Sunday, January 23, 2011

What Emily Dickinson has to do with my blog...

Emily Dickinson is one of my favorite poets, and the title for this blog came from a poem by her. I think a lot of people my age find Dickinson inaccessible for her rather archaic styling and use of meter. It took me a long time and the happy convergence of some good English classes, Shakespeare directors, and writing professors before I was able to appreciate the value of meter. Dickinson wrote primarily in different hymn meters. "Amazing Grace" is a good example of a common meter, like the one she (roughly) used for "Hope is the thing with feathers." I do not consider myself foremost a poet, but I can say that the time I was assigned to write a poem in common hymn meter it came out sounding like a bad jingle. And I worked at it, I promise. So the fact that Dickinson can simultaneously use and subvert this wickedly difficult form and in the process write such unexpected and radiant poems is rather amazing to me.

And she was never recognized during her lifetime. Posthumous speculations posit that an anxiety disorder like agoraphobia may have been the cause of her eccentricities and reclusive habits, and scholars have mined her poems and letters for psychoanalytic details. I'm less interested with the precise nature of her disorder than with the brilliant glimpses of victory and struggle that emerge in her work. Her distillations of triumph, despair, love, dejection, fear, and hope ring true to me after more than a century and several changes of aesthetic taste. This metaphor of hope in particular lodged itself in my head even during times when I was about to give up. As a result, it seemed like the perfect title. Check out a beautifully illustrated anthology called My Letter to the World and Other Poems (Visions in Poetry) by Isabelle Arsenault for a haunting visual interpretation of her work.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.


  1. Stunning! It absolutely made me RUN to my harp and try to conjure up some sort of melodic underpinning. I have a humongous book of Emily Dickinson's poems, though admittedly, I haven't plowed through more than a page or two of it. I think I'll have to go back and explore.........
    Much love,

  2. One thing that seems to have gotten lost in this "modern" world we live in is the art of poetry. Thanks for the reminder of how a few well written words can inspire and bring forth emotion which can be so good for the soul.

  3. Emily Dickinson was Grandma Joey’s poet as well. I remember a volume or two of her poems on our family bookshelf.

  4. Thank you for sharing this Beth. Cindy and I visited E.D.'s home in Amherst last summer. We were both moved. This is a beautiful way to begin your blog. -- Jeff U.

  5. Did we listen to an interview with a Dickinson scholar on Fresh Air/NPR last summer? I didn't know you were such a Dickinson fan! I always remember the picture book "Emily" when I read her writing. I went up to your room to find it again tonight and reread it. I had forgotten the girl's mother plays the piano for Emily which is near to my heart, of course. :) I'll bring you the book when I see you in February. Thanks for sharing your writing with us!

  6. I am so glad you have started a blog!! I actually used "hope is a thing with feathers" in one of my posts a couple of years ago. Love this poem and it very much speaks to me for so many reasons. Welcome to blogging! Another thing for our Wed. meetings!! (-: Beautifully done!

  7. Great idea, now riddle me this:
    Why did Emily Dickinson's chicken cross the road?

  8. Uncle Donny--

    Hmm...was it because Emily wouldn't leave her room?

  9. Have you noticed the "Hope is the thing..." in the Cancer Institute? Maybe you could come visit me and we could take a picture to post.... auntie

  10. Nope ... because it would not stop for death

  11. I like your answer better, Uncle Donny. Georgie and I had a nice chuckle. Auntie Nancy: Actually, I first saw the poem in the Cancer Institute, although I had been a Dickinson fan for awhile. However, I believe they slightly misquote the poem--modern sensibilities often revise it as, "and sings the tune without words" which doesn't keep the meter. I'll have to check again... However, your idea of taking a picture of it is very good. :)