Emily Dickinson: Gothic Queen
One of the most significant bummers in my professional life is when I tried to base a short story around Dickinson’s poem I Heard a Fly buzz- when I died. My main character becomes fixated on the memory of the haunting poem until she ultimately takes her life. I was proud of the way I’d intertwined the poem and my words, reveling in the proximity of Dickinson’s genius. But, I was mistaken in believing the poem was public domain. It is, in fact, owned by Harvard, and thus made it impossible for me include it in a published story. I changed it all to the Vincent Price film, The Fly, and I think it still works. Yet, losing the poem still bothers me.
My father is one of those people who can recite poetry with no scrap of paper or prompt. He evokes King Lear, line by perfect line, and the dark work of his favorite poet, Emily Dickinson. As a teenager I became intrigued with Dickinson, her words, yes, but also her life. She was an unapologetic homebody, a woman not interested in much beyond the life of fantasy she constructed. In her fifty-five years she rejected travel, marriage, motherhood, and the other trappings of what would be considered a normal life in Victorian New England.
Her singularity, her innate uniqueness, is evident in her poetry. Not all of it is gothic, but my favorite ones are. She explored death, questioned God, and experimented with the rules of grammar. In a world where women were long from being remotely equal, Dickinson channeled her immense talent into poetry that transcended her small orbit of Massachusetts.
As an author it can be difficult to navigate the tricky tightrope between obscurity and success. I struggle, sometimes, to know where to place my energy. Do I focus on social media today? Or send an email in order to network, to gain a review, to get a feather in my proverbial cap? And then I think of Emily. She didn’t concern herself with such trivial matters. In fact, I hasten to conclude, social media would not have been a part of her life, no matter the decade. Emily Dickinson cared about the gravity of words. She needed only their meaning, their essence, to achieve purpose. I think of her when I find myself spinning off course. I think of how she didn’t care to be famous, to be noticed. It was the words, placed expertly and carefully beside each other. It was her truth, laid bare.
If you like dark things I encourage you to seek out Dickinson’s work. There are a few overused phrases she’s known for, you may have seen stitched on a pillow somewhere (“Hope is the thing with feathers- that perches in the soul”). But, I assure you, Emily is a Victorian Goth. She was fascinated by death, and dared, even with whiffs of prior puritanism still surrounding New England, to question if there was, indeed, an afterlife. I admit, I’m normally drawn to novels and short stories, poetry can become brittle and difficult to get lost into. Yet, Dickinson’s command of the language is something to behold, and I truly believe even the most skeptical reader of poetry couldn’t help but get lost in her words.
I’ll never hold the radiant talent of Emily Dickinson. But what I can learn from her, besides the reverence of every, single word, is to find my purpose in the work. I often discover myself skidding off the trail, and then I picture Dickinson’s austere portrait. And I imagine what Gothic Queen, Emily Dickinson, would say. That I need to throw myself into the dark web of my thoughts, and create magic.