Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson Air Date: January 23, 2010

As you know, Aaron, the poet Emily Dickinson had her eccentricities. Those who studied her poems in high school or college know that she had the odd habit of wearing only white, and that she confined her life to pretty much her family house in Amherst, even to her own bedroom for much of her life.. There’s a story about her—that when she was ill, the doctor would be summoned, only to be told he had to stand outside her partly opened door and observe her as she walked quickly past the opening, to make his diagnosis. When someone came to call, she’d sometimes stand up on the balcony outside her bedroom door for a moment before she retreated. But when she wasn’t helping with the details of the household, she stayed mostly in her room, writing and bundling her poems with ribbons. But she wasn’t entirely a recluse. She carried on a lively correspondence with a number of people and did indeed try to get her poems published in her lifetime. All poets, no matter how reclusive, want their poems traveling out into the world. But hers seemed strange for the time, and fewer than a dozen of her eighteen hundred poems were published in her lifetime. The poems didn’t fit people’s expectations.

Aaron: How so?

The best way to tell you is to show you what happened when, after her death in 1886—when Lavinia, Emily’s younger sister, discovered her cache of poems—that the breadth of Dickinson’s work became apparent. Her first collection of poetry was published in 1890 by her personal acquaintances Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was an American minister, author, abolitionist, and soldier, and Mabel Loomis Todd, who had had an affair with Emily’s married brother, Austin Dickinson.

Mabel Todd became friends with the Dickinsons, and though she never met Emily in person, the two women exchanged letters. After Emily’s death, hundreds of her unpublished poems were discovered. In 1888, Emily’s sister Lavinia asked Todd to copy and organize the poems, which were to be sent to the publisher Higginson. The first volume of Poems by Emily Dickinson was published in 1890. Now I’m getting to the answer to your question about how her poems didn’t fit the expectations of the time. This version included many alterations by both Todd and Higginson. They wanted poems the poems to fit what people thought a good poem should be.

Okay, here’s an example, not from their book. This is of the few that appeared in Samuel Bowles’ Springfield Republican between 1858 and 1868. They were published anonymously and heavily edited, with conventionalized punctuation and formal titles.

This poem—she titled none of her poems—is her attempt to put into words a sheer ecstatic feeling. It begins, in her original version:

Original wording Republican version
I taste a liquor never brewed– I taste a liquor never brewed–
From Tankards scooped in Pearl– From Tankards scooped in Pearl–
Not all the Frankfort Berries Not Frankfort Berries yield the sense
Yield such an Alcohol! Such a delirious whirl!

Well, what happened there? The third line has been made four-stress, or iambic tetrameter. [repeat lines] The poem feels solid, all the meter in its proper place. It tells us what the first version lets us feel. It tells us about that delirious whirl. In her version, we get rid of what I think is a dreaded word, sense, that pulls us out of the immediate experience, and we actually taste alcohol with her. So much more ecstatic, more immediate.

Everyone wanted to mess with her verse. When Todd and Higginson published their edition, they said in the preface that they made “few and superficial changes.” They said the poems are “published as they were written.” Yet, look at this poem of hers about a feeling, just a feeling we all sometimes have, a feeling of oppression. I love how she’s able to touch those places we don’t have words for. Here’s the version as she wrote it:

There’s a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons— That oppresses, like the Heft Of Cathedral Tunes—

Heavenly hurt, it gives us— We can find no scar, But internal difference, Where the Meanings, are—

None may teach it—Any— ‘Tis the Seal Despair— An imperial affliction Sent us of the Air.

When it comes, the Landscape listens— Shadows—hold their breath— When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance On the look of Death—

Then here’s Higginson’s version:

There’s a certain slant of light, On winter afternoons, That oppresses, like the weight Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us; We can find no scar, But internal difference Where the meanings are.

None may teach it anything, ‘Tis the seal, “despair,— An imperial affliction Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens, Shadows hold their breath; When it goes, ‘t is like the distance On the look of death.

If I read these well, you can spot the difference just hearing the two, because the significant difference is the punctuation—the dashes, the commas and the capitalization, which is a guide to how it should be read, all breathless and disjointed. The speaker is unsure, staggering. This is how it should be emotionally understood. It’s, as she says, “where the meanings are.”

And the change from her word, Heft to their word, weightheft allows us to lift the word like a weightlifter, feeling its heft. It gives us a very bare and more interesting half-rhyme than “light” and “weight.”

Notice “None may teach it—Any—instead of “anything” in the third stanza. The word, unlike the expected “anything” of the Higginson version, leaves us with two intersecting meanings. Anything and Any of us. And particularly in the last stanza, how clearly she means to hold the breath on “Shadows—hold their breath—.

I want to read you one of Dickinson’s more well-known poems, Aaron, by way of praising her ability to hold us in a moment, breathless, to make us feel what it is to actually BE there. The poem’s first line is “I Heard a Fly buzz when I died.” Here’s the poem:

I heard a Fly buzz— when I died— The Stillness in the Room Was like the Stillness in the Air— Between the Heaves of Storm —

The Eyes beside— had wrung them dry— And Breaths were gathering firm For that last Onset— when the King Be witnessed— in the Room—

I willed my Keepsakes— Signed away What portion of me be Assignable— and then it was There interposed a Fly—

With Blue— uncertain stumbling Buzz— Between the light— and me— And then the Windows failed— and then I could not see to see—

The speaker’s dead, right? She’s remembering the process of dying. She hears the fly because the room’s so quiet. Everyone’s standing around waiting for her to die. They’ve all cried themselves out. They’re waiting for death to show up.

A funny note on that—when my sister taught this poem to her students, she asked who’s being referred to in the line “For that last onset—when the King—// be witnessed in the room— One student raised her hand: “Elvis?” she suggested.

Anyway, the dying person has already made out her will, signed everything away. Then along comes the fly. So what, we might say? But there it is, between her and the window. Between the light and her. It has a blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz. Maybe it’s a blue fly, the kind that collects around dead things. Then finally the speaker can’t see to see. She dies.

There’s that one bit of life in the poem, the fly. You can find all sorts of weird interpretations of this poem if you Google it. People want to attach religious and all sorts of personal stuff to it. But as is always true of Dickinson, she eludes all our efforts to trap her into our own agendas. The poem’s about the reality of dying. The beauty of the fly, which is alive, and which holds her attention, as life does, until it’s gone. There’s no self-pity, no remorse, no design on us in this poem. It wants us to feel how it feels to have life in front of us as we die, to know, maybe, that life itself is ready to use our bodies to make more life, how this goes on.

There’s so much more I could say, Aaron, but basically, I want to say how much I admire and learn from Emily Dickinson’s poems. In them, she fully experiences her experience. As her brother Austin wrote about her after her death, “She was full of courage—but always had a peculiar personal sensitiveness. She saw things directly and just as they were. She abhorred sham and cheapness.”

When I read her poems, I feel a laser-precision, an almost perfect artistic control, a magnificent spiritual strength. Her poems are unlike any other. They are so present in the moment that they vibrate with life, or buzz with it, you might say.

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry