Saturday Review: Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

I’m not a man who believes in fate, and despite so many examples that would swing lesser folks towards faith, the only time I let the blithering excitement of serendipity touch me is in a bookstore. Such a breakdown of my moral code occurred when I purchased the Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson in my local second-hand hawker. I was casually flicking through titles and picked up the intriguing On the Art of Reading, when this tome of Miss Dickinson’s insights revealed itself.

Old, with some random's signature on the half-title page!

Old, with some random’s signature on the half-title page!













It’s technically not on The List—I was meant to read the Complete Poems—but when fortune slaps you in the face like that, you take it in both hands and let the warm, fuzzy feeling take over.

It should be noted that I don’t read poetry. The seller even commented that, “It’s good to see people reading poetry.” I felt more than a little guilty. But heck, after the experience, I’m now primed for more. When I can sit shirtless on my deck overlooking St Kilda, glass of Pinot Grigio in one hand, the text in the other, and enjoy the lyrical lilt of a Great, well, who wouldn’t want to keep doing it? All I need is a greasy mo, wayfarers, and a dangling cigarillo to be complete.

On with the words.

Poetry, man. Haven’t touched it since the first semester of my undergrad degree. I tried my hand, learnt the various forms, and promptly forgot  most of it. Never interested me. Now that I’m a little older though, things have changed. Emma is my first excursion since those faithless days.

Emily Dickinson is known as a recluse, and the introduction by Thomas H. Johnson reinforces this. It’s suitably even-handed, a great opener for the poetics to come. On the serendipity theme, the latest issue of the Victorian Writer mag is poetry themed, and I bought Philosophy in the Garden this week, which has a chapter on Dicko (is that blasphemous?). Poetry is the word of the week, it seems.

One thing I took away from my Arts degree is that poetry is usually about simple, everyday things. It’s like clowning, in that it takes something easy and makes it complex. Emily writes about lightning, gardens, and books. Oh, and death. Lots of death, lots of life, the question of immortality rears its head repeatedly. Here’s a great one:

Surgeons must be very careful

When they take the knife.

Underneath their fine incisions

Stirs the culprit, life.

Succinct. Beautiful. Need I say more? Despite this ease of image, Emily sometimes comes across as very haphazard and unconventional. She doesn’t always rhyme, but her use of words is delightful. “Emphatic thumbs,” is one such gem. Here are a bunch more great little stanzas:

Water is taught by thirst,

Land by the oceans passed,

Transport by throe,

Peace by its battles told,

Love by memorial mold,

Birds by the snow.

Fantastic juxtaposition. It also shows Emily’s obsession with certain things, in this case ‘birds’. Birds appear again and again, as well as bees and words like ‘dew’ and ‘Calvary’. When you’re onto something good, I guess…

There is no frigate like a book

To take us lands away,

Nor any coursers like a page

Of prancing poetry.

This travel may the poorest take

Without offence of toll.

How frugal is the chariot

That bears the human soul.

Something that I love, made even more lovely.

A sloop of amber slips away

Upon an ether sea,

And wrecks in peace a purple tar,

The son of ecstasy.

This is interesting because this is the second time I have seen the word ‘ecstasy’, and it’s spelled differently. Also, it sounds great.

Finally, a poem on the theme of serendipity to close.

Faith is a fine invention

When gentlemen can see,

But microscopes are prudent

In an emergency.

Christ, that hits the spot. Which poets do you like, and who would you recommend?

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2 thoughts on “Saturday Review: Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

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