Emily Dickinsons


Dickinson, Apple Inc., 2019

From Boston Review:

The cover of the little book is green with pink lilies. Love Poems by Emily Dickinson, published by Peter Pauper Press in 1950, opens with a short biographical note. Born in Amherst in 1830, dead in her childhood home at age fifty-six, the author of these poems was an “odd but devoted child and sister, thoughtful neighbor, [and] sentimental spinster.” Above all else she was a disappointed lover, having met a man who “ignited her like a sulphur match on sandpaper” but whom “could not or would not marry her.” In her yearning, Dickinson took to the page. As the years wore on and her heartache wore deep, she became odder and more sentimental, as is to be expected of a “sensitive maiden lady with big emotions and strange words to express them in.”

This is not my Emily Dickinson. My Emily Dickinson is the Emily Dickinson of Adrienne Rich’s 1976 “Vesuvius at Home.” Rich’s Dickinson was not a woman immobilized by the unrequited or forbidden love of a man. She was an artist who knew the full dimensions of her power—as “genius knows itself.” Her seclusion represented a practical choice to control “the disposal of her time” and to practice the “necessary economies” of an artist. She stole the time and space to read, think, and write that would not have otherwise been given her. Hers was a life “deliberately organized” to align with her vocation as a poet. Such choices by men have been congratulated as signs of seriousness and authenticity; in Dickinson, these choices have been inscribed as “girlish ignorance, feminine lack of professionalism,” and the poet herself has been turned into a “sentimental object”—our pink lily with big emotions.

My Emily Dickinson is also the Emily Dickinson of Susan Howe’s 1985 My Emily Dickinson. Howe’s Dickinson was first and foremost a reader—of the Brownings, of the Brontës, of Charles Dickens. She was an artist who lived “eternally on intellectual borders” and whose “intellectual vigilance allowed very little to escape her notice.” An embroiderer of words, a “poet-scholar,” Howe’s Dickinson, like Rich’s, knew full well that her combinations represented a new poetic grammar. It was a grammar that drew from the male discursive forms that surrounded her, but which could not be reduced to these. My Emily Dickinson is, in this way, also the Emily Dickinson of Martha Nell Smith’s Rowing in Eden (1992) and, with Ellen Louise Hart, Open Me Carefully (1998) whose life and work was forged in her abiding love for other women. Mine is a Dickinson who felt, in the presence of her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Dickinson, that she “need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language.”

Recently my Emily Dickinson showed up on television. The first season of Apple TV’s Dickinson, created by showrunner Alena Smith, portrays a Dickinson in her early twenties who has begun to discover her poetic power but whose life has been scripted by patriarchy. This script does not include genius.

“Emily Dickinson Escapes”, Lynne Feeley, Boston Review