Did You Ever Read One of Her Poems Backward?

By Erika Berger

Everyone knows Emily Dickinson as the poet who stayed in her room her entire life and wrote about death and being a lesbian. If everyone just had the opportunity to go deeper into Dickinson’s life, they would realize that she was much more than a recluse who wrote poetry.  I’ve thought a lot about her the past few days, and here’s what I think:

Most of Dickinson’s published works were done after her death, but do we ever stop to think about why more of her works weren’t published during her lifetime? At the Emily Dickinson Exhibit at The Morgan Library in New York City, there was a letter written by Dickinson to someone who published her poem “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” explaining her discontent with the publishing of her work without her consent. Dickinson wrote, “I had told you I did not print” and it got me thinking, why was Dickinson so against being published? And if she knew that over 1,700 of her poems were published today, how would she react? I have respect for Dickinson but I don’t think I would be willing to give up access to her poems.

Dickinson often changed her penmanship when she wrote poetry and letters. The way she signed her name “Emily” at the bottom of her writings was switched up frequently, making her letters widely spread apart or curling them. Even the way she crossed her t’s would vary with different works. Dickinson could write page after page about just one thing, like her college career, which only lasted a year. Reading excerpts of her letters to friends and family, I came to the realization that Dickinson, much like Sylvia Plath later on, was very poetic and meticulous when it came to word choice. She carefully picked every single word that she used in her letters. Even without intending to, Dickinson brought out her poetic side when writing to friends; “[I] ask instead a little apartment in your Pink Hearts” she wrote to two of her friends. Not everybody can think of such a subtle and kind way to word a request for love.

In one part of the exhibit, there was a wall covered in floral print wallpaper. I didn’t think much about the wallpaper because I thought there was just a spring-like theme in 5-The-floral-wallpaper-from-Emily-Dickinsons-bedroom-in-Amherst.jpgthe exhibit (the other walls were a light green color). Upon reading a small paragraph on the side, I discovered that the wallpaper on the wall was the same as the wallpaper that had been up in Dickinson’s room. My first thought was that I would go insane if I were surrounded by that floral print every day, but it showed a feminine and human side of Dickinson that people tend to forget exists. When we hear a name like “Emily Dickinson,” our minds automatically go to some sort of invisible entity that’s famous and surreal. To know that Dickinson wrote about death and cemeteries while surrounded by those flowers was also entertaining to me.

Although the exhibit was fairly small, there was an intimacy in the room. Everyone was quiet and light in their movements, as if Dickinson herself was there in the room and we all wanted to hear every word she whispered. There were excerpts from letters and original pieces of poetry framed and mounted on the wall for us to read and enjoy. After walking through the exhibit three times, I realized that I might never have an explanation for what went on in Dickinson’s complex mind, but that her poetry perhaps wasn’t meant to be analyzed, but simply acknowledged and understood.


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