'That Love is all there is,
Is all we know of Love;
It is enough, the freight should be
Proportioned to the groove.'
Happy 2019, Glasgow Gallerina gang! One of the most beautiful Christmas gifts I received this year (or technically last year - doesn't time fly?!) was a gorgeous Folio Society illustrated edition of Emily Dickinson's poems. Here at GG, I hope the next 12 months are going to be full of paintings, poetry and prose, so I thought it would be lovely to start with a blog inspired by some of my favourite extracts. Although Emily Dickinson wrote well over one thousand poems, only about twelve were published during her lifetime (1830 - 1886). Her work explores timeless themes like grief, hope, solitude and fortitude, yet expresses these subjects in daring and innovative ways. Many still influence poetic forms today! To me, Dickinson's life and work demonstrate the importance of creative courage: staying true to one's unique vision whether it is well received by others or not (who knows, perhaps they'll 'get it' one day!?). Even for a petite poet like me, there is a great deal of inspiration to be found in her poetry. What better way to start the year than by painting pictures with words?
One of the most immediately striking aspects of Dickinson's work is her power of observation, and her ability to capture and articulate the core of what she sees. Famously, she lived a life of increasing reclusiveness especially after her father's death:
'The Soul selects her own Society -
Then - shuts the Door -
To her divine Majority -
Present no more - '
Yet from this self-imposed isolation, Dickinson seems to have honed her ability to express the emotional states she witnessed in others - and felt within herself. A poem that particularly spoke to me is one in which Dickinson describes grief as 'the Hour of Lead'. She notes how 'The Feet, mechanical, go round - / Of Ground, or Air, or Ought - ' and after a recent bereavement, this is precisely the way grief does feel to me: darker and weightier even than sadness, as if the heart is truly sinking to the ground. Dickinson never shied away from subjects like life and death, and in poems like these the imagery of birds features strongly:
' 'Tis not that Dying hurts us so -
'Tis Living - hurts us more -
But Dying - is a different way -
A Kind behind the Door -
The Southern Custom - of the Bird -
That ere the Frosts are due -
Accepts a better Latitude -
We - are the Birds - that stay.
The Shiverers round Farmers' doors -
For whose reluctant Crumb -
We stipulate - till pitying Snows
Persuade our Feathers Home.'
Yet the details of daily life also brought challenges for her (as they do for the rest of us!) Some scholars believe that she experienced a form of epilepsy, although of course it is unwise - and virtually impossible - to attach a retrospective diagnosis to a historical figure. Certainly, several of her poems do seem to explore the physical and emotional ramifications of having fluctuations in consciousness.
'The Brain, within its Groove
Runs evenly - and true -
But let a Splinter swerve -
'Twere easier for You -
To put a Current back -
When Floods have slit the Hills -
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves -
And trodden out the Mills.'
For modern day readers, I feel her words could just as easily describe the confusion created by dementia or mental health conditions. It's fascinating to discover a poet giving voice to psychological turmoil so many years before the medical world caught up. That's not to say, of course, that Dickinson did not embrace scientific modernity. As she jokes in these finely-tuned four lines (this one's for you, Dr Kate!):
' "Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see -
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.'
It seems to me that, across her work, Dickinson is able to achieve light and shade by investigating weighty subject matter with pure, unexpectedly playful rhythms, and at all times demonstrating an almost Shakespearean love of words.
'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!'
This twisty verse reminds me of the Scottish writer Ali Smith, who often brings a poetic sense of wordplay to her prose work. I'll never forget a couple of characters in her novel There But For The: unoriginal and obsessed with keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, this generic pair were named, you guessed it, Gen and Eric! In fact, if you're looking for further evidence of Dickinson's impact on modern fiction, one of Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie novels Started Early, Took my Dog also owes its title to a Dickinson poem!
Ultimately, it feels to me that Dickinson deliberately chose to channel her intelligence into poetry that is as pure as it is powerful. My final choice from the anthology seems at first glance to be a very simple work, yet there's an ambiguity to its rhythm that really opens up the question of how to live. Many modern poetry lovers have recently been celebrating the life of Mary Oliver, after she passed away this month at the age of eighty-three. She famously asked us to consider 'what is it that you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?' and I think Dickinson understood how a single existence could be worthy of the world:
'If I can stop one Heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain
Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in Vain.'
Ps. Not to judge a book by its cover, but I need to say a few words about just that: this Folio Society edition of Dickinson's poems is illustrated beautifully! Created from wood engravings by Jane Lydbury, the cover shows a black and white wilderness, with a woman walking through it on a tracing paper layer. She is both present and transient, ephemeral yet undeniable, and it is a very fitting artistic tribute to a poet who lived within and literally above the world she wrote about.