|This Emily Dickinson doll wears - surprise! - a white dress.|
Quick, when you hear the name Emily Dickinson, what do you see? A ghostly white dress? Or maybe a strangely skittish person who never had the nerve to leave her house? Over the decades, such myths have been faithfully preserved by various books and movies (and even a very funny poem by Billy Collins). Today, though, intrepid scholars have started to sweep away some of the cobwebs that have persisted in clinging to our image of this great American poet.
By the time she was in her fifties, Dickinson was, in fact, a bold literary artist who liberally peppered her work with weird dashes, seemingly random capital letters and an abundance of experimental rhymes. Pretty radical acts for someone who was supposed to be such a shy mouse.
Despite the story of her sister finding 800 small handmade booklets of poems after Dickinson died at the age of 55, her literary genius wasn’t a complete surprise. In her lifetime, Dickinson penned well over 1,000 letters (many of which sound like poems themselves) and sent her actual poems to close friends, including her beloved sister-in-law, Susan, who received 250 of them.
The myth that Dickinson always wore white also isn’t true: Photographs show that she did indeed wear other colors. And while her one remaining dress is white, the garment had a practical purpose, being outfitted with a pocket where she could always keep paper and pencil close at hand. Since these slips of paper had to be small enough to fit into the pocket, she sometimes composed her work on chocolate wrappers and pieces of newspaper, not to mention an assortment of new and used envelopes, which are beautifully displayed in Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings, a coffee table size book by Marta L. Werner and Jen Bervin, that features images of all 52 of Dickinson’s envelope poems.
Thumbing through The Gorgeous Nothings is a revelatory experience. With each page, I was struck by the fact that every line was written not by some ethereal oddity but by a living woman, as real as the members of my own Tuesday afternoon writing group. Adding to the sense that this genius was a human being, is the sight of her handwriting (which was notoriously hard to read) and the cross outs, erasures and inserted words that reflect her exacting standards for her self-expression. The primary pleasure of the collection, though, just may be the sheer beauty of seeing the fragments laid out on pages that highlight their unique shapes (sometimes torn and often fully opened to reveal the insides of the envelopes), many of which resemble autumn leaves or snowflakes or birds in flight.
It makes sense that such an innovative poet would choose to compose her work on shapes she created herself. I can imagine an image or phrase popping into her head while she was doing something else (like pruning a plant in her conservatory) and how eager she must have been to scribble down her idea before it flew from her head.
As in her more polished poems, the envelope writings show her pondering big questions that are relevant today (and always). In one she wonders if facts become dreams when we ignore them. She also asks if “Death warrants” are “An Enginery of Equity,” and ponders different types of people, noting that some are “shallow intentionally.”
According to Ellen Louise Hart, a passionate Dickinson scholar, such depths of mind suggest that far from being a timid creature, the elusive poet stayed at home a lot simply because she needed more time to write. After all, it would be awfully hard to compose an average of 300 poems in one year (as Dickinson may have done in 1862) and still keep up with a full schedule of social calls. At any rate, it’s not like she kept herself locked in a crypt. She was, Hart stated in a recent lecture, a nature lover who relished noting the bird that “came down the Walk” as well as mushrooms, which she referred to on an envelope as “the Elf of Plants.”
As the introductory essays in The Gorgeous Nothings point out, studying Dickinson’s life and work can lead to as many new questions as answers. For example, was there any significance to the names she wrote on the outside of some of her envelope poems? Did she write these pieces with a particular individual in mind? And was she just being frugal in repurposing envelopes that she received, or did she somehow feel freer when she had such a small space to fill, as opposed to a full-sized empty page?
Of course one of the most common questions is to wonder why this trail-blazing poet wasn’t more ambitious. She didn’t, for example, seek publication. Was she happy writing for herself and friends or did she fear the scrutiny of less sympathetic readers?
Perhaps the answer is that her life, as it was, was rich enough. Can a life lived through the eyes of an expansive mind be considered too confined? Emily Dickinson was equipped with a scrap of paper, a stub of pencil, and time to write. Maybe that’s all she needed to travel far and wide.
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If you’re hungry for more detailed information on Emily Dickinson’s life and work, read these:
Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin. Christine Burgin/New Directions Books, 2013.
Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith. Paris Press, 1998.