TOWARD A POETRY THAT MATTERS:
EMILY DICKINSON AS ACTIVIST/ACTIVATOR
by Frances Payne Adler
Page 1Writing this essay is like entering a time warp, returning to a place outside of voice. It isn't easy. I'm resisting going back there.
I'm in my bedroom in Montreal, Quebec, where I was born and grew up. The clothesline outside the window is squeaking. I'm nine years old and I've just finished writing a poem. I stash it in the back of my underwear drawer. I've been writing poems since I was six. They are laughed at, aren't they cute. In my family, creativity is regarded as character defect. I hide out a lot in my bedroom. It makes good sense: my father drinks--there are no Jewish alcoholics, wrong--and the only books in the house live in one bookcase: in my bedroom. I shut the door, shut out the house, and read the twenty-four Books of Knowledge. They're blue, and faded. I love them, especially the poetry. My favorites are usually signed anonymous. And they give me chills.
You can imagine what it was like for me when, years later, and I mean years--I'd gone back to school after marriage and children--and I read "If I read a book (and) it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever 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 ways I know. Is there any other way?" (Dickinson, according to Thomas Higginson's letter of August 16, 1870.)
Here's someone, a woman someone, Emily Dickinson, from another place and time saying with the passion in her voice that loving/writing isn't a character defect, it's important. She's also saying listen to your body, it's wise. My body--that chilled to fine poetry--knew things that my head--so filled with what I'd been taught to believe--had forgotten.
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