By Jodi Werner
As a junior in high school, studying American Literature for the first time, I claimed Emily Dickinson as my poet. I felt as though I alone were given the gift to decode her poems. The rest of my class wanted to read more accessible poetry; they hated Dickinson’s verse and were indifferent to her life story. Her use of elusive imagery and fourth-definition choices for words frustrated them but only increased my desire to study the poems more closely. I wanted to understand enough about Emily Dickinson so that I could emulate her.
I stayed in many a Saturday night that year, calling myself Dickinsonian and not pathetic. I wrote poems, lots of them, because I wanted to have a collection totaling 1,775–like hers. I even started using dashes in my writing. Her perceptions shook the naive grip I had on the world around me: “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” she wrote, and no one I had ever met examined the world in that way. She questioned the unknowable, and imagined the impossible. I devoured her poems. Convinced that in getting to know her verse, I could answer not only her life’s mysteries but my own as well.
This past semester in graduate school I had the opportunity to indulge my fanaticism with a classroom full of Dickinson enthusiasts. Here I learned the danger involved in reading her poems as autobiographies. Her life, though indisputably mysterious, cannot be historically annotated by analyzing her poetry. Like most poets, Dickinson assumes personae in her writing. Sometimes she speaks as the bee, sometimes as the flower, sometimes as countless other things. Reading her into each of her poems is presumptuous and can only lead to false analyses. Perhaps she wished to re-envision her life through her poetry and not accurately record it. I write perhaps because the beautiful truth is that we will never know exactly what she intended to do with her verse.
Her poems rhymes and rhythms mirror Protestant hymns and yet she was critical and skeptical of religion. She published only a handful of poems during her lifetime and the rest were left to posterity with no instructions. Before she died, she burned many of the letters in which she included her poems. What remains today of her correspondence forms a trail that Dickinson enthusiasts (in increasing numbers) follow each year, hoping to reach the truth. Quite often this trail leads them to her home in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Late this past fall when the leaves were peaking, I ventured from Boston to the Dickinson Homestead. It was an ominous day. Gray clouds loomed as if suspended overhead, and the suns reflection bounced from them onto the trees below, creating an eerie glow. The bright blues and reds of the garden flowers behind her home seemed to jump from their assignedplaces. We arrived late–at closing time in fact– and missed the last tour of the day. We had to beg for admittance. A gracious tour guide let us stand for five minutes in Dickinson’s bedroom, and I was happy–that was all I had come for. Without the crowd of a tour surrounding me, I imagined Dickinson had invited me over personally for tea or to share some poetry.
But my daydream rang false, because during her lifetime Emily Dickinson did not have people over. Most of the Dickinson myths stem from her self-inflicted seclusion. When on a walk one day during her adulthood, Dickinson allegedly experienced something transformative. Critics have speculated an attack or a rape, but there has never been confirmation. After this walk, Dickinson chose to wear only white and to become a recluse, confined mostly to her bedroom. Though her best friend and sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Dickinson, lived next door with Dickinson’s brother, Austin, Emily didn’t visit them for years at a time. Instead, she sent servants or children over with letters. Many of these letters included her poetry.
As I stood in her bedroom, I realized most of her poetry was written in this room. I traced my hand along the edge of the dark wooden bed frame, touched the pages of the Bible resting on the pew stool, and looked at the hanging pictures of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot. For some reason, I had imagined more clutter. The furniture and decorations were sparse and dainty.
A cream lace throw covered the bed. The room was altogether too neat. If Dickinson had in fact been neat, it wouldn’t have surprised me–she was quite the perfectionist. But her room, kept that tidy over the years, felt like it was missing something. It was missing the words. Dickinson had sat in that room for years at a time, and the words had come to her. If I looked closely enough, surely I would find them now as well.
What I found was a photocopied fascicle resting on her bureau. It was not enough, not what I had been looking for, but it appeased me. Dickinson arranged her poetry in miniature collections, now called fascicles, which she bound with red yarn. She wrote on lined stationary and her handwriting was loopy and large, becoming larger as she aged. Her words spilled from line to line, which made line breaks hard to decipher. In my graduate class, we questioned whether she meant to break the lines at certain points, or if her handwriting was just so big that it ran onto the next line. A poem from a photocopied fascicle differs from the exact same poem found in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Her dashes look almost like commas in fascicles, and she created no titles for the vast majority of her poems. The now-famous numbering was introduced only when the poems were arranged chronologically for collection. Holding one of her fascicles while standing in her bedroom, I felt as if I had in some small way been a part of her creative process.
Aside from her bedroom, another place that inspired Dickinson was her garden. She found comfort in spending time among the company of flowers, birds, and insects. She studied them and created social structures for their interaction. An accomplished botanist, she kept flowers pressed in her favorite books. One can follow a thin trail from the house to the garden, and along this trail one can see Susan and Austin Dickinson’s home just beyond the shrubbery. The close proximity of the two homes serves as a reminder of the great lengths Dickinson went to in order to remain secluded.
Surprisingly, Dickinson didn’t have a view of the garden from her room. When she was alive, she looked out from her front window on hay meadows and a field. The tour guide said Dickinson could see clear into town and watch people leaving church from this window. Today a street runs directly in front of the house, and her window looks out onto other homes. The Dickinson Homestead is now located on the Amherst College campus. Across the street from another side of the house are dormitories. Dickinson’s father and grandfather were founders of Amherst College. Her father, Squire Dickinson, was a lawyer and prominent community member. His social status made his daughter’s aloofness all the more incredible. Dickinson was afforded opportunities to be social and yet continually chose seclusion.
This choice, coupled with her poetic genius, has made Dickinson a literary legend. Her words have the power to make readers, like myself, reexamine the world, look at it from different perspectives, and attempt to understand ourselves better in the process. The frustrating and alluring contrast is that we cannot and will never fully understand how she managed to do these things. I first read poem #437 when I was fifteen:
Prayer is the little implement
Through which Men reach
Where Presence — is denied them.
They fling their Speech
By Means of it — in Gods Ear —
If then He hear —
This sums the Apparatus
Comprised in Prayer —
Since then, I have pictured Emily Dickinson in her bedroom flinging speech at what she perceived to be unattainable–nature, God, death, love, happiness, poetic greatness. I believe her poetry is widely appealing because most people think something in their lives is just beyond reach. The irony of standing in Dickinson’s bedroom clutching a recreated fascicle was that while I could reach out and touch her poetry, her essence would forever remain just beyond my grasp.
Jodi Werner is editor of GenerationJ.com and project director of ritualwell.org. She is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Emerson College.