My experience with Emily Dickinson isn’t like other people’s in this series of essays by poets writing about how they discovered Dickinson. I didn’t read her when I was a child. In fact, there wasn’t much poetry in my house. My parents, my sister, and I were Displaced Persons, refugees. My parents were Polish survivors of Nazi slave labor camps who had somehow found themselves in Chicago after the war, and they were busy trying to make something of life in Chicago in the 50’s. We weren’t passing poetry around the dinner table.
The only things that came into the house that resembled poems were the songs my father would sing when he would have a few drinks. He would sing Polish soldier ballads. I remember one about a young girl waiting near a deep well for her lover to return from the wars. He never returns. There was another about how the red poppies on Monte Cassino (a Benedictine abbey on the spine of Italy that stood in the way of an Allied advance toward Rome) will always remind people about how the Poles bled and died there. You get the picture.
And my poetry reading in grade school and high school was shaped by the nuns of St. Francis in the former and the Christian Brothers in the latter. In grade school we read Catholic poets. The one who struck me most was Joyce Kilmer, the author of “Trees,” a good man who died in the trenches of France in World War I. My first poem used his rhymed iambic tetrameter couplets. In high school, we read lots of Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas. I had a teacher who began every class for a year reading out loud either Frost’s “Birches” or Thomas’s “Fern Hill.” It was boy’s poetry and young man’s poetry with a tinge of the brooding existential grayness of the early 60’s.
When I did finally start reading Emily Dickinson in college, the experience wasn’t one that touched me deeply or transformed the way I thought about poetry then. I can honestly say that I didn’t much care for her. Part of this, of course, may have come from the way she was presented back then, in the mid-60’s. One of my Profs referred to Dickinson as the “poet of minutiae”; another talked about her “domestic concerns.” Neither teacher was making me want to thumb through a volume of her poems. The feeling I was getting was that there were poets who said big things and poets who said small things. Looking back on all that now, I can see that a lot of what was going on was a dismissal of Dickinson on the basis of gender, but at that time I just didn’t see it.
The first time I actually read her was in an introduction to poetry class. We read one of her “minutiae” poems, the one about the snake, “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.” The poem didn’t move me at all until I got to the final stanza when she started talking about how she never ran across this snake “Without a tighter breathing / And Zero at the Bone.” I thought, there’s a great image, what a way to talk about fear: Zero at the Bone. Yes, she’s got that down, but the rest of the poem for me was a “so what.” I thought, one super image but where’s her philosophy, her worldview, and how about the zeitgeist? The big things? In this class, I was also reading Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and Yeats’s “Second Coming” and “Sailing to Byzantium.” Xanadu! Brooklyn Ferry! Byzantium! These were poems doing everything a poem should be doing. Structuring the world. Explaining the unexplainable. Revealing truths that would remain truths for always, and for everyone. Tossing around exclamation points and rejecting dashes entirely!
What that introduction to poetry class taught me was that I preferred Yeats, Whitman, and Coleridge to Emily Dickinson and her simple matters. Yes, she was giving me a snake in the grass and “Zero at the Bone.” And she was giving me Eden, of course, but what about Leda and the Swan, the Cosmos, future generations staring me in the face, Khan’s Pleasure Dome? If I could have spoken to her, I would have said, “Give me the big picture, Emily.”
My next encounter with Emily Dickinson was in an American Literature survey, and it was about the same. She was sandwiched between Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. I can imagine the three of them sitting on a bench waiting to be called into the game. The Whitman of Manhattan on one side, a lusty, big, brawling figure waiting for somebody like Carl Sandburg to describe him as the Poet of the Big Shoulders. And on the other side, the magnificently rotund and socially imposing James the First after whom there are no others, a writer for whom every sentence is encyclopedically complex and raring to go.
And what about Emily? She sits in the middle, in white of course, quickly fading to a gray, dusty shadow, then little less than a shadow, then nothing, just a silence. She vanished for me. I’m sorry, but there it was. The professor who taught the class was working on a book about roaring radicals in American literature from 1850-1900, and he couldn’t see Emily Dickinson either. Amid the gas and bellowing of the second half of the 19th century, there were only about 15 minutes for Dickinson and her domestic concerns. We read her poem about the porcelain cup on the shelf (“I cannot live with you”) and scratched our heads. A poem about a cup? Students looked around at each other and looked again at the poem, and by then the 15 minutes were up and we were deep on the track of the Henry James Express! My poem “Midnight” in part comes out of these early experiences with Dickinson. At that time, I did feel that all that her poetry was good for was cattle fodder, something to feed the cows.
When was it that I started looking at Emily and liking what I saw? I guess it was in the middle of my teaching career, about fifteen years ago. I was teaching the second half of our freshman composition sequence, a course yoking literature and writing, and I wanted to do a unit on poems about death, so I was going through the anthology searching for appropriate poems. I found “Because I could not stop for Death,” “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died,” and “There’s a certain Slant of light.” When I read these poems, I stopped looking for others. These poems became the whole unit.
What moved me about them then, and still moves me, is her absolute clarity. Maybe clarity isn’t the right word, but I don’t know how else to say it. She’s talking about death, she’s talking about her shifting attitudes toward it, she’s talking about fear and expectation and despair and God and love, and she does it all with words so straightforward and so clear and so welcoming to me that I feel as if all poetic artifice is gone from the poems, and it’s just Dickinson talking to me in a darkening room about what it is she felt when she thought about death. I’m not saying that the poems aren’t complex and carefully crafted and deliberately shaped in such a way as to inspire deep and serious and critical readings. They’re clearly all that, and they express a worldview besides! All I’m saying is that she writes with such humane forthrightness that, for me, she becomes fully real and alive. When she says, “There’s a certain Slant of light,” I have to look at a window because it’s like she’s standing next to me and pointing. “Look there,” she’s saying, “do you see it, John? I have to tell you, it makes me feel so cold. So cold. Do you see it?”
When I read her and feel this, I know it’s exactly how I wish I could speak in my poems.