Saturday, December 10, 2011

Because I Could Not Stop for Emily Dickinson

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.


Shefali Shah Choksi said...

WHAT??? Even i, bred in different landscapes, am not immune to dickinson! i must read her again to see if her magic has worn thin after reading this blog entry!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thank you for this post! While I do love Emily Dickinson, there are other women writers whose work leaves me cold and I also feel the guilt. I'm thinking here of Marianne Moore.

You are so right that I don't beat myself up about not liking this or that male author. Thanks for pointing this out, and let's both try to be easier on ourselves!

Kathleen said...

It's OK, it's OK! (I am anti-guilt...about some things.) I used to resist Emily till my mom said to read and do The Belle of Amherst (one-woman play), so I did (senior thesis project in college). I loved her by being her! I began to know her quirkiness, silliness, deep intelligence, and deep sense of self, and anti-hypocrisy aspects.

Ooops, now I sort of AM her.

Kristin said...

Thank you all for your insights and comments. I should probably go revisit Emily D. again--maybe in retirement, should that day ever come!

Jeannine said...

Kristin, the poems that made me pay attention to ED as a young poet were "Victory Comes Late - and is held low to freezing lips..." which must have been among the first poems I memorized...and "I could not live with you/ that would be life" (you can find that one here:
I think her voice had such an edge to it in some poems, the poems of what I imagine to be her frustration and hemmed-in desperation - that I couldn't help but be drawn to. Sometimes I think the poems of hers that are usually taught are boring compared to the ones that sort of dare to go to places familiar with every lover or poet...rejection and unrequited love...