I'm Nobody and So Are You: A review of The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson at the Morgan Library Museum
When I was thirteen years old, I hated Emily Dickinson. A great English teacher named Neil Selden introduced me to two of her poems: "I'm nobody. Who are you?" and "Hope is the thing with feathers." I hated the idea of being nobody. At thirteen, I desperately wanted to be somebody, like most children do at that age. I was already familiar with some of the work of Whitman, a god in my household, and much preferred it to Emily's very different poetry. This remained with me throughout my college years by which time I was familiar with the Beats, the open field poetics of Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and the early poetry of Frank O'Hara, and much else leading in a very different direction from that of Dickinson. It was after my intense encounters with Buddhism in my early twenties that the Dickinson poem, the first line of which is also the title of this exhibition at the Morgan Library came to mean something more to me and more interesting. In Buddhism, one of the essential principles is that of anatta, or no soul or the illusion of soul. Within that context, this poem by Dickinson took on a completely different and more interesting meaning than it had before. This may not have been what Dickinson meant by the line but it was useful to me as a way into Dickinson's poetry which, up until that time, I had little use for. The poem continues: "How dreary to be somebody/How public like a frog/To chant your name the livelong day/To an admiring bog." That describes very well much of the downtown poetry scene as it exists today in New York City. The biggest egos often have the least talent. But they are always applauded anyway. To offer criticism of them or the rituals they exploit is to invite condemnation. Speaking the truth gets one shunted into ignominy or to silence.
The Morgan show illuminates Emily's life in many ways. It illustrates it and is beautifully put together. Manuscripts of some of her poems are accompanied by letters to and from her. Most of her letters are to other women. As America's first major female poet, living in an atmosphere of 19th century Amherst circumscribed by the small-minded Christianity of the day and social norms which emerged from that, it is easy to see why she withdrew from most of it fairly early on. What did it have to offer her, anyway? "The soul selects it's own society and shuts the door." Who could blame her? The more I've come to admire her poetry and the more I know about her life, the more I've come to hate the latter. Many major poets have had difficult lives. But hers seems like one of the worst.
Emily Dickinson is and was a great poet. She and Walt Whitman are the best that 19th Century American poetry has to offer. Except for a longish poem by William Cullen Bryant that used to be in the Norton Anthologies, the rest of 19th Century American poetry is pretty bad. Edgar Allen Poe's euphonious garbage is loved by millions but that doesn't make it any good. Emerson was a much better essayist than he was a poet. Who else is there? I can't think of any others except Thoreau, who has some wonderful poetry in his A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which is mostly a prose journal but has some good poetry in it, altogether a much more interesting book than his Walden with an Essay on Civil Disobedience in which he goes on about a two day stay in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax in support of the Civil War. He claims to have enjoyed his short stay in jail, spoken or written like a bourgeois phony slumming with the undesirables. Longfellow is also euphonious garbage. Except for Emily and Walt, Aemrica had to wait until the 20th century to produce the really interesting poetry for which it is now known throughout the world.
The exhibition at the Morgan Library of Dickinson's manuscripts, letters and other stuff relating to her is truly wonderful. If you happen to be reading this review after the show closes, which seems most likely now, I recommend to you that you get a copy of its catalogue The Networked Recluse: The Connected World of Emily Dickinson with contributions by Mike Kelly, Carolyn Vega, Marta Werner, Susan How, and Richard Wilbur. I visited the exhibition twice. On the first occasion I took a tour. The tour guide seemed very knowledgable. He thoroughly debunked the notion that Dickinson might have been a Lesbian, a currently popular rumor not borne out by any evidence I could see either on view, in the book, or in her poems. It is a sad trend in the twenty-first century to judge the past by standards and norms of the present. It seems much more likely that Dickinson was asexual, as all previous renditions of her life would seem to suggest. Being asexual (she had only one Romantic involvement, according to this show, with a man named Otis, who was a friend of her father's) is very unfashionable in today's oversexed but more and more lonely world. Millions of people fit into the category of being "asexual" but find no expression of this state except perhaps in the part of the Catholic Church untouched by pedophilic scandals or perhaps the Buddhist monkhood and sisterhood.
Dickinson had a very quiet life. It's true that she was no hermit at least until around the time of the Civil War, during which time he wrote about half of her 1,800 poems. When the directors of the terrible new film about her called A Quiet Passion decided to make a film about her, not being geniuses, they must have found themselves with a real problem of how to present her life without producing a long, boring film. What they did was make her life much worse than even it actually was. They added ridiculous, obviously fabricated melodramatic episodes to her life. They included many poems of hers but they are all misplaced. The most egregious example of this latter flaw I remember is the scene in which Emily recites her great poem "I'm Nobody Who Are You" to a newborn baby, not hers, of course. Not only an obvious and stupid joke, it completely cheapens and reduces the meaning of this marvelous poem to some nonsense it's recipient would have been too new to the world to receive properly, anyway.
Because I love Emily's poetry but hate her life, this has been a very hard review to write. Such is the power of film, I find myself influenced and conditioned somewhat by "A Quiet Passion" even though I know that much of it is balderdash. There have been many films about poetry and poets lately. This is by far the worst one. The best film I've ever seen about a writer is called "Starting Out in the Evening" about a forgotten novelist who is rediscovered by a young woman writing a thesis about him. It stars a great actor. The writer is a fictional character, of course. Doesn't one of America's greatest poets deserve at least as good a cinematic rendition as that accorded to a writer who never existed except in the imagination of a novelist? The acting in A Quiet Passion is all very good, especially Cynthia Nixon as Emily and Keith Carradine as her father. But since so much of the film is baloney, this just seems like an egregious waste of talent.
It remains only for me to remark that The Morgan Library seems to be on a roll with literary exhibitions at the moment. Aside from the one about Emily there is another excellent one called "The Symbolist Book" which shows the books of the great symbolist movement of the late 19th century in France including Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarme, and Gide along with the great art which ilustrated these books. This exhibit closes on May 14th. But I bet there is a great catalogue that accompanies it and will continue to be available after the show is over. The show about Emily closes on May 21st. I hope as many people as possible with see bot hshows and that the books evolving from these shows will continue to be available to all for a long, long, time.
Some Poems by Emily Dickinson
I heard a fly buzz when I died.
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.
The eys beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.
I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable--and then
There interposed a fly,
With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see
It was not death, for I stood up,
And all the dead lie down;
It was not night, for all the bells
Put out their tongues, for noon
It was not frost, for on my flesh
I felt siroccos crawl, --
Nor fire, for just my marble feet
Could keep a chancel cool.
And yet it tasted like them all;
The figures I have seen
Set orderly, for burial,
Reminded me of mine,
As if my life were shaven
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key;
And 'twas like midnight some,
When everything that ticked has stopped,
And spaces stare, all around,
Or grisly frosts, first autumn morns,
Repeal the beating ground.
But most like chaos,--stopless, cool,--
Without a chance to spar,
Or even a report of land
To justify despair.
We cover thee, sweet face.
Not that we tire of thee,
But that thyself fatigue of us;
Remember as thou flee,
We follow thee until
Thou notice us no more,
And then, reluctant turn away
To con thee o'er and o'er,
And blame the scanty love
We were content to show,
Augmented, sweet, a hundred fold
If thou would'st take it now.
Note: Dickinson never put titles on her poems. Some of the ten poems that were published during her lifetime had titles added by the editors. These have been removed in later publishings of her poems after her death. Manuscript study shows that these titles were not intended by Dickinson herself.