Better Know a Crazy Writer: Emily Dickinson

Okay, so Emily Dickinson is probably only crazy by modern standards. By crazy, I mean she probably would never have used social media. She lived a very secluded life, staying so close to her home in Amherst, Massachusetts that some might be tempted to call her a shut in, an agoraphobic, until you read her beautiful poems about nature and wilderness. It was people she shied away from more than anything else.

She allowed herself only a small group of friends throughout her life. Well, either she did or her family life required her to. As the youngest daughter, she was made to take care of her aging, demanding parents while the rest of her family got married, moved away and made lives for themselves. One choice she definitely did make for herself was to keep her poetic work closely guarded and private. She shared poems with a few of her few close friends and attempted to have a couple published, but she felt they were butchered by editors messing with her punctuation and distinct style. By the time she died of an illness at age 55, she’d written 1,800 poems, most of which she was content to never let see the light of day.

See? Crazy. What if someone had 1,800 photos of food on their phone that they never posted to Instagram? Madness, we would cry, madness! Upon her death, her siblings cracked open her bedroom to find piles and piles of paper, something similar to an episode of hoarders, except instead of decades worth of old newspapers and cat corpses, they found piles of groundbreaking poetry that would forever change the direction of the genre. Dickinson,( along with Walt Whitman,) was considered one of the first heralds of the modernist poetry movement, a century before it ever started. This is, perhaps, easier for someone who occupied such an internal world, one that did not let publishers and editors of the day to alter her poetic voice.

This part of Dickinson’s story definitely has an allure for many writers. She kept her work so quiet and private, but after she was gone people realized she was a genius after all and worshipped all her work that had been shut away, misunderstood and ignored for so long. I suppose that’s a fantasy that could easily apply to non-writers as well. You’ll see. You’ll all see! People will think I’m a brilliant genius after all you losers are in the ground! They’ll build statues of me! Monuments! That’s not quite Dickinson’s story though. It’s always a bit more complicated.

Her sister and brother-in-law undertook a labor of love in collecting all of Emily’s poems and getting them published, but in doing so they did the very thing she hated to see done to her poetry in her life: they severely edited it. The strange punctuation, her infatuation with the em dash, all mostly edited out of her first published collection. For a while after that edition, people continued to edit and alter Dickinson’s pieces. It took a long time for people to think publishing her poems “as is” was a good idea, but that’s when they really took off in popularity, and when people started to peer into the strange, private life of this crazy recluse poet. Her legacy was still misunderstood and mangled for a while after her death, even by her own, arguably well-meaning family. That’s the danger of being quietly, brilliantly ahead of your time. People assume you are mistaken and “fix” things for you.

Now, of course, publishers print Dickinson’s poems as she wrote them as much as possible. This can be difficult, as she never titled or numbered her poems, and in her later years her keeping of them got especially un-ordered and haphazard, but people try their best, because they know they owe this poor quiet mind that much.


One of Dickinson’s few portraits.


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