INTRODUCTION: AMERICAN WOMEN'S POETRY
& DICKINSON'S LEGACY
by Martha Nell Smith
Page 5After proclaiming that to write of Dickinson "is almost hopeless, because Emily and I are absolutely different in the details of our lives," Gwendolyn Brooks states her admiration for Dickinson's "putting common words together so they make a new magic" and confidently observes, "I'm sure that Dickinson would have felt this way if she had lived into this most challenging time":
SPEECH TO THE YOUNGToi Derricotte, another African-American woman poet, grinned and said that in preparing to say something about Emily Dickinson she had gone to the back of The Complete Poems "where her first lines are arranged in alphabetical order" and that "it felt a little like standing in line at the A&P and reading the headlines of the National Inquirer: 'I felt a funeral in my brain'; 'It was not Death for I stood up'; 'Before I got my eye put out.'" She then went on to say that she and other poets had been debating about poetry, about politics, and about how they are related, and what the politics of feminism have to do with Dickinson's work. Therein lies the significance of the two main points made by women poets over and over about Dickinson and her work, and the point that I wish to make about their relevance to us as scholars, teachers, writers, poets, thinkers, friends, humans.
Another quotation, from an unprofessional woman
writer who knew Emily Dickinson very intimately, seems necessary. In a 26 March 1904 letter to the editors of the
Boston Woman's Journal Dickinson's beloved Louise Norcross makes it plain that she knew all
along about her cousin's literary work and provides a rare portrait of the woman poet at work,
writing amid the duties of housekeeping:
Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her most wonderful sentences on slips of paper held against the kitchen wall while she was hovering over culinary formations. And I know that Emily Dickinson wrote most emphatic things in the pantry, so cool and quiet, while she skimmed the milk; because I sat on the footstool behind the door, in delight, as she read them to me. The blinds were closed, but through the green slats she saw all those fascinating ups and downs going on outside that she wrote about.2Here "Loo" promotes her cousin by placing her in the company of the nineteenth century's most widely read American author. Her description of the poet at work is gendered, nestled as it is among recounting a woman's daily works, and thereby recognizing that, until very recently, most women have had to write in their pantries, not their studies. She also depicts an enthusiastic contemporary female audience for Dickinson's work. And it was Dickinson's sister, not her brother, who made sure that the treasure of poems cached in the drawer were not destroyed, but were printed. To say that women have tended to be Dickinson's best readers is a tempting, but much too easy and offensive conclusion to draw from remarks such as these; nevertheless, something of a tradition of responses has evolved among women readers, particularly women writers.
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