Thursday, June 15, 2023

Selected Poetry by Emily Dickinson

I don't know if this is a plus or a minus, but one feature of writing about every book I read is that I fairly regularly need to throw my hands up, admit that there are some pretty fundamental things I just did not get, and try to assemble something coherent out of my confusion and misreadings.

Not actually changing the subject: I'm getting to a book of poetry about once a year, these days: not a lot, but more than a lot of people, so I guess it balances.

This year, it was Selected Poems by Emily Dickinson, an attractive little edition published as part of the "New York Public Library Collector's Editor" series in the late '90s. [1] I thought I would be simpatico with Dickinson's work; she seemed like a fun, quirky writer and that I would enjoy her allusive poems.

This mostly was not the case.

Now, Emily Dickinson is a world-famous poet, whom many great writers and readers have found inspiration and delight in for more than a century. But not every reader is for every writer. 

I did find a few things that spoke to me, but most of this book was deeply opaque, on multiple levels. I never quite figured out how to read Dickinson's famous dashes: close to a majority of them seemed to not even break the meter, so they weren't breaks or pauses or anything I could figure out. [2] Oh, sometimes they could be used as pauses, but not consistently - they felt more like greengrocer's apostrophes to me, thrown in whenever the writer felt like fancying things up. (Which I'm sure was not the case, but it's as close to a theory as I had.)

And the topics of the poems were often vague at best, with Dickinson's churchy and high-falutin' 19th century language mostly serving to obscure whatever it was she was talking about. About half way through, I formed a theory: Dickinson's poems were either about some random natural thing (a beetle, for example) that was common outside her house in 1860 but went extinct twenty years later, or about Death in a vaguely Protestant way, or occasionally about some other human being whom she would never name or explain.

So I'd read a poem, think, "this is an allegory for a birch tree, maybe" and move on. And then the next one would be "OK, so somebody is dead, I think." And then would be one that was probably about a cloud, and then another about what her life would be like after she was dead. (That last category seemed very common.)

I did find Dickinson's late poems were clearer, that they made sense to me more consistently. I'm not sure if that was a shift in her work, or just that I'd read enough Dickinson that I'd clicked - I think the former, since she used far fewer dashes towards the end.

But my main takeaway was: just because something is declared to be Great doesn't mean it will work for you, today or ever. There's no shame in that. It doesn't mean it's not Great for someone if it's not Great for you. And the goal of writing about art is to try to see what is or can be Great in there - where's the spark that inspires or thrills or excites.

Dickinson was a fizzle for me, mostly. But I'm not sorry I read her poetry, and I hope having read them will set me up to read other things in the future, and, I hope, to find them Great in unexpected ways.

[1] If I remember correctly, my then-colleague Barbara Greenman at what was then the Doubleday Book Clubs was involved with the series, though I don't know on what level. But they're lovely books, and the clubs sold all of them, and I grabbed copies of every one I could and still have a few two-plus decades later.

[2] I tried reading some poems out loud, pausing or not at dashes, which didn't help. I'm sure there is some method to it, but I didn't manage to stumble into that method.

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