Saturday, July 7, 2012

From the Trenches: In Love with Words, Afraid of People

Some writers are so afraid of being rejected or judged in any way, they won't even let others see their work. This was the case for one American woman who would go on to become one of the most celebrated poets of all time. It's only through a quirk of fate that any of us know she existed -- upon her death, she instructed that all of her writings should be burned to ash. 

Lucky for us, that's not what happened. 

Emily Dickinson lived in Massachusetts, and in her 56 years on Earth she barely saw any of the world. In fact, she barely saw what was going on outside her own room. This is where she spent most of her time, usually wearing white clothing, scribbling away furiously at her poems and her letters. Though she was a homebody who reportedly did not like to greet guests who came to the family house, she was a prolific letter-writer who maintained many close friendships through correspondence. 

But most of her time was spent writing poetry, usually on the topic of mortality (which seemed to fascinate her). Dickinson even put together collections of her own poems, binding them by hand. She never published those poetry books.

Meeting the World

During her lifetime, Dickinson published two poems...both anonymously. No one knows exactly why she was so reluctant to share her work, but some speculate that she received early criticism for her poetry early in life. More likely, Dickinson didn't publish for the same reason she didn't come out of her room -- she was painfully introverted and reclusive. Being an introverted writer is a bit like being a fish who wants to fly. But Dickinson could have been discouraged because her anonymous poems were edited heavily before being put into print; editors removed her dashes and changed some of her punctuations. 

In any time, Emily Dickinson's style of poetry was unique. She didn't exactly observe rules of punctuation or capitalization, her lines were short and her rhyming scale was strange. After she died in 1886, her sister Lavinia discovered a treasure trove of nearly 2,000 poems in Emily's room.

They, too, were heavily edited before they were published in 1890, where they met with rather ugly reviews for about 60 years. It wasn't until an unedited version of her poetry was released in 1955 that Emily Dickinson became recognized as the genius poet she truly was. Now, the critics can't praise her enough, and Dickinson's poetry is a must-read in high school and college classes around the world. 

They're always published in their original, unedited, style.

Emily Dickinson worked in the poetry trenches in private, keeping all of her beautiful words to herself out of shyness, or fear, or reasons we can't understand. But the woman who was always writing of death found a way to become immortal. Today, Dickinson's voice remains strong and her own singular style will be preserved in print for ever. She didn't share much of herself with the world, but at least she did share her words. Fear kept Emily inside her bedroom. The important thing is that it didn't keep her from writing.

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  1. Wow! I can identify with poor Emily Dickinson, I feel like I am in exactly the same boat as her! I'm a social phobic poet as well! lol I don't have any friends in the 'real world' and I can't tell you the last time I even went outside. I'm trying to find my voice and express myself online though, which feels more comfortable for me :)
    Great post Jade, I am really enjoying reading your blog.

  2. The Internet makes it possible to connect with people everywhere; that's what I love about it. Considering how much Emily liked to write letters, I think if she was around today she would probably be on Twitter all the time!