Emily Dickinson: Untitled, Unregulated, and Unchained

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You know her name. You’ve seen it following quoted lines of poetry; printed on greeting cards, cross-stitched and framed on your grandmother’s bathroom wall, and engraved into silver lockets. Regarded as one of the greatest American poets, you are no stranger to her work. You know her name. Say it.

Emily Dickinson.

And boy, was she a wierdo! …admittedly, most geniuses are. Emily Dickinson dedicated most of her privileged, reclusive life to her art. She employed a brilliance for lyricism, unconventional form, syntactical experimentation, and set the course for possibilities of poetic craft. The use of fragmentation in her poetry cuts away excessive wordiness, and gets right to the heart of the matter. This compressed lyric utilization with it’s distinctive refusal to conform became a trademark of modernist poetry in the 20th century. So, yeah, she’s kind of a big deal.

Most of Dickinson’s work relies heavily on the musical quality of her verse. One approach to organizing her poems was writing in the structure of the “fourteener”. This meter is the form of nursery rhymes, ballads, and church hymns. Ballads were originally used for storytelling, where the lyrics were set to music. When reading Dickinson’s poetry aloud, one can easily pick up on the rhythmic quality composing the images that tell the story. The provided example of Emily Dickinson’s poetry read aloud has no music, but the animation and gentle cadence of the speaker’s voice provide a melodic undertone for the story.

Along with the selected reading above, Dickinson’s work reflects a strong reverence for the natural world. This appreciation for nature is conveyed through a number of references and reoccurring images. In poem #627,

“The Bees-became as Butterfli...

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...gh I than He- may longer live
He longer must- than I-
For I have but the power to kill,
Without- the power to die-” (p.1691-2)

One thing is clear, and that is Dickinson’s intention to protect and guard “The Owner”. The ending of this poem resonates with the power of the gun, as an instrument of the muse. The tragedy of the inanimate object is that it will never die, because it has never lived. Destined to spend eternity passed from one owner to the next, this Loaded Gun is only worth something when utilized by another.

Emily Dickinson wrote hundreds of short poems in her lifetime. Having read only a very small percentage of her work, it’s clear to me the recognized genius of this woman is well deserved, and that I have more to learn from her. Dickinson’s poetry touches of life, death, nature, religion, sexuality, identity, gender roles, and that’s just the surface.

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