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My Favorite Poet: Emily Dickinson

Written by

Michael Ryan
Contributor Page

Year

2014

There is no information in Emily Dickinson's poems that separates her from us. She works the seams of language through her mastery of rhetoric and poetic form. She extracts from words "amazing sense." Instead of merely referring to the experience of the writer, the poem is made to be an experience for the reader, which is precisely how she says she knows poetry in her famous remark to Higginson: "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it.  Is there any other way"  

No, there isn't. Dickinson is the only poet about whom I consistently feel, "I wish I could write like that." My ambition to understand her inside out is to absorb all she can give me, but her rigorous attention to paradox and its manifold exfoliations are beyond me. The inimitable stylistic manifestation of this attention is most apparent in her usage not her vocabulary—condensing predications and changing grammatical classes of words much more than using specialized and obscure meanings of them (although there is a little of that, too). To cite just one example: "The Daily Own - of Love/ Depreciate the Vision" (426)—as Cristanne Miller says in A Poet's Grammar—"creates a kind of parataxis, for which the reader must work out the appropriate relationship." A verb ("Own") is the subject of a sentence that also violates rules of subject-verb agreement ("The Own…Depreciate"). Dickinson makes the reader participate in the poem, to follow its twists and fill in its (sometimes unfillable) blanks. Her style is in the service of truth: truth-telling and truth-discovering: "Truth is such a rare thing it is delightful to tell it" (as Higginson reported she said to him). She jolts us with it. And she jolted herself. The knocked-off top of her head must have spent a good deal of time on the floor next to her desk. The occasional difficulty and irresolvable ambiguity of her poems is incidental to their knocking my head off, too. That difficulty is more in what is being said than in how it's being said. She is never more difficult than she has to be, but she is committed to being exactly that difficult (and that easy), and her figuration and condensation are sometimes necessarily dense and usually unusually intense.

So the so-called "enigma of Emily Dickinson" is not an enigma to me at all. Everything we need to know about her is in those 1789 poems. They are a spiritual autobiography more comprehensive than any possible narrative. They are both the product and practice of a lifetime act of love on her part, if love can be a necessary action ("My business is to love," she declared. "My business is to sing."). Definition poems, observation-of-nature poems, arresting-moment-dramatized poems, declaration-after-experience poems, working-what-she-thinks-of-the-experience-in-the-poem poems, lyric cries, locked-up aphorisms, arguments and narratives, purposeful inconsistency, jazzing the placeholders, banging and angling language until it renders the otherwise inarticulate human feeling: the variety of the poetry she extracts from a single limited form—a liturgical form (the hymn stanza)—is astonishing. I would like to have a fraction of her focus: the most intense focus ever of any writer I know. She is a model of devotion to the practice of poetry. Writing poems for her was life-sustaining, even life-creating. It created the place in which she fully experienced her experience. What she made in her poems she used in her life. The process of writing and all it involved grew her soul. It was a spiritual discipline, the lifelong practice of a craft, and an entertainment. When after a few years out of touch, Higginson asked if she was still writing, she responded, "I have no other Playmate." The idea that either poetry or religion was separable from life was repugnant to her. Art for art's sake would have struck her as a ludicrous, debased idea. The foundation and purpose of art was moral and religious, as it was for every poet of her time except Poe, but, unlike the Victorian sages, for her the relationship between art and morality was implicit not explicit, private not social, neither pious nor privileged but enmeshed with gritty, difficult, daily life, and every crack and crease in their connections was open to exploration. I am very grateful she did this work. It is one of the greatest enrichments of my life.

First published in The Emily Dickinson Journal, Johns Hopkins University Press. Copyright © Michael Ryan. Used with permission of the author.