Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Emily Dickinson and a Frog

A couple of posts ago, I shared with you one of my all-time favourite poems by one of my all-time favourite poets – poem 254 (a.k.a. ‘ “Hope” is the thing with feathers’) by 19th Century American poet, Emily Dickinson.

I discovered Emily Dickinson (or ED as I affectionately call her) while studying 19th Century American Literature on my degree and, while I’m no scholar or authority, found I understood and ‘got’ her.  Whenever a Reader reads something that just makes sense, that touches a place in their soul and feels so right, they want to read more of it, to feel more of it – and that’s what I’ve done with ED, and am still doing; to the point where I’ve asked for ED’s biography for Easter and not an egg (or eggs – the parents are rather generous, bless ’em)!

Surprisingly, I’d heard some of ED’s lines all the way back in secondary school but never knew it was her – you might’ve heard them too?:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

~ from 712*

Even if you hadn’t before, you have now!  It isn’t just ED’s poetry which strikes me, it’s her process of writing and her life – and so much of that is still relevant today.

Born on 10th December 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, ED was writing at a time when America was finding itself, establishing its identity – to be American was to be free, individual, new; to be something Other than English or European or Puritan – yet to be unified in this newness, too.  Unfortunately, this unity didn’t, in practice, encompass all factions of equality – women and different races weren’t given importance in this credo – but ED sought, and fought to an extent, for hers.

Educated at one of the first colleges in the world to grant degrees to women (to think there was a time, globally, that being female could prevent you from studying and gaining qualifications!  Don’t get me on my feminist soap box...), ED went on to write and read...on a vast-er-than-vast scale.  Scholars now estimate that she wrote (are you ready for this?!) 17,000 poems...yet only about 10 were published in her lifetime.  17, 000!  10!  So why weren’t more published?

In part, because she chose not to.  In part, because she was someone who was Other – female, an artist, a writer writing in a way not seen before; a way that was deemed ‘not quite right’. 

You’ll have noticed from my quoting her work that she uses dashes ( – ) and capital letters in unexpected places; that she doesn’t put in the punctuation we’re used to; that she doesn’t title each poem; and that she plays word games within the poems.  I – and many, many others – find this approach to be innovative, artistic and fresh as well as striking, provoking and Authoritative (meaning the Author taking control and ownership over the reach of their work) – but this wasn’t the view back in the 1800s. 

Then, ED’s poetry was a way of writing that needed ‘tidying up’ – as if she didn’t really know what she was doing and made a messy attempt at it.  As if she could be improved.  Well, she was a woman, after all, wasn’t she?!  (Argh!  I get so indignant thinking about this editing-of-the-writer’s-intention, this censorship of her – take and breath and calm down, Deb!)  It wasn’t until the early 1950s and America’s interest in rediscovering lost women poets that ED’s work was reconsidered – and that her artistic genius was respected, resulting in a collection of her work published in 1981 with her punctuation restored (Yay!, cheers feminist Deb!).

So why did ED chose not to publish – especially when she wrote so very much?  I’d argue that the need to write isn’t the same as wanting to publish – some people have to write to live a satisfied, fulfilled life (me!), but don’t want or need anyone else to read this work (not Deb – I love a reader, me!  The more, the merrier...).  From my degree work on one of her poems, 288 (a.k.a. ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’) I also think that ED was savvy; in this poem, she explores how being known publically, how being ‘Somebody’, can override the writer’s intention, making the unique and personal ‘Nobody’ into something ordinary, common and impersonal; how heedless publication can lead to skewed consumerism, and how that can devalue the original work or/and writer, even way back in the 19th Century.

While ED didn’t seek publication in the way that most writers (including myself) do, she was an originator of self-publishing: she handstitched a collection of poems into fabric and shared them with a select few. (Disclaimer: my uni notes don’t elaborate on the details, but as I’ve just ordered my Easter present – ! – I shall know soon!).  After her death, her family discovered these ‘fascicles’, as they’re known, unstitched them and arranged for chronological publishing, with ED’s punctuation ‘restored’ to ‘proper’ grammar! (Cue more Deb-indignation!)

Myself, I think a Writer writes because they need to and because they love words, love stories – and so they must too love reading.  It makes sense that one who loves to read and then writes themselves, will want someone else to read their writing – but this doesn’t necessarily equate to published work, which will be criticised and critiqued.

What do you think?  I’ll leave you with the poem in question to stoke the argument:


I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – Too?
Then there’s a pair of us?
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

* I should make it clear (after my editorial-indignation!) that I've centralised ED's poems to make them stand out on the screen, and to separate them from my witterings - ED has them justified to the left of the page as is customary in poetry.


  1. Hi there Deb...
    The poem in question....if I'd not read Emily's D.O.B. I would not of said a woman of that 'time' wrote it...but I would say she was way ahead of her time and a woman of strength in character...I'm not sure I wholly get this poem but I did on the otherhand like the words from 712...your post was an interesting read...Mel :)

  2. Great post - I love how you find so much out from a person's choice of words. I know that as a writer you write because you want to, need to, but also know you enjoy having a reader too. I find Emily's story interesting, I love the poem 288 above, made me smile. Take care Zo xx


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