It’s hard to avoid superlatives when talking about Emily Dickinson’s poetry. She was practically unknown as a writer in her own time and, very probably, had she published more than the hand-few of works that were ever made available during her life, she would have met with almost no success, since her form of writing was not at all in sympathy with the poetic expectations of the mid-to-late 1800s (a fact that can be gauged by the many changes that were systematically made by her publishers who either misunderstood her authorial intentions or simply disagreed with them). But subsequent critical appraisal of her poetry has been extraordinary positive in its assessment, to the extent that she is now unquestionably viewed as a fundamental ‘element’ in American literature, one of the two or three major creators of a genuinely “American” poetic voice and a hugely influential precursor of later poetic development in the English language.
Some of the many things that are traditionally observed of Dickinson are her domestic, introspective vision (one that contrasts very emphatically with the more broadly narrative and expansive ideals of American writing in the 1800s, which aimed—in part, at least—to reflect and express the sense of adventure and achievement that motored the move ever westward), her ‘cerebral’, almost metaphysical, preoccupation with the tiny details of everyday life, and her curious attachment to the ballad form, its reassuringly simple and mostly unvarying structure serving as a sort of architectural template, to be used again and again for her widely varying reflections.
All of this is true and is worth attention. But the element of her poetry that I would most like to focus on is the way in which her writing is so dramatically not of its time. In the same way that it is hard to avoid superlatives in referring to this poetry, it is equally hard to avoid over-emphasising the extent to which Dickinson was ahead of itself. Not by a decade or so, not even by a generation: Emily Dickinson is such a revolutionarily distinct poet within the context of the C19 that she can fairly be said to be 50, 60, 80, 100 years in advance of other writers. By this I mean that her own form of poetic expression would have been artistically valid in the 1950s, 1960s, the 1990s or even today. This is truly extraordinary.
Where do we find the extraordinariness of her writing? That’s not an easy thing to say, but there are a few elements that mark this poetry as unique and ground-breaking. To start with, as we saw in our last session, there is Dickinson’s intense word play, one that always revolves around the particular phonic quality of her word choice, as if she is testing her ideas through sound. We also notice that her writing is characterised by what is, for the mid 1800s, a breathtaking freedom from following the regulations and impositions of conventional syntax and prosody, an aspect that would have found little favour in her own world but which has become greatly valued in our postmodern times. And the overall effect of all this—often disconcerting and somewhat mysterious—is a meditative body of work that makes much earlier poetry appear stilted and artificial in comparison. It is hardly a surprise to discover that Dickinson’s poetic expression would be something enormously valued by Modernist writers, another group whose contemplative, experimental forms of writing would stand in stark contrast to conventional ideas about ‘normal’ writing.