6 Reasons Why Dickinson Will Be Your Grandchildren’s Favorite Classic Poet

1830.

Whew. That is a long, long time ago by most American standards. We’re talking approximately 54 years after the Declaration of Independence. But—1830 also brags as being the birth year of that throwing-a-stone-in-a-midnight-forest-and-hearing-it-hit-water-somewhere-30-minutes-later and most excellent of nebulous poets, Emily “The Boss” Dickinson.

(Envisioning her throwing a whittled-down pencil at my head and saying, “Emily ‘The Earl’ Dickinson—get it right, Millennial”)

*Disclaimer* According to The Atlantic, I’m actually a Generation Xer and Millennial, and maybe another, and maybe I’m TBD; I don’t know, but go with it.

According to the genius-charting calendar, Dickinson’s most prolific years were the early 1860’s (no surprise that it correlates with the stark societal upheaval of the Civil War)—but mark my words—we’ve only begun to comprehend the unfolding of her legacy.

So, why will Emily Dickinson triumph over other traditional poets in an ultimately uncertain future?

Observe:

1 Volume. According to the Emily Dickinson Museum, Dickinson wrote almost 1800 poems. Hate some of them? You’ll love others. The inquisitive, exploratory nature of her craft paired with extraordinary poetic versatility make for a massive canon of works that by sheer number has something for every reader. Even today, those who don’t dabble in poetry still snatch some of her lines as elucidatory, pitch-perfect quotes.

2 Style:

            Form. Can’t deal with the underlying music fueling common hymn meter? Just flip the page. Dickinson toyed with many liberties of form—short, long, striking enjambment, abrupt pauses, simply dangling the reader in thin air for eternity, and so forth. These decisions (ironically enough, the very decisions which limited her appeal in her own time) will be what keeps interest in her works for centuries to come.

            Length. And I’m not just referring to the number of lines but also her arguably abbreviated phrasing. There’s no trailing off into purple prose with Dickinson; she’s not crushing on the sound of her own sweeping, melodious refrains (which often marks a dated poem). She concentrates her power into poems that meet the needs of busy, distracted, tech-driven readers. (Have I already lost your attention? (gasps) A Dickinson poem wouldn’t.)  

3 Topics. Exhausted with a poem about a bird (gasps again) and ready for a masterclass on grief/love/remorse/change/eternity/I.could.go.on.and.on? In totality, Dickinson’s works tip their hat to every timeless facet of humanity.

4 Shape-shifting. Dickinson’s poems have the phenomenal ability to evolve based on when/where/how you read them. Sure, you can pull plenty of depth and variable meaning from tons of popular poetry. However, when taking into account the ambiguous nature of many of her works, the potent metaphor across others, and, in particular, Dickinson’s left-behind variants (see C. Miller, E.D. Poems: As She Preserved Them), the poems continue to shift interpretation as the “ages steal.”  

5 The outcast voice. From a wealthy, educated, protestant, white lady?! Okay, I hear you, but remember her place as a woman in a male-dominated world (much less in a creative field)—and maybe add in her misunderstood genius, the possibility of a cloaked sexuality, her unique spirituality, or possibly a third eye in the back of her head, or anything else—but something was going down with Dickinson that allowed her to capture the voice of the individual perfectly in a number of her works. She knew what it meant to be different, and for a world finally starting to own beauty in diversity, poems only chronicling the views of the old guard (exception: Walt Whitman, yes?) may lose their appeal.

6 The old myths are at last reaching the incinerator. Popular tales told after Dickinson’s death that made her interchangeably a sad, lovelorn casualty, a pocket-sized, trembling nun, or a too-brilliant-and-frail-for-the-world-so-spies-on-it-from-her-window-creeper have finally been thrown upon the logs. As we come to know Dickinson through glimpses of her own candor (see her letters, too) or through the eyes of increasingly open-minded, diverse scholars who give her free reign to dance, we have begun to love her more.     

6+ Her work is positively dashing.

            (Forgive me—I had to—)

Looking for a holiday read that nestles perfectly within those expansive bursts of 4-5 minutes of freedom?

I got you.

(Grammarian Disclaimer: “I’ve got you” didn’t have the oomph)

My without-reservations-recommendation for the top of your holiday reading list is

(drum roll, Griswold-style)

Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them, edited by Cristanne Miller!

I’m sure you’re surprised.

Sincerely though:

  1. Reading a Dickinson poem only takes about 2-3 minutes, even if you’re thoughtful about letting the words soak.
  2. Working that poem over in your mind afterward—while engaging with the world around you—is an incredible way to draw even more meaning and more relevance from the lines.

So, why this book of Dickinson poems?

For a poet whose innovative style was ‘normalized’ by editors both before and after her death, Miller’s book provides a refreshing glimpse into Dickinson’s extraordinary body of work, without the filter.

While you’re discovering some of her best poems are ones you’ve maybe never heard (or just honestly never understood—am I right?), or seeing old favorites afresh, you’ll find the poet just as she left much of her work: in process.

That “in process” portion is what makes this particular edition of Dickinson’s work so vital. It makes both the poetry and the poet accessible.

For those of you who write but have yet to reach Dickinson status, flipping the pages and observing as a literary giant moves between mediocre word choice, revisions of phrasing for clarity, and the like, not only humanizes Dickinson—but it reminds us that even for the legends, the writing craft still has an element of work, of edit, and of revision.  

Each page captures methodical tinkering with ever-evolving art. Substitutions and variants are placed outside each “completed” poem, and perusing her alternate approaches is an insightful tool for deciphering poetic intent.

The meticulous annotations provided by Miller are easy to follow and gift the poems with extraordinary context. The notes include everything from connections to popular literature of the day to the poem recipients during Dickinson’s lifetime.

As for topics to stoke your interest, Dickinson’s scope is infinite. She targets an astounding array of subjects with a surprisingly modern eye, complete with candor and wit. Be prepared to see yourself reflected as you read, to snicker at the precise characterization of even the most complex elements of life, and to feel tugged in by her frequent use of first-person form.

Pair this book with a well-researched biography, such as Sewall’s, The Life of Emily Dickinson, or Emily’s own letters (careful, many were ‘edited’ meticulously by ‘someone’), and you’ll be further caught in the intrigue of the Dickinson family’s curious narrative. 

Wishing you and your family (curious/intrigue/and all) a lovely Thanksgiving.

Excerpt from The Other Dickinson

The chill and ease of the bent wood soothed my palms. The paint on the oval top—lit with color across a polished brown, before—had faded considerably, leaving the single five-petaled flower in its center muted and worn. Its two rows of encircling vines appeared more as bared shadows than the lush greenery they once were. I found a new seam—and ran my finger down it—a single crack between the slats. I caught and pulled at a splinter on the wood—delaying—until the silence waded heavy enough to drown the noise of memory, or until enough of the daylight receded from the busy damask walls surrounding me—so their patterns may no longer intrude.

Fingering the metal latches on the edges, I lifted the top of the hatbox—then stopped, leaving the lid suspended—imagining the contents as her—as the inside of a body, filling and plumping with a gasp of air.