Much was made of our "half-cracked" Emily Dickinson by feminist poets in the 1970's and 1980's. The essays and poems are familiar to those of us who were so grateful to encounter new perspectives about this genius of American poetry.
For example, I remember finding Adrienne Rich's "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson" in the collection of essays, titled On Lies, Secrets and Silence (1979). Truly, after reading that essay, my life was changed forever.
In that piece, Rich writes:
"I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed.
"....Poets, even, are not always acquainted with the full dimensions of her work, or the sense one gets...of a mind capable of describing psychological states more accurately than any poet except Shakespeare. I have been surprised at how narrowly her work, still, is known by women who are writing poetry, how much legend has gotten in the way of her being repossessed as a source and a fore mother."
That piece--and others like it--posited an Emily who had power...a women poet who created a life which maximized her power and who did so consciously, deliberately and strategically.
When I visited the home of Emily Dickinson in Amherst a few years back, the idea that Emily Dickinson was a self-determined woman poet --and not a "too-fragile-for-this-world" writer-- was brought home to me in visceral ways. How I understood her life as well as her work itself became essential to me.
At her homestead, I did not encounter the Emily Dickinson I had been taught in school--too scared to live, too delicate even to hold a conversation with "normal" people, a women whose very gift left her lonely and unloved, who substituted "little" poems for an unrealized life--in other words--a women and a poet who was weak, nutty, unhappy and, ultimately, powerless.
At her beautiful Amherst home, situated on several acres of lush Northeastern greenery and surrounded by the garden Dickinson, herself, planted, I saw a different Emily.
In her corner bedroom of the two story house, I saw the chest of drawers which held her folios.
And her single bed which faced the bureau--above which were two portraits--George Sand and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
The faces of women writers who must have given her courage and comfort. And, then, I just knew these portraits must have been selected by Dickinson for that very reason.
At that moment I knew those were the faces she saw every day of her adult life. They were her companions, her role models, her friends...the writers who "got her."
I asked myself: How was this different from the portrait of Shakespeare that Keats hung above his desk when he wrote the great odes.
It wasn't, I said to myself.
Except in the retelling of the story. Except in the framing of the story. Except in what that framing had to tell me about my life and writing as a woman poet.
Then I took the narrow walkway connecting Emily Dickinson's house with her sister-in-law's home. There, in the unreconstructed parlor, I saw the lovely large windows where sunlight touched the sitting chairs and sofa. I heard the guide say how the great poet would often attend artistic gatherings held in this room.
And so I began to see a different woman poet then the one I had been taught in school and even the one who needed "defending" in various essays and poems.
I began to see a woman poet who defined her life on her own terms. And one, who, quite possibly, didn't speak to or engage with her larger community because just she didn't want to.
Maybe Emily Dickinson wrote the exact kind of poems she wanted to write, lived the exact kind of life she wanted to live and talked to the exact kind of people she wanted to engage with--or ignore.
Maybe she absolutely knew that saying "Mother May I" would get her absolutely no where.
But it didn't stop her from writing, from thinking, from owning her own mind.
She wrote--and famously only published a few poems in her lifetime--but she wrote.
She wrote into what one can only assume must have felt like a poetic void. But she wrote and lived with courage and conviction regardless of who or what gave--or withheld-- permission.
And if that's not a morality tale for our poetic age, I don't know what is.