What I Learned From Emily Dickinson
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
Emily Dickinson is my favorite American poet. I read her poetry regularly. In addition I enjoy reading about her. She is such an intriguing personality.
Dickinson was not a syllabic poet. Her poetry is metrical; most of her poems revolve around three or four beats per line arranged in strong metrical forces. Her poetry, according to scholars, is resonant of American Hymnody which is also structured in this way.
Nevertheless, Dickinson approaches metrics in a way that often sets up a rhythm, and then counters it in a line or two that do not seem to have a definite metrical shape. This is one of the distinguishing features of her poetry. In some ways this treatment of meter resembles her treatment of rhyme where Dickinson freely mixes traditional, perfect, rhyme with slant rhyme, near rhyme, or distant rhyme.
My focus in syllabic poetry is primarily centered on fixed form syllabic verse. What I mean by ‘fixed form syllabic verse’ is poetry which has a determined number of lines with a determined number of syllables for those lines. This includes such forms as Cinquain, Syllabic Haiku, Lanterne, Tanka, Etheree, Fixed Form Quatrains, Fibonacci, Tetractys, etc. Dickinson did not write fixed form verse. In spite of this I have learned more from Dickinson on how to write fixed form verse than from any other American poet. The broad reason for this is that Dickinson wrote short form verse. That is to say her poems are brief; both in terms of the number of lines for her poems and in the line length. Most fixed form syllabic forms are also brief and because of this I believe that Dickinson has much to offer any syllabic poet who wants to learn how to write short form poetry in English. What follows are a few of the specific lessons I have learned.
The biggest lesson I have learned from Emily Dickinson is not to be afraid of rhyme in short form English verse. Dickinson loved rhyme. I doubt that there is a single poem of hers which does not include rhyme. Because of Dickinson I consciously started including rhyme in short form syllabics, including Haiku, Tanka, and that shortest of all, Lanterne, as well as others. Before studying Dickinson I had the idea, widely held, that in short form verse rhyme will make the poem sound like a nursery rhyme or a commercial. What Dickinson showed me is that rhyme can sound completely natural and when done well adds immensely to the beauty of the poem. Here is an example, the last verse of poem 372:
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
One of the ways, I think, that Dickinson makes rhyme sound so effortless and natural is that she has a very broad understanding of what constitutes rhyme. She will use the perfect rhyme of ‘snow’ and ‘go’, but she will also use the slant rhyme of ‘of lead’ and ‘outlived’. By using them in the same four lines, and using them to define the lines, the garden of rhyme becomes more complex and a perfect rhyme like ‘snow’ and ‘go’ is seen in a broader landscape. This opening up of the garden of rhyme allows the short form to include rhyme without the short poem becoming sing-song or childish. Here’s another example, it is poem 210:
If I should’nt be alive
When the Robins come,
Give the one in Red Cravat,
A Memorial crumb –
If I could’nt thank you,
Being fast asleep,
You will know I’m trying
With my Granite lip!
In the first quatrain Dickinson rhymes ‘come’ and ‘crumb’; a perfect rhyme. In the second quatrain she rhymes ‘asleep’ and ‘lip’; a slant rhyme. Yet the reader or listener makes the connection. Again, Dickinson’s broad view of rhyme showed me how to include rhyme in short forms such as Haiku or Tetractys without the rhyme becoming mechanical or forced or childish. Dickinson is the great guide to English language rhyme in short forms and studying Dickinson convinced me that English language Haiku, Cinquain, Tanka, and other short forms, can benefit greatly from the inclusion of rhyme.
Dickinson loved punctuation. She is famous for it. Her poems are sprinkled with commas, dashes of various lengths, periods, exclamation points, the whole panoply of punctuation is used by her. What I discovered by studying Dickinson is that punctuation can be expressive and can add meaning to a poem. Before studying Dickinson I had adopted the contemporary view that eschews most punctuation and seeks to eliminate punctuation as much as possible. As one poet friend of mine put it, lineation is sufficient punctuation; meaning that line breaks are all a poet really needs. Dickinson showed me otherwise.
After studying Dickinson I began to incorporate ordinary punctuation like commas, but I also began to use dashes much more, and I found parentheses to be a useful punctuation device (one that I don’t think Dickinson uses). I don’t use punctuation as frequently as Dickinson (who does?). But I now feel comfortable about using it and I have dropped completely the idea that lineation is sufficient unto itself.
Dickinson was a master of the line break. What I learned from reading Dickinson is how to frame a line coherently. Basically, I see Dickinson’s approach to lineation as having each line be a grammatical unit; that is to say each line has integrity, expresses a thought, or modifies a coming thought. There are no run-ons. Conjunctions begin a line, rather than end a previous line. Similarly, prepositions begin a line and are not used to end a previous line. I believe this approach to lineation is one aspect of Dickinson’s poetry which makes them easy to remember (along with rhyme, of course). When a line of poetry is broken in the middle of a grammatical unit the line loses its ability to lodge itself in the mind.
I am deeply grateful to Dickinson’s approach to lineation because it offered me a defense against contemporary lineation practices where clauses are dismembered and lineation often seems arbitrary and pointless. In short form syllabic verse I think it is especially important to have a secure sense of lineation; otherwise the short poem tends to collapse into a single line and the shape of the particular form is lost. Dickinson demonstrates how to accomplish clear lineation in short forms.
Dickinson’s poems are full of allusions. Most of them are Biblical or refer to well-known hymns. Here is an example, it is poem 805:
These Strangers, in a foreign World,
Protection asked of me –
Befriend them, lest yourself in Heaven
Be found a Refugee –
The oblique allusion here are to teachings of Jesus where he tells his disciples that they should care for the least of people and that if they do so, their reward will be in heaven, because by caring for the least they will be caring for Jesus Himself. There are also oblique allusions to the City of Refugees found in the Pentateuch; where it says that if someone kills another accidentally they may go to a specified City of Refuge where they will be protected from retaliation. At that time Dickinson’s readers (if she had allowed her poems to be published) would have understood these allusions right away.
This kind of allusions enriches Dickinson’s verse, but these kinds of allusions have been for the most part abandoned in syllabic verse in English. I think that is because poets don’t think they have enough time in a short form to make the allusion clear. What Dickinson does, though, is to write a poem which is efficacious on the surface as well as with the allusion. Dickinson’s allusive poems are sufficiently meaningful without the allusion to be attractive to a reader who does not know the reference. In other words, Dickinson is able to write a short poem on two levels; one where the reader does not know the allusion, and the other level where the reader does know the allusion. Since studying Dickinson I have felt free to include allusions in my short poems. Sometimes they are literary, sometimes religious, sometimes to movies. But I try to follow Dickinson’s lead here and write a poem that can be appreciated without knowledge of the allusion, on its own terms.
Dickinson offers so much to the syllabic poet, particularly those writing in short syllabic forms. I cannot recommend highly enough the study of Dickinson for anyone interested in writing short form syllabic verse. Dickinson is the master of the short form and even though she did not write syllabically, she is the great teacher of short form verse in general; whether metrical or syllabic. She is a sure guide, she is generous, and I guarantee that a study of Dickinson will improve your own short form poetry.
In closing, here is one of my favorites, it is poem 143:
Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea –
Past the Houses –
Past the Headlands –
Into deep Eternity –
Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from Land?
[All quotes are from “The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition”, Edited by R. W. Franklin, Bleknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998]