How much did Emily Dickinson want her poetry to be understood? I can’t be sure, but I suspect she wanted it to be both puzzling and understood.* While she didn’t publish to any extent in her lifetime, she did send by mail or otherwise share poems with friends. The conventions of Dickinson’s 19th century America may be different, but it’s possible that not everyone understood each poem, or even welcomed the arrival of those poems’ enclosure, but these acts indicate that she had elements in her poetry that asked for a public place for her work.
The posthumous publication of a large selection of her poems in a series of books at the end of the 1800’s did find ample volunteer readers though. Selected from her handwritten manuscripts by outside editors and somewhat regularized, they were also presented with tacked-on titles and within subject sections like“Time and Eternity,” which however criticized by current scholars helped frame her work for her first posthumous readers.
There’s a certain kind of Dickinson poem, often with a touch of gothic whimsy, that most easily attracts a general readership. Others feature proto-Imagist observations that continue to delight readers. While there were other American poets of Dickinson’s time who had a substantial non-academic readership, now more than a century-and-a-half later, few read any other than Dickinson and Whitman.**
Having a general readership should discount no one’s literary merit, but snobbery may ask to have its say. If Dickinson is a poet admired and even read by those who are otherwise unattracted to poetry, this can be introduced as evidence against her worth as a true poet.
Given that, I have been noticing someone on behalf of the Emily Dickinson Museum has been regularly posting short Dickinson poems on Twitter asking for those who come upon them what their interpretation of these poems are. Few of the Dickinson poems this Twitter docent shares are the well-known “Greatest Hits” of Dickinson. Many are eight short lines, and those lines are often full of Dickinson’s oddest syntax and metaphysical musings. Being asked for an on-the-spot interpretation freezes many a reader as much as an armed robbery would — but at least in such a street encounter one likely knows where one’s wallet and valuables are. While I’m old enough to have grown accustomed to my own misreading of subtle poems that my fears of embarrassment are diminished, even I am hesitant to offer a Twitter reply. And this is true even though I’ve already performed some of Dickinson’s poems of that sort. What this series of Twitter posts demonstrates most vividly I think is that a great deal of Dickinson, though a time-tested popular poet, verges on incomprehensibility. So why did Dickinson write such poems?
My theory is that Dickinson was seeking to record in these cryptic short pieces certain moments of personal insight. Why take the time to versify them then? There’s evidence that Dickinson had a musical mind, and containing them such may have been a combination of the matrix of natural “music of thought” and the practical mnemonic virtues of verse. Dickinson was known to write short poems down on household scrap paper, indicating that thought was going on during domestic workdays. Perhaps I’ve come up with this mentally-drafted commonplace-book theory in that I spent some of my ordinary working life composing poetic stanzas in my head that were informed by things I was seeing and thinking while my hands were occupied. Such work is not necessarily “public poetry,” though in Dickinson’s case it now can be viewed by us strangers far removed by Dickinson’s time and place. Here’s her poem. You can be one of those strangers.
In memory of my feelings. Dickinson’s austere compression here.
So what was Dickinson on about with her poem known by its first line: “From Us She wandered now a Year?” I’m not sure, and I’m sort of comfortable with that. What is clear? It doesn’t have the attraction of imagery. “Wilderness” is totally undescribed, not rising to the level of an image, and “feet’ and “eye” are the only other concrete nouns in the entire poem. There’s no clear sense of where or when this poem occurs. While there’s some sense of separation or change as of the first phrase, the poem evokes no clear-cut emotional tone. “She” and “Us/We” are vague characters, though I read the latter as a general evocation of humanity. Dickinson’s eccentric capitalization invites us to consider many words as philosophic entities, not a “wish you were here” note about a traveling friend.*** Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, her posthumous editors, put this poem in that “Time and Eternity” section, and invented a title “Invisible” for it, which indicated they didn’t know what she was on about either.
Do I have an impression? I think the poem’s “She” is Transcendentalist Nature, which as I understand Transcendentalism is essentially the revered manifestation of the true universe and any Creator. “Wandered now a year” is the unstoppable progression of seasonal time which goes forward over any barren obstacle that might stop a corporal creature (Wilderness) or without any memorial break for death or state of nothingness (Ethereal Zone). The second stanza says we cannot not fully understand this, though we may have some autumnal intimation at some part of this cycle, where we “took” (in) this “Mystery.”****
I could be wrong, but a worthy enough meaning. Still, the overall effect remains its stark unsensual expression. Few of the normal pleasures of poetry are found in these eight lines. No imagery, no statement of the senses meant to invoke feelings in the reader (other than mystification perhaps). Word-music alone is there in Dickinson’s hardwood-seat pew hymn-meter, the thing she used to write her own hymn book. This is a highly intellectualized and discorporate poetry, but as I said at the beginning, I don’t know if Dickinson intended us to read it. If not, then Dickinson’s feelings and experiences being left-out are beside the author’s point. After all, she herself may have sufficiently felt them, and this artifact is meant only to evoke that memory for herself. I, this other human today, have this overall emotion evoked: awe at the dexterity of her mind.
Today’s performance has music I composed and played in my “punk orchestral” style along with 12-string guitar. I’m using simple musical structures for the orchestral instruments, but I tell myself I can do so in the same way that guitar combo bands using a few root-V chords can none-the-less communicate something. It’s a brief poem that I represent in a short musical piece you can hear below with the graphical player, or in its absence this alternative highlighted link.
*This is a common, if not always acknowledged goal of poets: to be worthy not just of a reading, not just of some understanding, but to be worthy of a deeper and more careful and caring reading. That’s a lot to ask for words, even beautiful sounding words.
**I considered adding Poe to this exceptions list. Despite my own efforts, I doubt I could make a case for Longfellow retaining 21st century readership.
***Possible that there’s a specific lower-case “she” and this poem is more simply a “missing you” poem? I’ll offer this aside my theory, that if Dickinson felt that toward specific shes then it could occur to her to personify a manifestation of at least a conceptual Godhead as “She.” It’s possible to be thirsty and thoughtful.
****Sandy Denny’s song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” would be an example of a more elaborate and sensuous expression of the same sort of thought. It’s also a feeling I tend to get each fall, which may help spur my Septober Energy, where I set out to harvest what creative energy I have.