I first encountered Joni Wallace's poems in 2009 when I was the judge for the Four Way Books' Larry Levis Prize. Her manuscript, Blinking Ephemeral Valentine, was one of the finalist submissions I'd been sent by the press. Reading it, I knew it was poetry the way Dickinson told Thomas Wentworth Higginson (L342a) she knew a book was poetry, "If [reading it] I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry… Is there any other way?"
By discussing both of the poems and interpreting their meanings, the reader can gain a fuller understanding of the message Dickinson is trying to send to her audience and a greater feel for what may lie ahead in the afterlife....
The provided example of Emily Dickinson’s poetry read aloud has no music, but the animation and gentle cadence of the speaker’s voice provide a melodic undertone for the story....
In the poems “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickinson and “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy, they both convey similar messages about hope....
The poet’s relationship to her poetry has, it seems to me—and I am not speaking only of Emily Dickinson—a twofold nature. Poetic language—the poem on paper—is a concretization of the poetry of the world at large, the self, and the forces within the self; and those forces are rescued from formlessness, lucidified, and integrated in the act of writing poems. But there is a more ancient concept of the poet, which is that she is endowed to speak for those who do not have the gift of language, or to see for those who—for whatever reasons—are less conscious of what they are living through. It is as though the risks of the poet’s existence can be put to some use beyond her own survival.
Now this is extremely strange. It is a fact, that in 1864, Emily Dickinson wrote this verse; and it is a verse which a hundred or more 19th-century versifiers could have written. In its undistinguished language, as in its conventional sentiment, it is remarkably untypical of the poet. Had she chosen to write many poems like this one we would have no “problem” of non-publication, of editing, of estimating the poet at her true worth. Certainly the sentiment—a contented and unambiguous altruism—is one which even today might in some quarters be accepted as fitting from a female versifier—a kind of Girl Scout prayer. But we are talking about the woman who wrote:
While unknown answers may not be revealed about her, secrets may not be told, nor any new discoveries made, evidence from books and articles showing Emily Dickinson’s experiences and hardships exists.
These two poems are about possession, and they seem to me a poet’s poems—that is, they are about the poet’s relationship to her own power, which is exteriorized in masculine form, much as masculine poets have invoked the female Muse. In writing at all—particularly an unorthodox and original poetry like Dickinson’s—women have often felt in danger of losing their status as women. And this status has always been defined in terms of relationship to men—as daughter, sister, bride, wife, mother, mistress, Muse. Since the most powerful figures in patriarchal culture have been men, it seems natural that Dickinson would assign a masculine gender to that in herself which did not fit in with the conventional ideology of womanliness. To recognize and acknowledge our own interior power has always been a patch mined with risks for women; to acknowledge that power and commit oneself to it as Emily Dickinson did was an immense decision.
Of course, due to the many-layered interpretations of her work, it is impossible to say whether some poems, such as “It feels a shame to be Alive,” (Dickinson, Fr243), were inspired by the war.
It is true that more recent critics, including her most recent biographer, have gradually begun to approach the poet in terms of her greatness rather than her littleness, the decisiveness of her choices instead of the surface oddities of her life or the romantic critics of her legend. But unfortunately anthologists continue to plagiarize other anthologies, to reprint her in edited, even bowdlerized versions; the popular image of her and her work lags behind the changing consciousness of scholars and specialists. There still does not exist a selection from her poems which depicts her in her fullest range. Dickinson’s greatness cannot be measured in terms of twenty-five or fifty or even 500 “perfect” lyrics, it has to be seen as the accumulation it is. Poets, even, are not always acquainted with the full dimension of her work, or the sense one gets, reading in the one-volume complete edition (let alone the three-volume variorum edition) of a mind engaged in a lifetime’s musing on essential problems of language, identity, separation, relationship, the integrity of the self; a mind capable of describing psychological states more accurately than any poet except Shakespeare. I have been surprised at how narrowly her work, still, is known by women who are writing poetry, how much her legend has gotten in the way of her being re-possessed, as a source and a foremother.
In depicting Dickinson’s life, fixed mainly at the family home, in Amherst, Davies (who both directed the film and wrote the script) turns the story into a laceratingly epigrammatic comical satire on New England’s narrow mores—until the movie turns into an ink-black physical and moral and spiritual tragedy of thwarted love, thwarted renown, and illness and death confronted brutally, cushioned by no religious convictions.The movie starts with the teen-aged Emily (played by Emma Bell) repudiating, with a calm and steadfast insolence, the pieties of her Christian boarding school.
I know that for me, reading her poems as a child and then as a young girl already seriously writing poetry, she was a problematic figure. I first read her in the selection heavily edited by her niece which appeared in 1937; a later and fuller edition appeared in 1945 when I was sixteen, and the complete, unbowdlerized edition by Johnson did not appear until fifteen years later. The publication of each of these editions was crucial to me in successive decades of my life. More than any other poet, Emily Dickinson seemed to tell me that the intense inner event, the personal and psychological, was inseparable from the universal; that there was a range for psychological poetry beyond mere self-expression. Yet the legend of the life was troubling, because it seemed to whisper that a woman who undertook such explorations must pay with renunciation, isolation, and incorporeality. With the publication of the Complete Poems, the legend seemed to recede into unimportance beside the unquestionable power and importance of the mind revealed there. But taking possession of Emily Dickinson is no simple matter.