Thursday, August 18, 2016

Book Review: Collected Poems (Emily Dickinson)

Title: Collected Poems

Author: Emily Dickinson

Date: 1890-1896 (3 volumes), reprinted 1982 (omnibus)

Publisher: Avenel / Crown (1982)

ISBN: 0-517-362422

Length: 256 pages

Illustrations: black-and-white public-domain graphics

Quote: “She sweeps with many-colored brooms, / And leaves the shreds behind; / Oh, housewife in the evening west, / Come back, and dust the pond!”

The traditional quote used to introduce Dickinson is “This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.” You know that one by heart (I’m guessing). You also know “A bird came down the walk” and “I’m nobody!Who are you?” and “Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me.” (The narrator in Dickinson’s poems is not necessarily Dickinson. Sometimes it’s a man; sometimes it’s a voice from the grave.) “She sweeps with many-colored brooms” is quoted here to remind you that Dickinson wrote a lot of other poems that haven’t been reprinted quite so often. Some of them were as whimsical, as sad, as profound as the ones everybody learned at school.

Quite a few of them are written in “common meter,” which means they can be sung to several of the tunes that were popular for hymns and songs in the nineteenth century. “Amazing Grace,” “O For a Faith That Will Not Shrink,” “Yellow Rose of Texas,” and the theme song from “Gilligan’s Island” are examples of common meter. If you want to study, teach, or recite these poems, seriously, try to get this piece of information out of your head, now that it’s in. (Book reviewers deprived of regular cash contributions, like dogs deprived of regular walks, may become mean.)

The “special contents” of my copy of this classic collection consist of remarks by the editors of the first editions, T.W. Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, memorable for their effort to explain Dickinson to people who, shall we say, hadn’t been exposed to her poems (and imitations of her poems) as toddlers. For a young lady of her time, Dickinson had a decent education; she had read enough poetry to have a sense of meter, and of when something in a poem needs to disrupt the predictable meter. Was that what they meant by a “strange music” in these poems? There could hardly have been anything strange about common meter. Or were they referring to poems like “I’m nobody” or “To make a prairie takes a clover and a bee,” which were not in common meter? Dickinson used more dashes than other punctuation marks, and often used the quirks of New England dialect in her poems: “I’ve known her from an ample nation choose one”; “He never had but one”; “I know some lonely houses off the road / A robber’d like the look of.” Did that seem strange? Ignorant? It was a period when Americans fretted about seeming strange or ignorant.

Dickinson was…slightly strange. What seems to have bothered people throughout the twentieth century was that her charming quirkiness can’t be fitted into any disease pattern, even when she wrote about pain and suffering. Sometimes writers, like other creative artists, express ourselves by portraying other people who are different from ourselves. When Dickinson wrote lines like “when a boy, and barefoot” or “I heard a fly buzz when I died” or, for that matter, “Who has not found the heaven below will fail of it above,” what we are to understand is not that she was gender-confused, or took past lives seriously, or held several different and incompatible religious beliefs, but that her poems weren’t written as a memoir. 

Actually, as the recipient of some steamy love letters in prose, Higginson was qualified to comment that some of the love poems may have been “autobiographical.” Dickinson was attracted to a married man (Higginson) and allowed herself to express her sexuality only in letters, not even talking to the man face to face; when he visited her father’s house she talked with him around the door of an adjacent room.  And staying at home, hardly being seen outside the front gate for a year at a time, was what some people believed to be a single woman’s duty; gifted writers are introverts, and the repressive social rules of her time actually offered Dickinson more freedom to indulge herself than many writers have enjoyed. 

No, the extraordinary thing about Dickinson’s poetry was simply that she thought of extraordinary things to say. “A shady friend for torrid days is easier to find than one of higher temperature for frigid hour of mind.” Dickinson didn’t think the way most of us think, and the difference was, to a considerable extent, simply that her mind worked…better. Oh what a subversive thought. A whole denomination of Humanists are going to hate me for saying this: Emily Dickinson was smarter than most people.

If you can cope with the idea that a nice, kind, polite, otherwise “normal” person might have been more gifted than you are, and you don’t already have the collected poems of Emily Dickinson, this may be the book for you.