How Emily Dickinson's Poetry Helped Me Understand Myself
I was in the sixth grade the first time I ever read an Emily Dickinson poem, her lyrical letter to the Grim Reaper, "Because I could not stop for Death." She was one of the dozen writers we learned about that April for National Poetry Month, and while it was then that I started to realize I had a special place in my heart for the artform, I had no idea how much Emily Dickinson's poetry would help me understand myself as I grew up in a small New England town just across the state from her own home.
After that first day taking turns reciting her Iines out-loud with my class, I dove, head-first, into Emily Dickinson's poetry. Like a little kid who had just discovered the magic of televison who couldn't tear their eyes from the screen, I had my nose permanently glued in whatever collection of her work I could get my hands on. I began pouring over her classics — "Hope' is the thing with feathers," "a Bird, came down the Walk," "I measure every Grief I meet" — and tried my hardest to read as many of her nearly 1,800 as I could. Each new stanza, each new meter, I found myself mesmerized by this woman who had died over 100 years before I was born, but who seemed to be speaking directly to me.
The more I started to read Emily's work, the more I started to experiment with my own. One of those little girls who had dreamed of becoming not a princess but rather a writer since I was a child, I always kept journals filled with random writing in the form of short stories and diary entries, but I had never tried to write poetry before. It was, at least to a middle-school aged me, the type of creative writing you were forced to do at school, not the kind you did for fun at home. But as I became a bigger and bigger fan of the art form itself, and as I got to know Dickinson's work better, I started to recognize the power poetry has to help the readers, speakers, and writers of it understand certain things in their life or the world itself that is otherwise hard to digest.
A pre-teen on the verge of some of the biggest changes, both physical and mental, in my life, Dickinson's work came to me at just the right time, a time where I was finding it harder and harder to understand the changing world around me, and the changing world inside of me. I had all these new feelings I didn't understand, all these new experiences I wasn't sure how to feel about, and all these new challenges I didn't know if I could face. Whats worse, I felt so isolated, like these bizarre and uncomfortable experiences were all my own and no one else's. I felt broken and vulnerable and confused, like most adolescents trying to figure out what growing up really means. But then, I read (and consequently reread a hundred times) one of Dickinson's poems on mental health, "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain," and I found someone who was working through the same frustrations, the same fears, that I was.
"As all the Heavens were a Bell, And Being, but an Ear, And I, and Silence, some strange Race Wrecked, solitary, here – And then a Plank in Reason, broke, And I dropped down, and down – And hit a World, at every plunge, And Finished knowing – then – "
Her language, beautiful and prolific as ever, seemed to speaking directly to the ambiguity my early teen years had brought me. She gets it, I thought, and I made it my goal to really understand it, too. I began experimenting with poetry of my own, writing down lines and stanzas filled with teenage angst, young adult fearfulness, and even a touch of youthful hopefulness. My poetry, though not nearly as deft or with as much depth as the late great Emily, became what I like to think it was for the young poet: a critical tool for understanding the world around me, and for understanding myself.
Whenever I couldn't understand my feelings, whether it was over a high school boyfriend or a decision about my future, I turned first to my Dickinson collection and then to my own writing journal, because they had become my map for the inner-workings of my own complicated mind. It was probably no coincidence that after high school, I found myself moving into a dorm at UMass Amherst, a campus a mile away from the Dickinson homestead, where Emily lived and loved and wrote and died. It wasn't an accident that, before graduating college and deciding where to live, I pulled my Dickinson collection from the shelf and dove head-first into her works about home, family, future, and independence. It's probably no surprise that, four years after that, I find myself back in Amherst, living down the street from her grand yellow house on street. There has always been something about the poet that has pulled me back to her, and something about this place that has captured a piece of both of us.
In honor of Emily's birthday on Dec. 10, I decided to revisit the Dickinson Homestead and Museum, as a way of paying tribute to a poet who has always been there for me. With a friend in tow, we were given a tour around the old yellow home she grew up in, lived in, and died in — her family's living and dining room, the bedroom window she used to look out and see the world from, the desk she wrote her most prolific work on, the tiny bed she took her last breath in. It was electric to feel her energy and creativity, still coursing through the property with enthusiasm. It was as if, at any moment she would step out from around the corner in her white dress, clutching a notebook and wildflowers.
When the tour concluded, we were invited into the reading room to celebrate Emily's work by reciting it out loud. Like that fateful April day over 15 years ago when I first discovered her poetry, I found myself standing up in from and saying Dickinson's words, words that weren't my own, words I had not written, but words that were made especially for me. "Wild Nights — Wild Nights!" I said, standing perhaps in the exact spot Emily stood in when the phrase came to her. "Were I with thee / Wild nights should be / Our luxury!"
Images: Wikipedia Commons (2); Sadie Trombetta (3)