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Works of a great American poet still relevant and tangible today

April 10, 2014

The skill of the poet is to grasp a subject and describe in as few, well-chosen, thought-provoking and illuminating words as possible. Unlike a novelist who can choose to speak in a simple or extravagant way, the poet tries to say what they have to say in a terse verse. Novelists can ramble on at length, describing a scene in minute detail, utilizing the luxury of that form to give the reader a very clear picture of whatever the author has to say. The poet attempts to get the reader’s imagination perked in a searing, quick-flash format, which will leave the reader thirsting for more, but with the caveat that they must use their imagination to understand and get beyond the poet’s message.

Poetry is a very subtle art, and it is not easy at all, for most. I have had many students who rebuffed all efforts to enhance their poetic self, generally out of fear that they would “do it wrong,” or otherwise feel inadequate with this limiting form. The lucky and beautiful message to all past, present and future poets is that there is no wrong, only goodness and release in poetry. There should be no hesitation in anyone to give the poetic art a whirl, and to be satisfied with whatever manifests in the effort. It is all good!

Today’s book is a collection of work by one of the most prolific American poets of all times. “Emily Dickinson – Collected Poems” is an adventure into the mind, heart and world of one of the greatest poets in human history, in my humble opinion anyway. The collection was put together by Courage Classics and the Running Press Book Publishers out of Philadelphia, Pa. in 1991. The collection was edited by Peter Siegenthaler and takes works from several other older collections dating back several decades.

Emily Dickinson wrote these poems in the late 1800s, and only seven of them were ever published during her lifetime. Emily Dickinson became what she became in her worldly position posthumously. The life she apparently lived as reflected by the poetry abounded with worldly experience and rich texture, though in actuality is was extraordinarily simple, and almost completely reclusive by the end.

Emily Dickinson was born on Dec. 10, 1830, in Amherst, Mass. She attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, but only for one year. Throughout her life, she seldom left her home and visitors were few. The people with whom she did come in contact, however, had an enormous impact on her poetry. Charles Wadworth, a reverend, Otis Lord, a judge and Samuel Bowles a newspaper editor were all potential targets for her love, and topics for her poetry. Other topics she wrote extensively on were nature, life and death, and human emotions of all manner and variety.

By the 1860s, Dickinson lived in almost complete isolation from the outside world, but actively maintained many correspondences and read widely. She spent a great deal of this time with her family. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was actively involved in state and national politics, serving in Congress for one term. Her brother, Austin, who attended law school and became an attorney, lived next door with his wife, Susan Gilbert. Dickinson’s younger sister, Lavinia, also lived at home for her entire life in similar isolation. Lavinia and Austin were not only family, but intellectual companions for Dickinson during her lifetime. They were some of the very few human contacts she maintained or had at all in the end of her days.

How a woman who rarely ever ventured beyond her own front yard could write thousands of poems on all manner of worldly topics is an amazing thing to try to understand. She was widely read, and did keep regular correspondence with friends all over the place. That is a large clue no doubt. Dickinson’s poetry is very real, tangible, accessible and beautiful. She never titled them herself. Other editors did so, after her death. One that strikes me each time I read it is:

He ate and drank the precious words,
His Spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings Was but a book.
What liberty
A loosened spirit brings!

Loosen up your spirit and fertilize your interest in poetry. There is plenty of it about the sea, though she only visited a very few times as a child, human nature and emotions, and the natural world. Run out of your yard and grab a copy of “Emily Dickinson – Collected Poems” and find a little respite with a lyrical touch.

Enjoy and read on!

Kerry Wholey is a freelance writer living in Narragansett.

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