I recently attended a weekend workshop led by a kind and generous poet. We deconstructed a few of Emily Dickinson’s poems, in an effort to understand that most elusive of American poets. It renewed my appreciation for her work – for her cryptic voice and stunning facility with words. However, I came away unsettled and a bit melancholy – which is always the danger after a close encounter with Dickinson, I suppose – a bit wobbly from claustrophobia and the feeling I’d spent too long in a tiny, airless room.
Part of my reaction is Dickinson herself. Reading more than two or three of her poems in one sitting makes my head hurt. But it’s also the rarefied literary air that students of poetry so often bring to such endeavors – the subtle competitive elitism, and the unspoken assumption that everyone in the room is coming to the table with the same cultural and aesthetic assumptions. In this case there was something else that annoyed me – a palpable derision aimed at Christianity. And my fellow workshoppers appeared to believe that Dickinson was their ally in this scorn
It seems to me that any thoughtful examination of Dickinson’s work quickly bumps into her twin obsessions with God and Death. Some have concluded that she was a non-believer, or an atheist. She was certainly resistant to the Congregational Church orthodoxy of her day. But I think an insightful reading of her work will show that Dickinson’s refusal to opt for a simplistic blueprint of salvation places her securely among the ranks of the great Christian mystics. I believe that her constant quest for the meaning and reality beneath the surfaces of life – even the ebb and flow of her doubting – bound her in a profound way to the “Eternity” she always sought.
So while I understand how tempting it is for a poet to align herself with Dickinson, I remain impatient with any attempt to box Dickinson in – or out. Ultimately any analysis of her thought will come up short. Because – like all mystics – she was always pointing both beyond and through the world as we know it to a reality we can’t yet see.