Happy Birthday, Emily Dickinson!

by Elouise


Yes, it’s Emily’s 154th birthday anniversary today! I’d hoped the Google Gang would mark the day with one of their short and fancy celebration videos for all us Googlers. Too bad. They missed their chance.

I barely know Emily. I’ve never studied American poetry formally. Nor do I write as an expert on Emily. I don’t have years of reading her poetry behind me. I’m rather new at this–since last year. Yet Emily has pulled me into her orbit.

How odd that poetry as unusual as hers would one day become a powerful voice for women and men everywhere. Not because of its beautiful cadence or graceful language, but because of its truth. Doled out in fits and starts. Abrupt and mysterious. Demanding intense engagement from us, or nothing at all.

Take it or leave it. She really doesn’t seem to care. She’s putting her life into words, almost forcing them out one or two or three at a time. Pausing. Gasping. Leaving poems unfinished. Unresolved. She doesn’t make things easy for us as readers.

Emily defies analysis, as do many of her poems. It’s easier to analyze literary style, tempo and meter, or allusions to other authors than to look into the mirror of each poem and find often stinging truth about her world and ours.

One small poem in the collection I read daily tells me what she’s up to. I think she succeeded magnificently. So much so, that sometimes I’m not sure I hear her Truth.

Instead, I’m challenged to tell you my truth. What I hear, and how it connects with me. Emily’s vulnerability, conveyed through her enigmatic, sometimes painful writing, invites me to make my truth visible. For this, I’m grateful.

Here’s the small poem. It captures what Emily is doing  in each of her poems. Not just in terms of content, but also in her poetic style.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –

c. 1868

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

The challenge when reading Emily is summed up in the first line of her poem. She tells all the Truth, but tells it slant. Which means, dear friends, that Emily challenges us to listen slant. With hearts and minds open to light from the Truth, one dazzling beam at a time. Or risk going blind.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 10 December 2016
Image found at jadamink.com