Emily Dickinson – a breath of fresh air

dickinsonIt is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the influence of Emily Dickinson’s poetry on subsequent generations of male and female poets writing in English or indeed any other language throughout the world. Although she wrote almost 2000 poems, only a handful were published in her lifetime. Scholars have since written extensively on the themes of her poetry: the beauty of flowers and nature, the inevitability of death, her Christian faith and what she called the undiscovered continent or the landscape of the spirit.

Her preoccupation with the mystery and complexity of human consciousness brings with it a desire to shape her poetry in a truly revolutionary manner. Her verse is renowned for its unconventional syntax, for the use of dashes and irregular capitalisation. It would be easy to dismiss this as an idiosyncratic fad: but that would be to ignore the true character of her genius. The syntax, the form of the poem on the page, represents a deliberate challenge to the status quo; and the freedom Dickinson demands in her verse is the freedom to breathe and to express her breath as she feels it. When contemporary readers of her poetry suggested she might make concessions by adding a few commas and full stops instead of her dashes, she was adamant that such a practice would destroy her poetry.

The poem below was written in homage to a lady who, in all her modesty, tore up the poetry rule book. It was a truly remarkable act of emancipation. As with earlier poems on this blog in homage to Marianne Moore and John Berryman, I sought to convey my admiration for Dickinson’s work by adopting, as far as I could, the vocabulary and the stylistic devices typified in her poetry. An impossible task! But this was done in the spirit of those artists who set up their easel in front of an old master in the National Gallery and seek to reproduce a painting in order to learn new techniques and appreciate the challenges faced by the original painter. A learning curve that can bring knowledge and skill, but alas, not genius.


Emily Dickinson

On the cusp of the Night –
Hands clasped as though
in Prayer – she observes
the last flicker of the Candle

Light’s demise – tinged
with the scent of Beeswax –
signals no Death
of the Imagination

Silence and Darkness:
these could be loved –
eternally – intimately
No human Consolation

between the cold white
Sheets – but Words warmed
on her Breath – mind Forms
of companionable Poetry

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