Friday, August 28, 2009

OUR POETS: EMILY AND WALT

The tendency is to call them Aunt Emily and Uncle Walt; they are just that close to us in American literature. But Walt Whitman did not write about Emily Dickinson. It is possible that he was not even aware of her. Hers was a still small voice very like that of the Spirit. Only eleven of her poems were published in her lifetime and these were tampered with by her publishers - to make them more 'acceptable' for their time. They shamelessly added titles to her work, and changed punctuation and capitalization. Her poems were too original, apparently, for her day. But it is that originality that might have attracted the attention of other poets. Alas, she never seems to have complained or to have been much noticed. (Not until 1955 was a faithful collection of her poems finally released).

Dressed in white, Emily Dickinson sat at her writer's desk daily and wrote poetry. Like Hawthorne and to a lesser degree Thoreau she chose the reclusive life. She seldom traveled; and she never ventured very far from her home in Amherst, Massachusetts when she did. She never married. She never saw a volcano. She never had a direct experience of much of anything, it might be said. But what she did experience was her innermost self, and it is there - deep inside - that she has touched the readers of her poems. At the time of her death, when her poems were at last brought to light, there was found to be one thousand seven hundred and seventy five of them.

If Emily Dickinson was aware of Walt Whitman, the other great poet of her age, she never said much about it. His great yawping shaggy-bearded reputation may have seemed a bit overwhelming for her. (In a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson from April 26, 1862, she wrote, "You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book, but was told it was disgraceful.") She read Shakespeare and Emerson and William Wordsworth and Longfellow's prose tale 'Kavanagh'. "Great men stand like solitary towers in the city of God," 'Kavanagh' begins, "and secret passage running deep beneath external nature give their thoughts intercourse with higher intelligences, which strengthens and consoles them, and of which the laborers on the surface do not even dream!" Emily Dickinson was certainly not a laborer on the surface of things. Her poems are concerned with death and God and eternity. She allowed herself to think and write what other women of her time dared not even whisper.

Hope you'll take a look.

Jim

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