Sometimes we first connect to poets–really connect–not through their poems but through something small, personal, almost incidental. I was teaching a class in Boston on American Women Writers, and one of the paper topics I suggested was an essay on a visit to Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. Not long after that one of the students came into the classroom–almost ran, breathless, smiling, and said, “Emily Dickinson had a dog!” This was a student who seldom participated–she was taking the class to fill a requirement, not engaged by the material. The trip had sounded easier than the other topics, a lark with a friend. She’d read some Dickinson poems but never been moved by them, never been interested. Her sense of Dickinson was the stereotypical one passed along by so many teachers who should know better: she was an odd recluse, not very well educated (those dashes), a sad spinster. A ghost, not a flesh and blood person. But then, in the little museum, the student had learned about and seen pictures of Dickinson’s big floppy dog Carlo, a curly-haired Newfoundland given to her by her father. And that changed everything. The student also had a dog she loved, and Dickinson took on human form. She went back to the poems and read them, from that point of view, with great pleasure. Seeing that light go on is one of the greatest pleasures of teaching.
Here’s a lovely poem about the ghostly and fleshly Dickinson. I too once held up that white dress once, when I visited the house probably in 1970, before there was any sort of museum. Someone lived there, and writers would arrange visits for when they were out. The dress was on a hanger in the closet, not even a plastic bag over it. I picked it up, held it in front of me, looked at the intricate stitching, and put it back, amazed.
The Mystery of Emily Dickinson
Sometimes the weather goes on for days
but you were different. You were divine.
While the others wrote more and longer,
you wrote much more and much shorter.
I held your white dress once: 12 buttons.
In the cupola, the wasps struck glass
as hard to escape as you hit your sound
again and again asking Welcome. No one.
Except for you, it were a trifle:
This morning, not much after dawn,
in level country, not New England’s,
through leftovers of summer rain I
went out rag-tag to the curb, only
a sleepy householder at his routine
bending to trash, when a young girl
in a white dress your size passed,
so softly!, carrying her shoes. It must be
she surprised me – her barefoot quick-step
and the earliness of the hour, your dress –
or surely I’d have spoken of it sooner.
I should have called to her, but a neighbour
wore that look you see against happiness.
I won’t say anything would have happened
unless there was time, and eternity’s plenty.