Today is the 177th anniversary of Emily Dickinson’s birth. I’ve made no secret of my love for Dickinson: were it not for her (well, and some incredible teachers I was incredibly lucky enough to have), I wouldn’t be where I am today, doing what I am today. Though this does sometimes make me shake my fist at her, 99.999% of the time, I’m grateful.
I’ve written here about how Dickinson’s work first called me to poetry, but my feeling of connection, I admit, goes to an eerie level beyond this: I was born on the 94th anniversary of her death, and — the story behind this is very long and complicated, but absolutely, I promise you, absolutely true — had my grandfather’s last name not been changed, my legal name would, in fact, be — Emily Dickinson (so serious about this one. So seriously no lie). People have only halfway joked before that perhaps my devotion to Dickinson has led me to this life as a single and childless five-months-away-from-thirty year old, but I must say that, on the contrary, Dickinson’s work has instead helped me to survive this life — or, rather, how the public frogs see this life. This is largely because it seems that many of the expectations for How A Woman’s Life Should Be that Dickinson railed against, both in her poetry and her public and private lives, haven’t changed a great deal in the intervening 177 years. As background evidence foreshadowing the point I am soon (or, well, eventually) going to make, I offer this story of the eighteen year old freshman who came into my office and announced that she was engaged and, therefore, leaving college. I tried to convince her that she should stay in school — she was a good writer, she was bright, she had interesting and fresh ideas — but the student responded that she didn’t want to be one of Those Women (emphasis in the original), and didn’t want to grow to be old, sad, and lonely like yours truly (who was, incidentally, 25 at the time). I cannot tell you how often I’ve been called an old maid or a spinster (likely), or called out as a crazy cat lady (proudly), or even told that I need to “just find someone and settle” (very much not likely). Dickinson’s work has always been stunningly powerful to me, but is now something else: a comfort, a conversation with someone who understands.
I notice, at this point, that I seem to be speaking interchangably about Dickinson’s work and Dickinson’s life. Many teachers balk at the very idea of discussing a poet’s biography in class, and I fully admit that it makes me more than a little bit queasy as well. However, there are times when I think that not discussing the life behind the lines shortchanges a class, and stops at the quick some very interesting and absolutely necessary conversations and considerations about art, and about social responsibility, and about the power we give language and art, sometimes over social responsibility; for instance, what are we as readers to do with Eliot’s anti-Semetic sentiments? And if Anne Sexton writes a poem about the actual abuse her daughter Linda suffered at her hands, are we to respect that as art, to the point of not taking responsibility of stopping what we know to be true?
I think that, when it comes to Dickinson, it is absolutely necessary to discuss her biography in the classroom. This is because I believe that Dickinson’s biography tells a more powerful — and important — story about the position of women and also of the experimental in the poetic world better than any lecture about her use of dashes and capitalization ever would. I’ve been thinking, on this anniversary of her death, about the thousand deaths and rebirths and re-deaths her work, and the story of her life, have lived through in these years. When I teach Dickinson, I always ask the class to tell me a little bit about her, and, unfailingly, the class comes up with the same biography: she was a madwoman who locked herself in an attic after her father chased away her lover. This story infuriates me, if only because everything that comes after “attic” is a complete and total fabrication. I’m not here to argue that Dickinson was completely sane, because a.) what poet — or person, for that matter — is?, and b.) what’s the fun in that? What fun would the world be if we were all marvelously and stably on-kilter at all times? I am here to argue that this narrative is only the tip of the very dangerous iceberg of the very dangerous process of “romanticizing” and rewriting Dickison.
I move next to two photos of Dickinon. There is, of course, first this one, presenting a softer and more “feminized” version of Dickinson’s image — and, of course, pretty much completely fabricated:
And then there’s this, the real Dickinson:
She’s not softened and curled and ruffled. There’s not a smile, but a stare. And this is the real woman, not the false goddess we’ve worked so hard to create, self-exhiled by heart-break into her attic, where she wrote poems pining for a lost suitor who, in truth, never existed (please note that I’m not saying there were never suitors — Lord knows there were, from “Master” and beyond). Perhaps we made this myth because it is easier, more explicable to explain than a woman who was quite happy being alone, and working and working and working, tirelessly, endlessly, on what she saw of her gift. Perhaps we made this myth because it’s more comfortable, more palatable than the vision of the genius in her attic. Or perhaps we made this myth because, somehow, putting her into the category of the expected — or, rather, what is expected — makes it easier to deal with the undeniable power of her words, the voice which comes like lightning from the clear sky with its sudden shock and electrical power. Perhaps this gives us reasons. There were, of course, real reasons for her real existance. She had terrible allergies, and dyed fabric hurt her skin — thus the white wardrobe. As for staying in the attic, there’s the fact that she had poor eyesight and a kidney disease, and also the story she told her niece: “this” — the locked door — “is freedom.”
Because Dickinson didn’t follow what was expected, we seem to have forced her into a role we accept: for a woman, it’s easier to accept jilting than devotion to her art. The same goes for her work, which was brutally normalized, shoved into convention. When I teach Dickinson, I show a “normalized” version of one of her poems to the class, then follow it with the rightful version. The students are always amazed to see how Dickinson’s orignal poem allows for windows into possibilities. There’s no one reading of Dickinson’s poets. Her very syntax, and those beautiful dashes, bring the text to a level beyond the singular, allowing multiple readings of each line, each phrase, each word: layer upon layer upon layer, Dickinson’s work “dwells in possibility.” Normalizing her poetry, and her life, may make each more palatable, but far less extraordinary, and far more empty of the promise and possibility that Dickinson presents and represents: if a poem can have so many possibilities and potentialities, well, why not? And why not a woman, too?