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Regular news and insight from our many poets, writers, educators and facilitators

15 May 2021

Posted by Beth McKeeman

Letters for Emily Dickinson

Number – 13


One of North America’s most acclaimed poets is Emily Dickinson. Mostly unpublished until after her death her nearly 2000 poems  provide the biggest insight on a deeply mysterious writer.

Common belief is that Dickinson was a recluse who shied away from having her poems published and all recognition. If anyone has seen Apple TV’s Dickinson (Rated TV-14) or the film Wild Nights with Emily (PG) then you’d know that that portrayal is disputed. Instead of a recluse, Dickinson may have been subject to a rebranding by those who posthumously published her works.

The thought that Emily was in a relationship with her sister-in-law, Susan, has been around for many years but the invention of technology which enables analysis of changes made to documents has been where the real sense of confirmation has come for many. Using infrared on original manuscripts, the removal and covering of dedications to Susan among other indications show intent to hide this relationship, almost certainly by an early editor, the first of whom happened to be Susan’s husband’s mistress (Susan’s husband, Austin Dickinson, being Emily’s brother). She was able to use her connection to this unheard of author to sell the collection of poems, and in doing so create a narrative that favoured her and what would best sell.

One of the non-poetry things she is often quoted on is “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” That’s one way to view poetry outside the prescribed forms, meter and rhyme. We certainly achieved reaction today. Other titles I considered for this blog were ‘humorous morbidity’ and ‘how to upset Amelia’s sensibilities too early on a Saturday’.

Death is a recurring character and theme in a lot of Dickinson’s poems. The first extract I experienced of her’s was from poem number 479:

'Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.’

Despite using a nature poem, another of her big muses, as our influence this week, death was still a recurring theme within the poems created.

Bee! I’m expecting you! 1035 is a poem in the form of a letter from Fly to Bee. Working in pairs(!) we wrote a letter from one non-human creature or object to another and then wrote a reply to our partners poem, following Dickinson’s format.

Many of these were recorded, so keep an eye on our Instagram as they get disseminated but in the meantime a whistle stop rundown of some of our correspondence.

When Ruhaan and Katie H. personified the contents of the kitchen to create letters between tea and coffee, Conrad pointed out that ‘coffee is bitter’, a great joke of a characterisation. It also descended into the classic tea v. coffee debate the winner of which was hot squash, specifically Ribenna. So, if you haven’t tried it, that’s the top recommendation of the group.

We had chickens obliviously running into the arms of the fox thanks to Conrad and Katie B. spurring comments of Cluckums' stupidity and 'Sunday roasts’ as well as whether Cluckums would be eaten raw or like in Fantastic Mr Fox if she would be put in a pot.

Cluckum’s wasn’t the only character being lured to their death. Shani and Naomi’s Worm appears to be in trouble thanks to Blackbird. Even if not being harmed by the other half of their correspondence, there was still plenty of shock, sadness and death to be had. From world war carrier pigeons, to ocean and sky affected by climate change and pollution, a tree missing its fallen leaf, the blossom and the cuckoo waiting to be united once more, Earth wanting Mars to visit.

“It’s a bit sad’ was Ella’s warning, followed quickly by Amelia’s “Oh no” as we went deeper and deeper into these letters, but it’s that emotional response that made them all so good. Intrinsically letters are about separation, something that we’ve all come to know well this past year. But being able to do paired work once more this week – with a little bit of raised voices to cross the distance – makes it feel like we’re really coming back together again.

To Worm by Naomi (to be read with Shani's piece)

Dear Blackbird by Shani (to be read with Naomi's piece)

Coffee! I'm waiting for you! by Ruhaan (to be read with Katie H's piece)

Do you see, Tea by Katie H (to be read with Ruhaan's piece)

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