The Poems (We Think) We Know: Emily Dickinson


Alexandra Socarides in The LA Review of Books:

It’s one thing to say that Dickinson’s poems are uncertain, or complicated, or contradictory (all of which they are), but it’s an entirely other thing to compound that uncertainty with my own. In my basement, visitors wanted to connect with me by reciting the first line of a Dickinson poem that clearly summed something up for them. I was happy to let them do that, even if I was a little freaked out by the whole experience.

But, in the end, Dickinson got me, as she always does.

One of the mysterious things about poetry is how a reader can walk away from a poem with what he or she thinks is a clear sense of its message or moral, when really the poem itself says something far more complicated than that. One famous example is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” which tends to be read as a call for people to strike out on their own independent course, when really Frost marks no substantive difference between the two roads in his poem. (In an episode of the first season of “Orange Is the New Black,” Piper Chapman explains as much to her cellmates, who are highly annoyed by her need to complicate the meaning of the poem for them.) A similar thing happens with “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” The message of this poem is almost always taken to be that it is a mistake to seek fame, that it is preferable to be a nobody than a somebody. Coupled with the knowledge that Dickinson only published ten poems in her lifetime, this poem becomes (often for aspiring writers) a statement of artistic intent, a declaration of the joys of private, anonymous art making and a rejection of publicity. But in order to make this poem into a manifesto on the pleasures of the private world versus the dreariness of the public world, one has to make a variety of assumptions about both Dickinson and poetry.

More here.