DICKINSON AS A POETESS
by Annie Finch
Page 1One tone of voice in Dickinson's poems--strangely accessible, self-consciously contrived, even, unexpectedly, conventional--has always felt to me as if it did not come from the Romantic tradition. This voice moves from the little rhymes about the frog or the butterfly or the bird, to other little poems about corpses conversing, a fly buzzing around a body, the carriage Death drove. Dickinson pulls off both of these tones, the grim simplicity and the simple childishness, with the equanimity of one who has the support of a tradition. Every source available to me as a young poet said that she did not, that she was a hermit with no community, self-made or at least miraculously born like Athena. One might still imagine, reading the critical discussion of Dickinson, that her claim that she "never had a mother" is true in the poetic as well as in the psycho-personal sense. But I have never felt it to be true, at least poetically, and this feeling has been important to me as a developing poet.
The more my poetry has matured, the more I have valued not the idiosyncratic Dickinsonian individualism so important to writers nourished on Romanticism and Modernism, but rather another set of qualities which I believe Dickinson learned from the tradition of sentimental women poets. I call these writers "poetesses," a reclaimed name, to underscore the difference between them and the archetypal Romantic "poet." I use the term un-ironically, somewhat as Mary Daly uses the term "crone," or as gay activists have reclaimed the term "queer." By "poetess" I mean a poet, usually female, using a particular group of poetic strategies that distinguish her work from the romantic tradition. By this definition a poet such as Sara Teasdale is a poetess; Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who adopted many of the strategies of romanticism, is not; and Dickinson falls somewhere in between.
Clearly none of the poetesses can match Dickinson's utterly distinct and precious voice, and ostensibly that is the reason for her canonization and their abnegation. The best of the poetesses, however, are no worse poets than many non-sentimental poets who have been salvaged, more or less, from the nineteenth century; Jackson, Sigourney, and Frances Osgood are no less accomplished as poets than Whittier or Bryant. Sexism combined with tokenism, of course, provides a ready explanation for the disparity, so ready that it has perhaps obscured what is I think a more significant reason: the poetesses embodied the sentimental world-view--based on diffuse lyric subjectivity, the acceptance of nature's separateness, communal values, and a self-consciously artificial aesthetic--with great consistency. Dickinson, on the other hand, while incorporating many aspects of the sentimental aesthetic, combined them with elements of Romanticism--a strong central lyric self, routine metaphorization of nature, an individualistic outlook, and a transparent, "natural" poetic voice. This admixture rendered the sentimental elements palatable to those who expected a poem to provide the romantic fix provided by Keats, Wordsworth, or Emerson--or even Bryant or Whittier. Dickinson, so to speak, smuggled in her sentimentality.
When I grew old enough to discover that Dickinson had read other women poets and admired them, I found that she had written many of her poems for friends, and that Helen Hunt Jackson (whose poems Dickinson said were "stronger than any written by women since Mrs. Browning" 1) had begged her to publish. I couldn't find the poems of Helen Hunt Jackson, nor those of Maria Lowell and most of the other women poets Dickinson had enjoyed. All I found in print were Barrett Browning's sonnets, and they were derivative enough of well-known sonnets, different enough from Dickinson's odd little ballad-fragments, to re-emphasize yet more deeply for me the American's heroic solitude. I struggled along with the process of forming my poetic voice, like most poets of my generation, with only the Romantics and the Modernists available for inspiration. The poets of the Renaissance and the eighteenth century were too public, and too stylized within the boundaries of their own cultures, for me to take seriously yet as models.
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