“Fame is a bee/It has a song/It has a sting/Ah, too, it has a wing,” Emily Dickinson, who lived from 1830-1886, tartly warned 19th century wannabe celebs.
Fleeting fame wasn’t a worry for Dickinson during her lifetime. Only 10 of her poems were published while she lived. Today, Emily D is the Lady Gaga of poetry; and we’re her “Little Monsters,” gobbling up her poems which sound like syncopated, razor-sharp Tweets.
In the Trump era, these poems, written by a single woman who didn’t submit to religious orthodoxy and is thought by some scholars to have been queer, speak to us more than ever. “If I can stop one heart from breaking/I shall not live in vain,” Dickinson wrote. Listening to the news of civil rights setbacks, Dickinson’s words echo in my brain.
“Truth is so rare that it is delightful to tell it,” Dickinson wrote. If only, Dickinson could be here in this time of “fake news!”
Emily D’s spirit is everywhere. The Morgan Library & Museum exhibition “I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson” just closed. In 2013, the online Emily Dickinson archive combined manuscripts of Dickinson’s poems from Harvard University, Amherst College, the Boston Public Library and other institutions.
“A Quiet Passion,” a movie about Dickinson starring Cynthia Nixon (as Dickinson) and directed by Terence Davies, is the latest in Emily D buzz. If only, this picture had buzz.
There’s much that we don’t know about Dickinson. We don’t know for sure if Emily D ever had a male or female lover (though she had intense friendships with women). Any poet will tell you that Dickinson and Walt Whitman are the greats – the geniuses of American poetry. But I defy any bard to say, with certainty, what her poems mean. That’s the fun of reading Dickinson. It’s you and Emily D surfing the mysterious waves.
Yet, we do know one thing: Dickinson wasn’t boring. Until “A Quiet Passion.” Cynthia Nixon’s fab as Emily D. It’s lovely to hear her read Dickinson’s poetry. Nixon has great acting chops. This year, she’s a Tony Award nominee for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her performance in “The Little Foxes.”
Nixon played Miranda in “Sex and the City.” (Who could forget the “funky spunk?”) I wouldn’t want Emily D’s story to morph into SATC. But, “A Quiet Passion” could use some funky spunk! The film doesn’t have the sentimentality of “The Belle of Amherst,” the popular play about Dickinson. Some scenes (about 45 minutes) of this movie are engaging. (The film runs for two hours and five minutes.) We see young Emily D (Emma Bell) as she’s about to be asked to leave Mount Holyoke College, a women’s Christian school, for thumbing her nose at the religious orthodoxy of the day.
In a great scene in “A Quiet Passion,” a pastor (Miles Richardson) tells her that she’s being impious. “Will you not kneel and give yourself to God?” he asks her.
“No, sir, I will not kneel,” Emily D tells him, “Though, I think that God has already given Himself to me.”
Though the movie provides glimpses of her spirit and lively mind, too much of “Passion” presents Dickinson as an unhappy recluse. Emily D lived in one room in her Amherst home for most of her life. But, that one room gave Dickinson what Virginia Woolf called a “room of her own,” where she could write. Emily D corresponded with hundreds of people. “My friends are my estate,” she wrote.
Dickinson lived through the Civil War, grieved when her friends died and suffered from Bright’s disease. “Because I could not stop for death, He kindly stopped for me,” she wrote.
But, Dickinson wasn’t mournful or passive. “I dwell in possibility,” she wrote, and “Fortune befriends the bold.”
Be bold. Take a poetic ride with Emily D.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.