Today is Emily Dickinson's birthday. How I wish I could write glowingly of how I love her, how she gave me the courage to be a female poet, how she gave me the courage to write outside of my culture's expectations.
I'm so sorry. My 19th century poet heart belongs to Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Christina Rossetti.
Don't get me wrong: I WANT to like Emily Dickinson. I want to say that I've had years of teaching her and that my students always find her marvelous. But I can't. Whenever I've tried to teach her, my students just look at me blankly. And I try to explain the marvelousness of her, and they shake their heads.
I can convince them of the brilliance of the Beowulf poet and the Beats and the Modernists--but not Emily Dickinson. My students will accept later 20th century feminist poets, in all their variety. But Emily Dickinson? No. Ah well.
A few years ago, after reading a glowing review of the Helen Vendler book that looks at individual poems by Dickinson, I decided it was time to cure my Dickinson deficiency and bought the book. I have yet to even open it.
I love that Dickinson resisted the cultural expectation to marry. I love the tale of her lowering gingerbread and mittens for children from her upper floor window. I just don't love her work.
In the summer of 1986, the Folger had an exhibit of Dickinson's manuscripts and some artifacts from her life. As always, I'm struck by how tiny earlier generations were. I loved looking at her poems with their dashes. But that thrill didn't translate into love of her poems.
If Emily Dickinson was a dead, white, male writer from American history, I would not spend so much time wondering why I didn't care for the work. I'd shrug and move along. But Dickinson is such a huge poetic light in 19th century American poetry. And she's female. I feel guilt for not liking her. For not even really trying.
Now I feel a bit of fear for even admitting such things. I envision a future hiring committee stumbling across this blog post and saying, "Well, that's it. We're not hiring this moron."
But I think it's important to be honest. And it's important to note that there are many, many poets whom I love. I can talk at great length about how important Elizabeth Barrett Browning was to all of us female poets in terms of how she lived her life and created her art. It bothers me that Dickinson didn't show the same commitment to her poems, that she ordered them destroyed when she died.
Again that guilt for feeling the way that I do. It's so judgmental of me. Who am I to say that Barrett Browning was the correct model and not Dickinson?
Well, that's what teachers and literary scholars do, don't they? In that, I'm following in a great tradition of literary scholarship that says, "We like this writer for that reason and we wish this writer had done that." And yes, I understand the social constraints that kept Dickinson hemmed in and the ways that she resisted. I just like better the ways that Barrett Browning and Rossetti resisted.
So, happy birthday Emily Dickinson! Thank you for the poems that you wrote and for the ways you modeled for us how to be a poet. Those ways may not be our ways, but it's important that you blazed that trail, even if we've gone on to blaze a host of different trails.
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