I found myself thinking about Emily Dickinson recently after running across some poems in a notebook I had written years ago when I took my very first writing class. Even though I was only interested in writing narrative nonfiction, that first class required students to write poetry, a short story, and an essay. I silently balked at having to write poems, but I read some of Dickinson’s poetry during that class and was struck by how her sparse, simple poems evoked so much emotion.
I still have Emily Dickinson: Collected Poems on my bookshelf, which describes Dickinson (1830-1886), who lived in New England, as a recluse who wrote a body of verse unmatched in its vision. Although only seven of her poems were published during her lifetime, the later discovery of her “letter to the world”, which contained more than 1700 poems, established her reputation as one of the greatest poets of the English language.
The Dickinson “Homestead”
I never forgot two of her poems I read during that class. Even though I didn't know them by heart, I always remembered the gist of the beginning lines of the poems. Dickinson seldom gave titles to her work, but one poem was about death which began, “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” and the other was about a snake which began, “A narrow fellow in the grass.” So, I looked them up and read them again. Here is one of them:
I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.
The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.
I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable,-and then
There interposed a fly,
With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.
The image below shows a page from Dickinson’s original work. It’s difficult to read, but you can see that the right-hand page is the beginning of the poem shown above. I thought it was wonderful to see her handwriting and to imagine her sitting alone, diligently writing poem after poem in that huge Amherst, Massachusetts, home so long ago.
Thinking of Emily Dickinson brings to mind how easily our writing life can take a turn when we least expect it. Although I didn’t have an interest in poetry when I signed up for that first class, I took the class anyway because it was the only evening writing class available at the time. So, reluctantly, I began writing and studying poetry.
The poetry quickly drew me in. I began to understand the power of words and language in poetry, and how even the most sparse poem can impact the reader. It soon became a joy to work for hours on a little poem and finally get it exactly the way I wanted it. It was mentally freeing to transfer what I truly felt in my head into that little cluster of words. I liked the way it allowed me to finally get my thoughts about bits and pieces of my life that had been in my head forever, onto paper.
I fell in love with writing poetry and when I finished the class, rather than turning back to the nonfiction writing project I intended to work on, I kept writing and studying poets and poetry for the next few years. Eventually, three of my poems won first place in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest, for which I received the Zola Award for Poetry and a cash prize. I mention this only to highlight the fact that, as writers, we never know when a fork in the road of our writing life might present itself, or where it might lead us.
Even if we are doubtful at first, it can expand the horizon of how we see and employ our writing. It can lead us into a completely new world of learning and discovery.
"Hope" is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea,
Yet never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
(The images above, as well as detailed biographical and historical information about Dickinson and her work can be found at: http://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/.)