A fame petite

A modest lot, a fame petite,
A brief campaign of sting and sweet
Is plenty! Is enough!
A sailor’s business is the shore,
A soldier’s—balls. Who asketh more
Must seek the neighboring life!

~Emily Dickinson

In this poem, Dickinson seems to be arguing that we should be content with what we have. A sailor’s business is sailing, a soldier’s fighting. Anyone who wants more should look elsewhere than their own life.

It’s interesting to read this poem in light of the traditional arguments that Dickinson didn’t want to be famous, that she was an introverted recluse who didn’t seek an audience for her poems. This has always felt like an odd reading to me–why would she write poetry and save it if she had no intention of putting it out into the world?

New reimaginings of Dickinson’s life seem to be challenging the notion of the reclusive poet. Though some of Dickinson’s poems seem to focus on the quiet domestic blisses and the joys of being “nobody,” I can’t help but think that she wanted her words to be read. There’s something hugely ambitious in so much of her poetry. We can probably never know for sure what she was thinking, what she really wanted, but my guess is that it wasn’t as modest or petite as the fate she advocates for in this poem.


A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

~Emily Dickinson

Who owns a story? Who owns a poem? A play? A piece of music? There’s something very modern about Dickinson’s sensibility in this poem. While old schools of criticism have focused on seeking intrinsic, inviolate meanings in literature, newer ones play with subjectivity, with individual responses.

There is much talk in the writing community about how once a book is in the hands of readers, it no longer belongs solely to the author. Each reader brings to each story a different set of experiences, emotions, perspectives. Stories become not weakened by this, but stronger. They begin to live and breathe, to take on lives of their own. They multiply themselves into myriad visions, and in this way assure their own survival.

The instant a word is spoken, written, it breathes its first breath and comes alive.

Emily Dickinson, Nature-Girl

This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,—
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.

Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!

~emily dickinson

Is this the most famous Emily Dickinson poem? If not, it’s got to be right up there. I can’t remember the first time I read this poem–perhaps it was an elementary school English class. I suspect anyone who’s ever taken a literature course in the United States could quote the first line or two. It serves as an epigraph in collections of Dickinson’s poetry, though those poems were not arranged by her, so their order is at least somewhat arbitrary. The poem itself seems pretty straightforward.

As I read it for the gazillionth (??) time, though, something new jumps out at me–the way that Dickinson seems to equate herself with Nature. In the first stanza, she announces that this (this poem?) is her “letter to the world,” and then there’s an Em-dash and then “the simple news that Nature told.” The setup of the stanza seems to be equating “my letter” with Nature’s news.

Then, in the second stanza, the speaker asks that her countrymen “judge tenderly of” her because of their love of Nature. Throughout the short poem, Dickinson seems to be conflating her poetry with Nature’s creation. She is a microcosm of Nature Herself, able to create entire worlds in verse. Like Nature, the poet is a creator, a maker of things, a breather of life into what was lifeless, a transformer of the raw materials of words/world into meaning and matter.


AN altered look about the hills;
A Tyrian light the village fills;
A wider sunrise in the dawn;
A deeper twilight on the lawn;
A print of a vermilion foot;
A purple finger on the slope;
A flippant fly upon the pane;
A spider at his trade again;
An added strut in chanticleer;
A flower expected everywhere;
An axe shrill singing in the woods;
Fern-odors on untravelled roads,—
All this, and more I cannot tell,
A furtive look you know as well,
And Nicodemus’ mystery
Receives its annual reply.

~Emily Dickinson

April is here at last, bearing with it all the telltale signs. The light looks different in spring, as if the whole world is breathing in deeply yet quietly. The redbud trees are beginning to flush with a faint haze of purple. Flies are making their way in, somehow. Spiders have been plying the corners all year long, of course, but now that the flies are back, there’s cause for much celebratory and anticipatory web-construction. My chanticleer definitely has an added strut, though here we call him Louis XIV, and he does his best to live up to the name, loudly greeting the sun well before it appears and shepherding the hens around the yard, fussing them to safety when a red-tailed hawk soars by overhead. Around here, there aren’t so many axes ringing out–the sharp echoes here are from distant neighbors testing the sights on shotguns, preparing to scare crows and groundhogs away from spring plantings. The smell of spring is lush, wet, mineral. It smells at once like rain, pollen, and groundwater, like sunshine and sap and hope. It’s difficult to adequately describe–it’s a sight glimpsed briefly, a faint scent, a fleeting sound.

What does spring look, smell, taste, sound, feel like in your corner of the world?

Spring magic

A murmur in the trees to note,
Not loud enough for wind;
A star not far enough to seek,
Nor near enough to find;

A long, long yellow on the lawn,
A hubbub as of feet;
Not audible, as ours to us,
But dapperer, more sweet;

A hurrying home of little men
To houses unperceived,—
All this, and more, if I should tell,
Would never be believed.

Of robins in the trundle bed
How many I espy
Whose nightgowns could not hide the wings,
Although I heard them try!

But then I promised ne’er to tell;
How could I break my word?
So go your way and I’ll go mine,—
No fear you’ll miss the road.

~emily dickinson

Today is the spring equinox. The robins are back. The sun is shining, and the world is coming fully alive again after its long cold sleep. Night and day balance on an invisible fulcrum. Anything is possible.

This is a poem about magic, about the possibility of the impossible, about the glorious intangible. Okay, it’s an Emily Dickinson poem, so it’s probably somehow about death, but I have decided that I am going to read this as a poem about faeries and how they are Real, dangit. You can read it however you want–“go your way and I’ll go mine,” as the poet says. “No fear you’ll miss the road.” It’s almost as if she’s instructing us to read this poem however we like.

That, after all, is one of the great beauties of poetry–its multiplicities of possibility, of meaning, its ability to be all things to all people. This May, I’ll be substitute teaching a couple of middle school English classes for a friend on maternity leave. I get to teach the poetry unit, and it’s the last lines of this poem that I want to take as my mantra, my teaching philosophy. There is magic in poetry, and teaching can suck that right out if it’s not done well.

The magic is there for each of us to find. Maybe we find the same magic. Maybe we don’t. But it’s there.

“Pale sustenance”

I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keeps the Key to –
Putting up
Our Life – His Porcelain –
Like a Cup –

Discarded of the Housewife –
Quaint – or Broke –
A newer Sevres pleases –
Old Ones crack –

I could not die – with You –
For One must wait
To shut the Other’s Gaze down –
You – could not –

And I – could I stand by
And see You – freeze –
Without my Right of Frost –
Death’s privilege?

Nor could I rise – with You –
Because Your Face
Would put out Jesus’ –
That New Grace

Glow plain – and foreign
On my homesick Eye –
Except that You than He
Shone closer by –

They’d judge Us – How –
For You – served Heaven – You know,
Or sought to –
I could not –

Because You saturated Sight –
And I had no more Eyes
For sordid excellence
As Paradise

And were You lost, I would be –
Though My Name
Rang loudest
On the Heavenly fame –

And were You – saved –
And I – condemned to be
Where You were not –
That self – were Hell to Me –

So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –
Despair –

~Emily Dickinson

The only way this poem could be more Emily Dickinson would be if it had a bird and some flowers in it. Otherwise, it seems to hit all of what I am coming to think of as the Dickinson notes: pathos, unanswered questions, metaphors galore, paradox, passion depicted in terms of cold rather than heat, and a healthy helping of blasphemy.

This poem devastates from the first line–“I cannot live with you”–and then piles on the sorrow. Life is behind a locked shelf, but “our” life, her life, is locked in that shelf. Despite being locked in, it is old, weak, unpleasing. The beloved could not wait for her, and the speaker could not rise with the beloved–this just gets more and more tragic, in that quiet, Dickinsonian way.

This brings us to the really fun part. The reason the speaker cannot rise with the beloved is that, to her, Jesus would pale in comparison. The beloved served heaven–or tried to, she qualifies–but she could not. She even suggests that she would cast off heaven to follow him into hell. She takes this a step further to say that she would become hell to herself if not near him after death.

Then comes the paradox–“So we must meet apart”–with only a door ajar between them, a space wide as oceans. After all the blaspheming, she then suggests that prayer connects them, and finally ends, in peak Emily style, on the word “despair.”

It’s a gut-wrenching poem, but also meticulously executed. There’s much to examine here, and I’ve only touched on a few of the points that fascinate me. Of the poems we’ve read so far this year, this one strikes me as perhaps the most emblematic of Dickinson’s brave and passionate style. What do you think?

A month of love poems

This is a family heirloom–
a vintage Valentine–
that says nothing of love–
or asks you if you’ll be mine.
Would Emily approve 
of such utter lack of words? 
Perhaps–at least–if nothing else–
she would enjoy the birds?

For the month of February, we’ve decided to focus on love poems. Emily Dickinson wrote quite a lot of them. Many of them are about death (surprise!!!). Many are not. Here’s a definition of love to get us started:

LOVE is anterior to life,
Posterior to death,
Initial of creation, and
The exponent of breath.

~Emily Dickinson

This one seems fairly straightforward to me. Love exists before life and persists after death (oh, look, death! She worked it in. Go, Emily, go! Way to stay on brand!). Love is at the beginning of creation–is the cause of creation–and issues forth on our last breaths. Love=eternal. This tiny poem has the feel of an epigram, a wise saying encapsulated in a few well-chosen words. This seems like a good place to start–by defining our terms.

“Deadly sweet”


TALK with prudence to a beggar
Of “Potosi” and the mines!
Reverently to the hungry
Of your viands and your wines!

Cautious, hint to any captive
You have passed enfranchised feet!
Anecdotes of air in dungeons
Have sometimes proved deadly sweet!

~Emily Dickinson

This is another Dickinson poem that feels sharply prescient. In the age of social media’s many brags, humble and otherwise, we’re periodically reminded by scary stories of stalkers and trolls that we share at our own risk. But we also share at the risk of others. Coming off the holiday season, I am reminded of all the people for whom the holidays are hard, and how much harder our constant oversharing must make the experience. I think of the trendily matte Christmas cards with their professional photographs of smiling families in color-coordinated outfits and wonder what the effect is on people without families, or people whose families make the holidays a torment rather than a joy.

Today the polar vortex blasts in, carving a swath through the continent and plunging the American South to sub-Arctic temperatures. People joke about the cold, shudder in a pleasant mixture of dread and anticipation (freezing outside but warm inside–sweaters, hot chocolate, fireplaces). How many people don’t have anything good to anticipate? How often do we long for cold (it will kill the viruses!), snow (it’s so pretty!), winter storms (a day off from work/school!) without imagining what pain that pleasure will bring for some?

Dickinson uses Potosí, a massive and once highly-productive silver mine run by the Spanish in what is now Bolivia, as an example of vast riches. The mine’s history is also one of exploitation and slavery, and I wonder how much she knew about this. The miners were as much prisoners as the captives she mentions at the end of the poem.

In the thin cold days of winter, this poem is a reminder to think outside ourselves, beyond our own experiences, and consider the impact of our messages on others.

“Those who ne’er succeed”

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of victory

As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

~Emily Dickinson

Far more astute people than I have said a hundred million things about this poem, as it’s one of Dickinson’s best-known pieces, one of the infinitely anthologized. I chose this one today because of a conversation I had yesterday with my brother. (Hi, Will!) I’m not going to try to get academic with it, but instead tease out some thoughts and connections it’s raising for me.

I often feel like a member of some eclectic diaspora, constantly searching for my people. I have been fortunate to find a few of them over the past decades. I’m especially fortunate to have some of them in my actual biological family. My siblings are both makers, creators, one an artist/writer/crafter, the other a writer/artist/actor. We all dabble in various creative endeavors while committing the bulk of our time to one. My sister is an artist, my brother and I are writers. As another one of my people, my writer-friend and colleague Kelsey has said, “We are made of making.”

There is, of course, infinite joy inherent in the creative process. We all love what we do. We seek to carve out time for creative pursuits amidst the busyness of life as partners, parents, employees, activists, friends, family members, students, volunteers, and generally productive members of society. But I wonder how many of us there are who dream of making our creative pursuits our careers, our true life’s work.

It’s hard, and this was the gist of my conversation yesterday with Will. It often kind of sucks. Recently I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, and while I loved what she says, I have a LOT of questions about the position from which she says it. Gilbert argues that we should create for the sheer joy of creating, that we shouldn’t care about success or acclaim or income or any of that. Which is all good stuff. BUT.

It seems to me that it is very, very easy to say these things from a position of privilege–the privilege that comes with economic security, with acclaim, with a TED talk, with a following of millions of adoring fans ready to validate your every word. Yes, there are haters (always, always, and it seems to me that these are definitely not my diaspora people–these are the people who consume and criticize without making), but overall, to be a bestselling author seems like a pretty okay gig. I mean, I’m guessing that Gilbert isn’t stressing about how she’s going to budget for daycare when the transmission just died. She’s not wondering if she’s ever going to have the rare and beautiful privilege of making a living doing what she loves. She’s definitely not wondering if anyone other than her mom is ever going to read her stuff.

In recent months I’ve read a number of Twitter threads by published writers warning the rest of us in great detail that being published isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, that it’s hard, that it’s harder than not being published, and that the rest of us should all beware. Implicit in many of these cautionary tales is the notion that unpublished writers are completely naive and think that life will suddenly become perfect with publication, and that we should stop complaining already and realize that our lives are so much better than those of the published.

This, it seems to me, is bunk. Doubtless many people are laboring under the impression that publication is a magic pill. However, I maintain that there are many of us who have been around long enough to realize that life is not perfect, that nothing is, but that achieving our major professional goal would actually not be a totally horrible thing.

It’s so easy, from the privileged position of the successful, to tell others what they should do, want, even think. I am reminded of Tolkien’s elves, how they occasionally seem just a tiny bit wistful when they look at humans and ponder the beauty of our brave fragility in the face of certain death. There are things the immortal will never understand. The rest of us labor on, looking up toward that rarefied atmosphere and dreaming.

So I believe that Dickinson is right. Those of us who have not achieved a certain measure of worldly success have a completely different perspective from those who have. And I think that once you achieve that success, you may be able to look back and recall what it was like before, but you cannot truly feel what it is like to have never succeeded. Once you cross that bridge, there is no crossing back. You can’t un-succeed. Sure, you can stop trying and fade into obscurity, but you can’t undo the fact of having achieved what you have. You can remember how you felt, but you cannot know what it is like to have never succeeded.

So here’s my ask. (If you’ve read this far, I am hopeful that you are one of my diaspora peeps.) Should I “make it,” should I publish books and make a career as a writer, and then wax rhapsodic about how much harder my life is than that of the unsuccessful, and tell you that you have no idea, and inform you how much better off you are than I, please kick me in the shins. Thanks.

“An instinct for the hoar, the bald”


I think the hemlock likes to stand
Upon a marge of snow;
It suits his own austerity,
And satisfies an awe

That men must slake in wilderness,
Or in the desert cloy,—
An instinct for the hoar, the bald,
Lapland’s necessity.

The hemlock’s nature thrives on cold;
The gnash of northern winds
Is sweetest nutriment to him,
His best Norwegian wines.

To satin races he is nought;
But children on the Don
Beneath his tabernacles play,
And Dnieper wrestlers run.

~Emily Dickinson

Dickinson’s aesthetic in this poem is reminiscent of the Romantics and their passion for the sublime. The snow-verging hemlock is not lovely or picturesque, but austere. Such sights, the speaker argues, humans need. We thirst for them, and seek them in extremes of climate. We crave not only beauty but have “an instinct for the hoar, the bald.”

So here is your prompt: choose a sight, scene, or object that is not conventionally lovely, and write a description that makes the reader crave the sight of it. Thorny caterpillar? Bruise-colored storm clouds? Mud puddle? It’s all good. We would love to read if you care to share in the comments!