For our first meeting this year, our Poetry Discussion Group read Dickinson’s poems, a mix of famous and now-so-famous works. To prepare, I reread this collection from my bookshelf, finding notes from my schooldays tucked in its pages, enjoying old favorites and rediscovering ones I’d forgotten.
At our meeting one person remarked that almost anyone reading an unattributed poem by Dickinson would know immediately that it was by her. Why is that? It’s partly her remarkable concision—the way she can pack so much into a handful of lines—and partly her combination of whimsy and practicality.
Of course there are her distinctive dashes. In many cases, they designate a pause, as here:
It’s all I have to bring today —
This, and my heart beside —
This, and my heart, and all the fields —
And all the meadows wide —
Be sure you count — should I forget
Some one the sum could tell —
This, and my heart, and all the Bees
Which in the Clover dwell.
In others, they indicate a modern fracturing of perception, as here:
Each Life Converges to some Centre —
Expressed — or still —
Exists in every Human Nature
A Goal —
Embodied scarcely to itself — it may be —
For Credibility’s presumption
To mar —
Adored with caution — as a Brittle Heaven —
Were hopeless, as the Rainbow’s Raiment
To touch —
Yet persevered toward — sure — for the Distance —
How high —
Unto the Saint’s slow diligence —
The Sky —
Ungained — it may be — by a Life’s low Venture —
But then —
Eternity enable the endeavoring
Sometimes they add emphasis to certain words or ideas.
I taste a liquor never brewed —
From Tankards scooped in Pearl —
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!
Inebriate of Air — am I —
And Debauchee of Dew —
Reeling — thro endless summer days —
From inns of Molten Blue —
When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door —
When Butterflies — renounce their “drams” —
I shall but drink the more!
Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats —
And Saints — to windows run —
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the — Sun –
She can be joyous, as in the previous poem, or satirical, as here:
What Soft — Cherubic Creatures —
These Gentlewomen are —
One would as soon assault a Plush —
Or violate a Star —
Such Dimity Convictions —
A Horror so refined
Of freckled Human Nature —
Of Deity — ashamed —
It’s such a common — Glory —
A Fisherman’s — Degree —
Redemption — Brittle Lady —
Be so — ashamed of Thee —
More often, though, she’s kind, appreciative of the world around here and aware of its transience:
I had no time to Hate —
The Grave would hinder Me —
And Life was not so
Could finish — Enmity —
Nor had I time to Love —
Some Industry must be —
The little Toil of Love —
Be large enough for Me –
Some of her poems seem straightforward, but may have layers within. Some—such as the last one—are so sweetly positive as to border on sentimentality, though never (in my opinion) crossing over. Some we found baffling, such as this one where the two stanzas seem to be separate poems, the first clear and the second bewildering (Himmaleh indicates the Himalayas).
I can wade Grief —
Whole Pools of it —
I’m used to that —
But the least push of Joy
Breaks up my feet —
And I tip — drunken —
Let no Pebble — smile —
‘Twas the New Liquor —
That was all!
Power is only Pain —
Stranded, thro’ Discipline,
Till Weights — will hang —
Give Balm — to Giants —
And they’ll wilt, like Men —
Give Himmaleh —
They’ll Carry — Him!
As writers we’re often advised to eliminate adjectives and adverbs, yet she deploys them brilliantly, as in this poem where it is the adjectives that give it power:
For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ration
To the ecstasy.
For each beloved hour
Sharp pittances of years —
Bitter contested farthings —
And Coffers heaped with Tears!
I have plenty of friends IRL (in real life) and online, but books too are my friends, and none more welcome than wise and witty Emily.
All the poems I’ve quoted and more may be found here.
What is your favorite Emily Dickinson poem?