known others. I’m glad I don’t know her poems by heart. They’re making themselves up as they go along. So to remember them would be wrong, because that somehow would have already happened.” Mr. Granger sighed, then said, “Actually, I have a poor memory.”
I asked what he imagined Amherst was like when Dickinson was a girl growing up.
“Well, I don’t think it’s wise what I imagine it as, not being there, and so I see present-day Amherst and think back in some sort of idealized way. The truth is that it doesn’t matter to me, to whom it should matter more. But it didn’t matter to me enough to imagine it properly. So it’s dim. I imagine it dim.
“I feel nervous about knowing history. I want to know history, and I want to know what Amherst was like then, very much. I’ve got Amherst town records that go back to those years, records where they’re talking about pet laws and holes in roads. I have looked through these to get a sense of town squabbling. I became increasingly bewildered and realized it was a complicated place like every complicated place. So I gave up, essentially. I gave up on knowing it. My favorite source is a weather report for the dates for her active life. I know if it was raining, or if it wasn’t raining. It’s interesting to see what bad winters did in her work.”
“What did bad winters do?”
“That’s conjectural. But there were sudden springs, and some sudden springs in years that seem to be the springs that brought about amazing poems. Or days of big winds.You can’t line up the poems to particular days. But still, when you read about a windstorm, you wonder what went on in her work that day. That wind would have sounded great. There were trees on her property, large trees.”
“What kind of trees?”
“I know one is a spruce tree because I have a cone from it. The spruce tree must have been there because it’s certainly a couple of hundred years old. It’s tall. It’s got a good thick trunk. It would be about three foot in diameter. It’s a beautiful tree.”
“Have you considered trying to grow it?”
“No. I’m ashamed that I haven’t thought about that. We should grow an Emily Dickinson spruce in California. These cones last for thousands of years. That’s the great thing about plant seeds. And nowadays, they could take this cone and scrape out its DNA and maybe reproduce Emily Dickinson, if she touched it. I’m going to try to plant some seeds from the cone. I never had the bravery to think about planting one.”
I asked Mr. Granger, who is an enthusiastic cook, if he ever made any Dickinson recipes.
“I did. She was a good cook. I made a sort of pudding, and it was wonderful. Also, they used to sell at Williams-Sonoma a little cake of hers for $9, all wrapped up in plastic, with her picture on it.”
In 1847 Emily Dickinson entered South Hadley Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College), in nearby South Hadley, Massachusetts. She stayed for one term — seven months — studying botany, Latin, history, chemistry, and natural philosophy. During her term there, religious enthusiasms overtook the student body. Prayer circles and chapel services and tête-à-têtes between saved and unsaved crowded out the academic schedule. Several pious zealots, both adult and adolescent, pursued Emily, urging her to “give over” and join the church.
Alfred Habegger writes in My Wars Are Laid Away in Books that the seminary’s school year traditionally opened with a ceremony in which students rose from seats and confessed the condition of their souls. Three options existed. There were those girls who were saved. Next to those girls’ names was written “professor.” Those who believed that grace soon would visit them had written by their names “a hope.” Girls like Emily Dickinson, who were neither saved nor felt stirrings of salvation, had written by their names — “no hope.”
Dickinson did not return to school after the first term, nor did she ever join the Congregationalist church. She would be the only member of her family who remained outside the church.
Not quite 19, Emily Dickinson began the life that essentially would be hers until she died. She read, she wrote letters and poems and poems-as-letters, she took long walks, she botanized, she grew flowers outside and in a heated glass conservatory, she helped with housework, she baked, she sent food and flowers to the sick and bereaved, she visited lady friends and was visited by them. She entertained young men. Certainly from her 19th to her 25th year, she maintained an eligibility for marriage. She was courted, although not assiduously. Life was a bit more wild than we might have guessed. Lavinia was wooed by a young fellow who wrote, about an evening with Vinnie:
“She sat in my lap and pulled the pins from her long soft chestnut hair and tied the long silken mass around my neck and kissed me again & again. She was always at my side clinging to my arm and used to have a little red ottoman that she brought & placed close by my chair and laid her book across my lap when she read. Her skin was very soft. Her arms were fat & white and I was very, very happy with her.”
“Dickinson,” I said to Professor Moramarco,“wasn’t the busy house drab, was she?”
“I hardly think so. When Julie Harris did the play The Belle of Amherst, she created with that an image of Dickinson that became popular. She’s running around making tea and gingerbread and taking care of the closed domestic sphere. The Belle of Amherst’s portrayal of Dickinson perhaps makes for lively theater, but I don’t think that’s an accurate picture of Dickinson’s life, not at all. Her life is much more intellectual and literary than you would think from seeing the play. She read a great deal. And they had servants.”
Michael Davidson, who came to San Diego in 1973, is a UCSD professor. He teaches courses in modern poetry, gender studies, and cultural studies. He is a poet and is considered an authority on poets of the San Francisco Renaissance. For many years he supervised the Mandeville Special Collections Library’s Archive for New Poetry.
“Edward Dickinson,” Professor Davidson told me, “had this incredible library. But, as Emily Dickinson said, ‘My father buys me books and forbids me to read them.’ So he was encouraging to an extent. We know that she read voraciously. We rather famously know that she didn’t read Whitman and said that she’d heard his poems were ‘disgraceful.’ Everyone talks about how oppressed Emily Dickinson was. My feeling is that she made decisions about her boundaries. She didn’t get married, and she didn’t court the local men who came courting her. For a Victorian woman, that’s quite a radical decision.”
No one knows when — in earnest — Emily Dickinson began to write poems. Like many children of her era she concocted rhymed Valentines and other seasonal greetings. A young man who for a short time was her father’s law partner — Benjamin Newton — encouraged her writing, as did an Amherst College student who in 1849 gave her as a gift a copy of Emerson’s poems. Between 1850 and 1860, she was writing poems, many of which were sent in letters.
At some point in the mid-1850s, Emily Dickinson formed an attachment not so much with another person as to another person. Some feminist scholars suggest that the object of that attachment was her sister-in-law, Sue Dickinson. Some scholars suggest that the relationship was frankly homoerotic, that perhaps the two women touched one another in private places. Others have suggested that Emily Dickinson formed a relationship with the Springfield Republican’s editor Charles Bowles, a married man who had an intimate friendship with Austin and Sue Dickinson and who visited the couple often at the Evergreens. The most likely candidate for the object of Emily Dickinson’s affections is, I think, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth.
In 1855 she and Vinnie visited Washington, D.C., where their father, elected by the Whig party, represented their Massachusetts district. After three weeks in Washington, Vinnie and Emily in March spent two weeks in Philadelphia. According to Alfred Habegger, Dickinson was taken to the Arch Street Presbyterian Church to hear Wadsworth. The Presbyterian minister at this time was 41, apparently happily married, and the father of three children. His pulpit oratory had made him famous. As a youngster, Wadsworth was something of a poetic prodigy and wrote poems that were published. He gave up poetry and turned to the church. But he filled sermons with references from secular literature. Habegger writes that Wadsworth was reclusive. “He avoided the members of his congregation and even fellow pastors, letting himself be known only through his preaching, which seemed to emerge from dark internal sources he simultaneously protected and pointed to.”
After Emily and Vinnie returned to Amherst, Emily opened a correspondence with Wadsworth. He visited her in Amherst twice — in 1860 and in 1880. In 1862, Wadsworth and his family moved to San Francisco, where he became pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church. In 1869, he returned to Philadelphia, where, until his death in 1882, he continued in the ministry.
Duff Brenna tends to think that Wadsworth was Dickinson’s great passion and that it was he that she addressed in her more passionate poems like Wild Nights —
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
“But I don’t think anything like that happened between them. It’s fantasy,” Mr. Brenna said. “Imagination.” Professor Moramarco wasn’t much interested in Dickinson’s romances or lack of same. “There’s so much speculation about her love life, but very little can be documented. Some poems hint at a love affair. ‘My life closed twice before its close —,’ for instance. I think it’s all literary gossip. It’s high-class People magazine stuff.”
During late 1860 and all of 1861 and early 1862, Dickinson biographers agree, she underwent some emotional crisis. Dickinson’s seclusion of herself was, Michael Davidson said, “a gradual thing. After this crisis period in the 1860s, she became more reclusive. We know that she wrote poems. We know that she did housework and that she cooked — there are poems on pages that have recipes on them. She wrote a zillion letters. But who knows what she did the rest of the time. I don’t.”
“Who got in the mail?”
“Vinnie apparently was the liaison. Vinnie picked things up from her sister’s room and took them downstairs.”
“Would Emily Dickinson have used a chamber pot?” I asked, “Or did the Homestead have bathrooms or outhouses?”
“I wonder,” said Professor Davidson. “But I don’t know. Somebody must know these things.”
I said that I was curious as to what effect menopause had on Emily Dickinson.
“You get very little sense of her body. You get a lot of sense of her mind’s power. But do you get a sense of her physical body and her cycles and ups and downs? You don’t.”
I said that it might be interesting to know when she had her menstrual periods. To which Professor Davidson replied that he was sure somebody out there was charting that. “She’s been subjected,” he said, “to some remarkable readings, some more interesting than others. But she is somebody for whom the issue of the body is powerful. It’s interesting what the body of an 1860s or 1870s spinster would have meant culturally. What did it mean to refuse marriage? What did it mean to be that odd person, up there in Edward Dickinson’s house? Being that myth might have been a very powerful experience. It’s sort of like being one of the odd women of New England who was considered a witch.You could be thrashed and dunked in the pond, but you could also have a kind of power by being different. So that’s interesting to think about, what it meant to make those decisions.”
“I wonder how much she made decisions and how much events simply occurred.”
“That’s right. And ‘made it’ does imply a kind of choice, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, ”I said, “but so much of what we come to believe about the subjects of biography is almost random material that becomes overdetermined by the needs of biography.”
“But so many poems are of the ‘The Soul selects her own Society — / Then — shuts the Door —’ type, and that implies that, in a way, she chooses the election she wants. These poems about choice imply that she enjoyed making those choices.”
“I would think that she found a lot of what she had to do was boring.”
“Yes, and she talks about that. She talks about these frivolous gentlewomen, or people who go to church and raise their hands and mumble things. She really had some sort of contempt for most of the gossip and stuff that went on. Although she was capable of tremendous gossip, the letters were full of it.”
“What did the Civil War mean to her?”
“People assume that it passed by her. But 1863 is full of poems like ‘My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun.’ A lot of men in the neighborhood did go off to war. But she dealt with it indirectly; it’s not thematicized directly in the poems.”
Professor Moramarco, asked about the Civil War’s effect on Emily Dickinson’s poems, said,“Whitman’s poems are filled with details from the Civil War and from his being a nurse during that war and with the death of Lincoln. In Dickinson you get virtually none of that.”
I said to Professor Moramarco that when I was in college, Dickinson’s poems were described as borrowing, for their form, from Isaac Watts’s hymns with their tidy quatrains of three iambic feet. Professor Moramarco said that was true of most of the poems written before 1861. “However,” he said, “what I like to focus on is not so much the hymn, but the sort of off-centeredness of her poetry, as opposed to English poetry, which emphasized the regularity of rhythm and meter. Emily Dickinson was a master of slant rhymes and off-rhymes and a stopping-and-starting rhythm. It’s not poetry that people who like metrically balanced, rhymed sonnets are attracted to, because it’s too off-center. Dickinson created poetry that gets at the rhythms of the mind. There are leaps and bounces in it. Much contemporary poetry is like this.”
I asked Michael Davidson how he thought Emily Dickinson taught herself to write poetry.
“Well, she had as a model the hymn meters. I think that she felt that this was her milieu. This was the metric that she could work with best. It’s kind of like Robert Creeley, who writes in quatrains. It’s as if he needs to live inside very narrow boundaries in order to be expansive. For Dickinson too, those lines are measuring her sense of the world and of its narrow compass. So she said, ‘I’ll accept these limits, but I’ll expand them.’ Martha Nell Smith — Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson — makes interesting observations about how Dickinson uses spacing and lineation. For example, the dashes weren’t just straight dashes, they would curve up or curve down and inflect the statements.
“I think that the letters, too, are poems, especially the letters to her sister-in-law Susan and Thomas Wentworth Higginson — these letters have the qualities of prose poems. So there was an epistolary tradition that she worked to her own end. And there is the matter of her material page, which is constant, where she experimented with spacing and lineation and publishing. She didn’t presume to publish, but then in fact she had sewn those books together, which is kind of publishing.”
In April 1862, after reading an article by Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the Atlantic Monthly, Emily Dickinson wrote to him. She sent him four of her poems, one of which was
Safe in their Alabaster Chambers —
Untouched by Morning —
And untouched by noon —
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of Satin and Roof of Stone —
Grand go the Years,
In the Crescent above them —
Worlds scoop their Arcs —
And Firmaments — row —
Diadems — drop —
And Doges — surrender
Soundless as Dots,
On a Disc of Snow.
In the note that accompanied her poems, Dickinson wrote, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” This letter began a correspondence that lasted for the rest of Dickinson’s life. Eight years after she first wrote to him, Higginson visited her in Amherst. After that meeting, Higginson told his wife, about Dickinson, “I was never with anyone who drained my nerve power so much. I am glad not to live near her.” Higginson discouraged Dickinson from publishing.
Duff Brenna, talking about Higginson, said, “She wrote in a letter to Higginson, ‘All men say “What” to me.’ Can’t you just imagine her? She and Higginson are talking away, and he is going, ‘What, what?’ He’s going, ‘I’ve got to think harder to understand what this woman is talking about.’
“Higginson wanted to punctuate her poetry. He was telling her how to do it — ‘Put your commas here,’ so on and so forth — and he was taking out her dashes. She called all this Higginson’s ‘surgery.’ She went back and put her dashes in. She knew what she was doing. She went her own way, with this internal voice speaking.
Michael Davidson and I talked about Dickinson’s letters to Higginson.
I said, referring to the tone of those letters, “She could be a terrible flirt.”
Professor Davidson agreed.“She was a flirt. Many of her letters are quite flirtatious. She was a very seductive writer.”
John Granger talked about the poems, saying, “Knowing is important to her. There is a concordance to the poems of Emily Dickinson, a thrilling book that tells how many times she uses the word ‘go’ or ‘is’ or that sort of thing. Very high on the list is the verb ‘know,’ and unusually high are words like ‘knowledge,’ or ‘knowing.’ The poems are records of certain kinds of knowledge, certain attempts at knowing, or certain failures to know. They dramatize those attempts. Knowing leads to some kind of danger, just because of what’s finally known, or what finally is projected as knowable, or un-knowable — bewildering, consciousness-stopping places that are like death or like nothingness, or total bliss or just some giant thing. So she approaches those carefully. And because she has involved you as the reader in making those same kinds of knowings, you’re now at that place of what’s knowable or what’s about to be known or what is going to be failed to be known. And if it’s something very large, something like bliss or nothing at all, you want to pull back from that. You get that feeling at the end of many poems — of pulling back from something, or losing something that would have been destructive to know. I mean, destructive is a very good thing, and destructive is a very unfortunate thing, both.”
“Do you think that she was engaging in a conscious strategy to create that sense in a poem?”
“Sure. I think she was very hip to what she was doing.”
“I have thought,” I said, “that poems sometimes served as schools for her, a place in which she taught herself something.”
Mr. Granger did not agree. “The word ‘school’ doesn’t quite work for me there because there’s something socialized in school. Also, there’s in her work a wonderfully, beautifully fake noviceness in her voice, which does sound like schooling, or does sound like a school-state, where she is not strong, not knowing, and somewhat fragile, or not yet an authority or a master in relation to what she’s saying. In her voice, that’s present all the time. But I think it’s a stage thing.”
“Ingénue, yes, as a persona, and it’s wonderfully effective and funny. But I think it’s a stage thing that has partly to do with being a woman, being not able to be serious in the view of the male philosopher. So she plays ingénue. Of course, she is nothing like an ingénue. Unless you’ve got this really Gnostic sense of what an ingénue is.”
“As she says. Here’s one, ‘Incredible the lodging but limited the guest.’ So she knows she’s limited and she knows the lodging is incredible. But because she knows she’s limited, what better way to play limited than to play really limited, like the ingénue, so she dramatizes that in order to dramatize the other side of it. The other side is how incredible the lodging, or what can be known about that. See what I mean? So I think that’s what the ingénue is about. But this goes back to your question about the school, because I think that she does, in her work, create a being in school, and it’s about learning, in the poem, the thing that’s going on that is being learned. But I think that is staged. I think it is a device. It’s a topos, a place where she goes all the time. Because it’s really valuable. It happens to be the best vantage point for her particular mood. It’s a great voice. But it is a voice. It’s a persona. She calls it ‘the representative of the verse.’ It’s a strange phrase for it. She says something like, ‘The I in the poem is not me, but the representative of the verse.’ So that’s a representation in the verse, and the person being represented in the verse, or something like that. So that gives us an idea, a fictional character.”
“Who do you think she’s talking to when she writes poems?”
“It seems to me as if she’s often talking to a projected male authority, or religious authority, or the literary authority that ignored her, some authority she imagines as male.
“But I get the sense, though, that there’s a lot of it that’s a challenge, a covert challenge, to the projected male authority that she might have seen in her father, or in the ministers around her, or in the biblical God, or in editors who wouldn’t publish her work. I think you can see that in a lot of the poems. When she does what I was talking about and takes on the vestments of power, I think she’s almost flaunting that and taking a revenge on that male authority that won’t acknowledge her.”
I asked Duff Brenna, “When you read Dickinson, to whom do you think of her as addressing the poems?”
“Me. I take it very personally. If you read Emily deeply, I don’t think you can miss that. There’s a certain personal voice that comes through directly to you. I always get that feeling, that it is to me. She’s still alive in that sense. There is that sense of immortality that she talks about when she talks about the ‘word dropped careless on the page.’ And she is the wrinkled maker lying in her grave, and yet, there’s that word on the page. It’s a lovely idea. And this is probably the only immortality we get.”
“If you’re interested in immortality.”
“I’m not. I feel like Byron, once is enough. I wouldn’t want to put up with this shit again. One time is fine. I wonder if she was that way too. She’d write on just about anything. They found scraps of poems on grocery bags and stuff like that, pieces of newspaper, and later on, she would very neatly write these things out on pieces of paper. I’m sure her writing was a means of sanity, of therapy. But at the same time, I have the feeling that she did want those poems to go out to the world. Maybe there’s not a consciousness about that, but an unconscious understanding that one of these days they’ll see what I’m doing. And the world that I’ve written to will be writing to me at last. We’re still teaching her now. Isn’t that amazing? This person who lived in obscurity.”
Like John Granger, Rae Armantrout reads many Dickinson poems as in various ways addressing male authority. “Look,” she said, “at the poem that starts, ‘My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun.’ She’s comparing herself, throughout, to a gun. This is one of the poems where I think she’s dealing with male authority and her relationship to male authority. At first, she is sort of the tool, the gun that the owner identifies and carries away. And then she speaks for him, at first, but she speaks for him very efficiently. ‘Every time I speak for him, the mountains straight reply,’ and then in that third stanza, she almost leaves the whole metaphor of being the tool, the gun, behind, and she ‘erupts like a volcano,’ or like an orgasm lets her pleasure through, or its pleasure through.”
“I wonder if she ever held a gun.”
“I can’t imagine she ever held a gun. But, again, she’s imagining such power there, she’s trying it on. It reminds me of — to go to a male poet — Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan.’”
Leda and the Swan
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
“That’s a very male take, in which the female is passive, and the female may, just in the experience of being taken by the male, put on his attributes, and his knowledge, and his power for a moment before she’s dropped. But it seems that Dickinson is playing with taking on the power associated with a male, whether it be the power of war, or the warrior, or the power even of sexuality. There’s an almost masculine, orgasmic image there.
“The line — ‘Did she put on his knowledge with his power’ — in a way this seems like what Dickinson is doing here. She tries on the role here of having this tremendous power that in a way she might associate with men and with war and with male authority. But in another way she does have that power, because she has the power of being this great poet, and she’s showing them. That’s why I said I think it’s addressed to this audience of male authority that ignores her, because she’s saying, ‘Here, here’s a picture of me with this power.’ She demonstrates it as well as talking about it, and she does that where she talks about being the gun, and being the volcano. But as you say, in the end it’s sad. It’s like she’s tried on this power, and then what does that give her? It leaves her alone. ‘…For I have but the power to kill, / Without — the power to die —.’ ”
“This,” I said, “is also one of those ‘I love him but he doesn’t love me’ poems. In a way, to me, many of the poems seem like that.”
“Certainly there’s been a lot of speculation about who she loved. Because there are a lot of love poems. I think now a lot of people think that she loved her sister-in-law, Sue. There are also people who think that she had this love at a distance for Higginson.”
“I think,” I said, “that she came to love the sound of her own voice.” Ms. Armantrout disagreed. “I think,” she said, “that the other is hypothetical here.”
I suggested, “I think that the other, once she gets past her late 20s, is almost always hypothetical, because I think that by that time she has given up on flesh-and-blood love and entered into some sort of solitary life.”
“But,” Ms. Armantrout noted, “she has a very passionate relationship with this hypothetical other. That’s what’s so interesting about it.”
“But doesn’t every writer,” I asked, “have a passionate relationship with this hypothetical other?”
“I guess so, but Dickinson is still the most extreme example of it. That’s what’s so great about her. She’s so wild. You just can’t imagine a 19th-century woman, or even anyone now, who would write this poem, a poem that is so transgressive. To enjoy imagining being a gun is a disturbing idea. Even now.”
“The stance is very like that in a Sylvia Plath poem.”
“That is true. But she’s better than Plath. I think she’s better than Williams, better than Yeats, better than anyone. Not that Plath is bad. The reason I like Dickinson so much more than I like Plath — not that I dislike Plath — is that Dickinson’s mind travels at the speed of light. She is always putting so many factors into play — God and death and love and the definition of the self or soul. Almost every poem puts huge issues into play, and you never know how it’s going to come out.”
When John Granger teaches Dickinson, he tries to change his students’ perceptions about poetry. He tries, he said, to talk them out of the notion that poetry is “self-expressive and primarily ‘beautiful.’ I try to talk to them in a hardball way. I make them worry about Dickinson. I try to make them wary. She’s a dangerous writer, dangerous about language and mortality and existence. And that’s nice, because young people like danger.”
“Do you teach her as a very American poet?”
“I do. There are things about her syntax, her diction, her punctuation, her brevity, her failure. I’m talking about her willful failure to not know something. It seems to be very much in American speech patterns, and American forms, like hymns. Also the kind of simple, unlearned sound. Of course, she’s willing these off-rhymes and non-rhymes. But it’s also like amateur poetry. This is a hard point to make. She is using a kind of unsophisticated, which is to say non-European, poem-construction model that willfully wants to appear to be the work of not an expert like Dryden, but, rather, like a person with limited resources and with American, barely developed culture, in European terms of having long histories of institutional patronage. All that. None of that. Sort of a clean slate.”
“And no gods and goddesses.”
“No goddesses. Or very few. There’s a kind of iconography of the West that’s not there. It doesn’t have to do with the Greeks and Romans and Renaissance Christianity. None of that. It doesn’t try to seem to give itself the stamp of approval of being poetry by reaching back to classical models and references. It’s not any less ambitious for that. It’s more ambitious. Every single poem is written with a kind of attitude about that tradition you’re talking about. And the attitude is total resistance and self-reliance in relation to that, and it’s great that she’s free of it.”
I asked John Granger if he had his students read Dickinson’s poems out loud in class.
“Because of the great error about poetry that’s in the culture, that causes poetry to be read with preciousness or songfulness or emotiveness. It won’t be read as writing or language or thinking or knowing. Also, I think it’s hard to read as well as those poems are written. I read them myself, at the start of the class, because I think that it’s good to have them happen experientially all at once, for all of us, just for a moment. I rate myself as a reader of Dickinson as about C+, or B–.”
“Do you read the poems in a non-inflected way?”
“Not completely, but I read them more flatly than they are. About the sounds, let me say that for me, the life of these poems is a printed text on the page. I know that sounds sacrilegious to a lot of people in terms of poetry. But the mind’s reading of the poem is the one that I prefer. That’s a personal thing. I like to read her better than to listen to her. Julie Harris’s Dickinson recordings, for example, I find histrionic or melodramatic. It’s an idiosyncrasy of teaching perhaps. But I guess I’m not wanting to think about them as spoken.”
“Perhaps you feel this way in part because she’s writing these poems in secret, perhaps not expecting them to be read aloud?”
“Right, and just like she’s being ingénue-ish, she’s also in some ways being extremely non-vocal. There’s a way in which it’s silent. I mean, because it’s not published. And there’s a way in which it’s silent because it’s not read out loud. It’s kind of a silent witnessing.”
“It’s also a secret too, in a way.”
“Yes. It’s a secret, it sort of has to be. But I don’t think she’s happy about that. I think it’s alarmingly public poetry. What it’s about and what matters in it to the person on the street, all of that, is huge. I think it’s very public. I don’t know how this works, though I think she’s remarkably surprised by the way that it’s technically secret because nobody knows it. But I think that she thinks that she’s speaking in the largest terms, to the largest many, absolutely adequately, and, as much as anybody has. And it’s totally open. The poems are totally open for viewing and for knowing. There’s nothing in them that’s occulted or in any way obscure. They are as clear and as open as can be. So I think of them as really not secrets. I don’t think of them that way.
“So to write about that, it seems as if you’re writing about yourself alone. But there’s no other way to do it. I do have a strong feeling about her, her basic publicness, which is the opposite of what she seems to be. Of course, she’s no ingénue. Also, she’s not like all these things you could say about her. She’s not eccentric. She’s centered. She’s right in the center of the tradition. She’s essentially doing what people like Plato were doing, she’s discoursing on great things.”
“What is the Good?”
“No,” Mr. Granger said. “No. I don’t get too much of the Good in her.”
“Truth and Beauty?” “Not too much Beauty, either,” Mr. Granger said. “She’s not a beautician. I can abstract out of her ‘knowing,’ and I can abstract out of her this and that, but I can’t abstract out of her ‘Beauty’ as something that she’s interested in.”
“Perhaps that’s why, in part, you don’t like to read her aloud, but want to read her alone to yourself off the page.”
“I don’t want to read it alone to myself, but I do want to read it. Yeats, I love to read out loud. There’s something that usually goes on in sound that’s not going on in sound in Dickinson; it’s going on in something else, some kind of logical relation to the poem. That’s what is amazing, rather than these stunning sound pictures that as compositions would be musically thrilling. I think she’s great for the ear. But for some reason, the attention goes to the thinking in the poem and also to language, without thinking about language in terms of sound, but thinking about its meaning. The way that syntax works, or the way that you know a word choice can be wrong, but right because it’s off the anticipated mark. This is my take on her. I really do read her, I guess, abstractly.”
Mr. Granger mentioned that he wished that I could talk with an old friend of his about Dickinson. This friend, he said, “Lynn Luria-Sukenick, died in 1995. She loved Dickinson and published on Dickinson. [Luria-Sukenick, 57 when she died, was a poet, writer, and associate professor of English and comparative literature at San Diego State.] I only wish you could have talked to Lynn about Dickinson; it probably would be so much more wonderful than everything that will come your way. She was great to talk about Dickinson with. She refused to teach Dickinson because of the horrible things that students say. And she wasn’t in any way an arrogant teacher. So it wasn’t like a student-bashing thing to say. She was upset by the things that people said about Dickinson’s poems.The way they would simplify them.The way that, in order to protect yourself from a Dickinson poem, one thing you didn’t do is to push one of those clichés against it, one of those comforting clichés. That’s easy enough to do. Sentimentalize the poems is what a lot of people would want to do.
“So most people, I think, have the spirit of wanting to stop the poems from being as rough as they are and as unmanageable. My experience is that Emily Dickinson papers are weak. I never encourage students to write them. I used to feel bad about teaching her. Lately, I found it easier or found some better way to do it. But for the longest time, my worst teaching experiences have been trying to teach Dickinson. Definitely.
“Lynn and I were thinking the same way about Dickinson, so it was easy to talk. I remember once we had out Dickinson’s book, and Lynn kept noticing things she’d never seen before. This still happens to me. There are 1789 poems by Dickinson. I’ve read them all, but I’ve read them with a very small portion of consciousness. Because every now and then, one will come forward in some wonderful way and I’ll see it for the first time. And see it’s a great thing. And see what’s carefully hidden in it that I missed the other times. Lynn had those experiences all the time. She’d get thrilled by a poem that she hadn’t noticed before. So we’d look at it. Even if you didn’t get it, you’d get it through Lynn’s excitement. Lynn was a Dickinson-like person. Going directly to the thing. To the poem in this case.”
“Where is Lynn buried?”
“She died in Boston, in a room filled with white flowers.”
Emily Dickinson died on May 15,1886. Cause of death was kidney disease. Her sister Vinnie found the poems that Dickinson had kept hidden away. During the next 60-plus years the poems were bowdlerized and published by well-meaning editors. Not until 1955, when Thomas H. Johnson’s edition was published by the Harvard University Press, were Dickinson’s poems printed as Dickinson wrote them.
I asked Michael Davidson, “Do you remember when you first read Dickinson?”
“I grew up in the early 1950s, and so the Johnson edition hadn’t come out yet. The lines were stretched out and all the rhymes made neat. So you didn’t get much of a sense of what her writing was like.”
Mr. Davidson was in graduate school at the University of Buffalo. “Charles Olson was there and Robert Creeley was there. It was kind of the Black Mountain weirdo poetic community. Emily Dickinson started to be read again after the Johnson edition. I read her then. When I moved back to the West Coast, living in San Francisco and Berkeley, writing my dissertation on Robert Duncan, that’s when I really got into Dickinson. Robert Duncan encouraged me along those lines. The early 1970s would be the time when I got into Dickinson seriously.”
“Do you teach her as mother of what I think of as the interior lyric voice?”
“Well, she certainly is that. I think she was central for some later poets. But we don’t really have Emily Dickinson until 1955. You have an Emily Dickinson, but you don’t really have her until 1955. So that she couldn’t exert the kind of influence on someone like William Carlos Williams. I don’t think Pound or Eliot would have found anything in Dickinson that would have spoken to a kind of 19th-century Victorian sensibility that they were trying to get rid of. So to that extent, I suppose she still did retain the focus on the meditative poem. Edna St. Vincent Millay and Sara Teasdale and many other poets we think of as being sentimental writers got a lot out of Dickinson.”
“I would think, ”I said, “that Dickinson would have been a helpful example to Roethke.”
“I think a lot of the poets that extend out of the Roethke, sort-of ‘interior landscape school’ probably do look back to Dickinson. I remember one time meeting Charles Wright, and he was saying that Dickinson was the most important poet of his life. And Robert Duncan, again a very Romantic poet, also gave tribute to Dickinson, as did Robert Creeley and, of course, Adrienne Rich. So poets who occupy very different camps will go back to Dickinson now. So I guess the answer to your question is ‘Yes. She probably is the protogenetrist of a certain tendency in postwar interior subjective lyricism at this point.’ ”
Professor Davidson went on to say that he had wondered about Emily Dickinson’s influence on Elizabeth Bishop.“ I can’t see any attention on Bishop’s part to Dickinson. I think there may be reasons for that. But what are the reasons?”
One reason, I suggested, was that Dickinson’s voice, as a feminine voice, was one from which Elizabeth Bishop would have shied away.
Professor Davidson agreed. “I think you’re right. There’s something about Dickinson’s rather high-toned and assertive voice — ‘I am witnessing God now, ’‘I heard a Fly buzz — when I died.’ I think Bishop would have liked lines like that. But ‘Rearrange a “Wife’s” affection!’ wouldn’t have appealed to her.”
“Bishop,” I said, “would not have liked Dickinson’s coyness or flirtatiousness.”
“She wouldn’t have liked those,” Professor Davidson said. “Too, I think for someone like Bishop, who sought not to be identified as a woman poet but just as a poet, that Dickinson’s posturing in various feminine roles, even taking on subservient roles, for various reasons, would not have appealed. Bishop was too much in the Eliotic tradition of creating a kind of modern voice. And to some extent, I think, Eliot had much more in common with Dickinson than Elizabeth Bishop did. But the voice would have been a problem for her, it’s true. The flatness of Bishop’s poetry doesn’t pick up on Dickinson’s qualities.”
I said, “Plath, for other reasons, I think would have shied away from Dickinson, at least in her pre-1955 dress.”
“Yes, but don’t you think that they have many similarities? The sense of rage, and the sense of anger and aggressiveness are common to them.”
“Plath,” I said, “is so much more studied at this than Dickinson is.”
“That may be true. I was just thinking about the way in which the metaphors become so extreme, and to go back to our poem that we were talking about before, ‘My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun,’ the language of that — this kind of violent sense that if I accept patriarchy at its terms, I must become this violent attacker of nature — my own nature, perhaps. Well, that’s a scenario that you get happening all the time in Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’ and the poem ‘Cut,’ and the Bee poems.”
“I think of Plath always as doing more posturing than Dickinson did.”
“But Dickinson,”Professor Davidson said, “does posture.”
“But Sylvia Plath knew that people were watching.”
“That’s true. Plath had a much more public life. That’s right. There is an advantage to knowing that your work is not going to be seen, so you can do anything.”
His students, Professor Davidson said, “really fall in love with Emily Dickinson, especially when I teach American Lit surveys and I’m droning on about Emerson, whom they find utterly boring. We come to Dickinson, and these poems speak to them in complicated ways. I’m surprised. Because some of my favorite poems are ones that deal with Dickinson in a contemplative, religious state of mind. That speaks to students who themselves are religious. They often want to turn her into a more traditional Protestant. But then when we read poems that are more antinomian and struggling with religion, that forces them to see her in more secular terms.
“I like the Puritans a lot. I find them rigorous and complicated. So we talk quite a bit about the difficulties of assuming that you’re an elect race, while at the same time having no assurance of that election. That sense of insecurity is powerful in Emily Dickinson. And when we get to a poet like H.D., or a poet like Robert Creeley, the same insecurity is there. So there’s a continuity of thinking that runs from the Puritans to Hawthorne, to Dickinson, right to the present.”
And here we are. The present.
I’m ceded — I’ve stopped being Theirs —
The name They dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church
Is finished using, now,
And They can put it with my Dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools,
I’ve finished threading — too —
Baptized, before, without the choice,
But this time, consciously, of Grace —
Unto supremest name —
Called to my Full — The Crescent dropped —
Existence’s whole Arc, filled up,
With one small Diadem.
My second Rank — too small the first —
Crowned — Crowing — on my Father’s breast —
A half unconscious Queen —
But this time — Adequate — Erect,
With Will to choose, or to reject,
And I choose, just a Crown —