“It Troubled Me As Once I Was”

191 years ago today, Emily Dickinson was born. How amazed would she be to know that her words would survive and become such a legacy to the world? As a little girl, she was the first of many poets I would come to admire and treasure, poets that would inspire me and make me marvel at the mystery of it all, as well as the magic created by mere consonants and vowels put together in just the right way to reveal entire astonishing worlds.

As we celebrate her life today, I imagine that being the introvert that she was, like me, she would at times find a celebrated public life tedious.

The first poem I ever memorized was her #600:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

Emily Dickinson

One of the many ways I relate to Emily is in the comfort found in nature, wherein lies a soothing solace, a buzzing energy, and an all-encompassing mystery that one desires fervently to live in and write about. Emily had her gardens. I have the oceans and the multitudes of life they hold. We have both found inspiration and understanding through the act of writing.

From Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which Emily attended at 16, she wrote to a friend at home,

“There is a great deal of religious interest here and many are flocking to the ark of safety.”

Emily refused to be part of the flock. For her failure to accept the veneer of things, she was dubbed by the principal of the school to be one of the “No hopers”, the group of girls who were labeled as having no hope of salvation. I would venture to guess that quite a few of my own teachers had me on a similar list.

Maria Popova in The Marginalian writes of Emily Dickinson:

“She was far more interested in the arc of knowledge as science was just beginning to bend its gaze past the horizon of old certitudes. What lay there would come to animate a great many of her spare, stunning poems — poems that illuminate the eternal, the elemental, the inevitable through the pinhole of the surprising. “

Peering through “the pinhole of surprising” or “telling it slant” is something Emily was quite adept at, as in poem #1263 she writes;

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

Being the skilled poet that she was, she didn’t seek “define” the truth, which opened the window of understanding and connection to readers who each approach it via different circuits and on their own terms. As an adult, I’ve come to understand that we do not all share the same truths, nor should we be expected to and as writer I hope to accomplish the same thing Emily did in her poems.

From an early age Emily broke with convention, not accepting the traditional role and conventions that women of her time were expected to adhere too. Veering off road like that can sometimes be a painful and solitary trek, something I can personally attest to. But doing so also allows for individuality and maximum growth, which I explore in my alteration of poem #600.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY EMILY DICKINSON

References

How the World Holds Together: Patti Smith Reads Emily Dickinson’s Poetic Premonition of Particle Physics – The Marginalian

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