Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Poetry Spotlight (6): Emily Dickinson

In my second year of college I took an Introduction to Poetry class and I fell in love with reading poetry. Before then, poetry was always a little intimidating and a medium that I didn't have much experience with. But after that class, I became addicted to reading poetry, and during the class I actually found myself thinking in and expressing myself in poetry- which I never would have guessed would happen in a million years. So, with this series I'm here to share some of my favorite poems in a way that I'm sure will turn out rambley and unorganized.

About Emily Dickinson:
Dickinson has become some-what of a literary legend. She is often thought of as the mysterious shut-in who wore all white as she spent her life writing poetry in secret. Her life has become almost as large as her poetry, and many people are fascinated by the poet herself, as well as her poetry. 

Dickinson was born in Massachusetts to a well-off family. She was known as a recluse, and most of her friendships took place over letters; she never married. Only about a dozen of her poems were published during her life-time, and they were altered significantly by publishers. Dickinson's younger sister discovered the vast amount of poems Dickinson had written after her death in 1886.

Dickinson attended Amherst Academy for seven years and spent a short time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family home as a young woman. While studying, Emily's closest cousin died of typhus, and her death traumatized Dickinson and started a strong fascination with death for Dickinson, which can be seen in her poetry. After she returned home from school, her mother became chronically ill. Someone was required to stay with her mother at all times, and eventually Dickinson took over this job full-time from her siblings, and this was the start of her reclusive reputation. Although Dickinson never married, or had any recorded romantic relationships, three letters exist (offered referred to as "The Master letters," in which Dickinson refers to an unknown male as "Master." These letters have been the fuel to many investigations on Dickinson's personal life. 

Around the year 1867, and after the death of her dog, Dickinson hardly ever left the house. She corresponded mainly through letters, and it is even reported that she talked to guests that came to her house through the door. When she was seen, she was often wearing white, hence her reputation as a recluse in white. The only remaining article of clothing of hers is a white cotton dress, further fueling this image of the poet. 
Dickinson's dress in the Emily Dickinson Museum
in Amherst Massachusetts  
How to Recognize a Dickinson Poem: 
Is it about death? Is the capitalization wonky? Is the poem filled with dashes? 

If the answer to at least two out of three of those questions is yes, then you are probably reading a Dickinson poem. Dickinson wrote on the subject of death quite often- which has helped contribute to her reputation as a literary legend and mystery. She also used religious imagery in her poems quite often, and the rhythm of some of her poems can be matched to the rhythm of popular hymns. She wrote on other subjects too of course, but her poems on death are some of her most profound and thought provoking. I have also noticed that sea imaginary is common in Dickinson's works, and she uses it quite effectively.  

Dickinson's form is extremely unique and recognizable. She capitalizes her nouns and uses dashes to punctuate her poems. Her poems are also untitled, so they are referred to by their first line.    
Poems I Wish to Spotlight: 
Click on the poem to read it
They probably made you read this in school:
"Hope" is the thing with feathers--  This poem is perhaps Dickinson's most well known poem, which is odd because it is not a typical Dickinson poem. This one is often in greeting cards and books of inspirational poems, but the subject matter is atypical for Dickinson. 
A Bird came down the Walk--  This poem (and the one below) are often taught in classrooms because they contain examples of many different elements of poetry. They are not my favorite Dickinson poems, but they are great examples of how Dickinson would play with sound devices in her poems. 
A narrow fellow in the grass--  See above commentary. 
Because I could not stop for Death-- Try reading this one to the tune of an old hymn. I can't for the life of me find someone doing this, but someone in my class sung it to the tune of an old hymn (I can't remember which one) and it was the one of the coolest things I have ever experienced in a literature class. 

While there is nothing "wrong" with the above mentioned poems, they are not (in my opinion) Dickson's best or most relatable works (perhaps with the exception of the last one). Some of her works are so thought provoking and flooring, and it is a shame that those are not the poems that get shared most often. Below I have made a list of a few of my favorite Dickinson's poems that will leave an impression on you, and may even turn you into a Dickinson fan if you are not already one. 

You may have never read these ones (but you should):
I felt a Funeral in my brain-- This is very high up on my list of favorite Dickinson's. I love the thoughts Dickinson has on an epiphany and how amazing and life-altering a change of mind can be. I love the funeral imagery.
I heard a Fly buzz when I died-- This is one of Dickinson's better known poems on death, and the less-than-glamorous realities of the end of a life.  
I started Early- Took my Dog- This is perhaps my favorite Dickinson poem, as I can not get enough of the imagery. The first time I read this poem, the image of "the Mermaids in the Basement" stuck in my brain, and I still cannot dislodge it (not that I want to though).   
Wild nights- Wild nights!--  One of Dickinson's more romantic poems, which again features sea imagery. This poem often puzzles people when read along-side Dickinson's biography, as she wrote poems about love, death, and other large topics that she did not have much experience with herself (that we know of anyway).  
After great pain, a formal feeling comes- This is a really beautiful and honest poem on grief and healing. 
He fumbles at your Soul-- This poem interests me because I am not clear on its meaning. "He" can be interpreted in a number of different ways, and I'm not sure who "He" is yet- God, a lover, the patriarch? What do you think? 
One need not be a Chamber to be Haunted- This poem touches on the complicated nature of the mind, and how the anxieties and "ghosts" that live inside your mind can be more frightening than any real life horror could be.   

Great Resources: 
This Blog aims to read and comment on all 1789 poems by Emily Dickinson. 
If you enjoy Dickinson's darker themes and thoughts on grief and death, you may also enjoy the works of Emily Bronte. You can read my poetry spotlight on her here.

So what do you think about "the woman in white"? What's your favorite poem of Dickinson's? 

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