by Katha Pollitt

Page 1

I was so interested in what Amy Clampitt said about all women poets feeling influenced by Emily Dickinson, I have to enter a little demur there. There must be something wrong with me because I have never felt this way. Her poems were ruined for me in high school. I think, really, high school teachers have a lot to answer for, and one of the things they do is that they give you the worst poems! This woman wrote 1700 poems or something, and they manage to find the three that are really sacharine and sentitious..."There is no frigate like a book," "Children read more books," and the one I really hated as a young infidel: "I never saw a moor, I never saw the sea" and goes on to say I know these things exist and therefore I know God exists too. I thought what are you talking about? So I'm very grateful to Seton Hall because if it hadn't been for Seton Hall I never would have sat down and gotten to have a different relationship with Emily Dickinson who of course is a wonderful poet and a great genius. I find her a very interesting person. I was looking at that biography by Richard Sewall, and he has a whole appendix of popular poetry that was being published while Emily Dickinson, as you know, was having such a terrible time. I think Emily Dickinson had the worst taste in men that I've just ever seen, and she would pick these people to be her mentors who were very inappropriate figures who would all say, "Oh, don't publish, don't publish, this is all very strange." But they would kind of string her along by being very nice to her, and she would have these elaborate correspondences with them. And I found this just so depressing.

One of these people was Samuel Bowles, who was one of the candidates for the famous "Master" letters, and whom she does seem to have had very warm feelings toward. And he published a couple of her poems, but she sent him these things by the bushel and meanwhile, while he was refusing to publish her poems, he published a poem that was so much loved by his readers that they had to print it twice. And this was by Miss Nancy A. W. Priest of Hinsdale, New Hampshire. And I think it is interesting to see what Emily Dickinson was doing against the background of what her neighbors were doing --so it seems--much more successfully. And I'll just read you the first verse; it's called "Over the River."

Over the river they beckon to me
Loved ones who've crossed to the further side
The gleam of their snowy robes I see
But their voices are drowned in the rushing tide

There's one with ringlets of sunny gold
And eyes the reflection of Heaven's own blue
He crossed in twilight, gray and cold,
And the pale mist hid him from mortal view.

We saw not the angels who met him there
The gate of the city we could not see
Over the river, over the river
My brother stands waiting to welcome me.

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