Three American Poets

By Sarah Levesque (Rated PG for questions regarding sexuality)

Title rolls: The Lizzy F Show with Emily Dickinson

Lizzy F: Good afternoon and welcome to the Lizzy F show! I’m Lizzy F, and today I am joined by prominent American poetess, Emily Dickinson. <clapping> Emily, you’re known for your unusual lifestyle and your illusive poems. Let’s start with your lifestyle. Can you tell us about that?

Emily Dickinson: Well, I withdrew from society. During that time, I did not leave my yard. I lived with my parents and my sister Lavinia. My brother had built his house and raised his family next door.

LF: You said you withdrew from society. What did that entail?

ED: As I said, I did not leave my yard. There are hedges around it, so I had my privacy. Only a handful of people were allowed into the yard. I did keep up my correspondence, though.

LF: How many correspondents did you have?

ED: Oh, that varied. I wrote up to twenty letters a day, though.

LF: Wow! I don’t even write that many emails a day. That must have taken most of your time.

ED: It took up a lot of time, yes, but I enjoyed it.

LF: Why did you seclude yourself? You had been quite the social butterfly.

ED: I had my reasons. One of them was that I had everything I needed without going anywhere. Another was that I value my privacy. But also, home is a place of infinite power where the soul selects her own society, as I once wrote.

LF: I can see that – you can pretty much control who you interact with. Now, you’re wearing a white dress today. Is it true that white is the only color you wear?

ED: It tends to be my base color, yes.

LF: Why is that?

ED: (smiling secretively) I have my reasons.

LF: I’m intrigued, but we’ll let you have your secrets. Let’s talk about your family life, shall we?

ED: As I mentioned, my sister Lavinia and I lived with our parents until their deaths, and we stayed on in the same house afterwards. My brother Austin married my good friend Susan, and they built a house next door, where they raised their children.

LF: Could you comment on the relationship between Austin and your neighbor Mabel Loomis Todd? I’ve heard some juicy rumors.

ED: All I will say is I disapprove, though I do enjoy corresponding with Mabel.

LF: Okay. What about your sister Lavinia’s love life?

ED: She has had many suitors, and multiple proposals, but she never married. I am thankful of that, for I am not sure what I would do without her.

LF: What about you?

ED: I’ve fancied some men in my time, of course, but it seems marriage is not for me.

LF: And love?

ED: I am content with the love of my family.

LF: What about the Master Letters?

ED: To whom they were written does not concern you.

LF: Were they to Otis Lord?

ED: The judge is a dear friend, as his is wife. Anything else is complete construct.

LF: Of course. Let’s move on, then, to your poetry. Why do you write?

ED: I write for myself, mostly, to satisfy that nag of my inner self that says “write that down.” There are a few poems, however, that I have written for other people.

LF: Tell us about your poems.

ED: I don’t share many of them. They’re more like my inner thoughts. Many are about God, or my garden, just bits and pieces of my life.

LF: Okay. Can you tell us a bit about your illusive punctuation?

ED: I don’t think I can explain it. I punctuate them as it seems fit to me.

LF: But you prefer the dash to the period.

ED: Well, yes, on the whole. A period is so final. A dash – a dash can mean anything, can be anything.

LF: I see. You’ve only published a handful of poems, but you’ve written hundreds more, right?

ED: That’s right. I don’t really want the critics going over my own thoughts, and I hate that they change my punctuation and my words to fit their norms. But I have put together many little books of my poems that I keep for myself. I’ve probably written 1500 poems, at this point.

LF: Wow! How long would you say you’ve been writing for?

ED: Oh, I’ve been writing for too long to remember.

LF: With that many poems, I don’t doubt it.

ED: Well, I do write multiple poems a day.

LF: Wow! That’s incredible!

ED: Thank you.

LF: We have another guest today who was excited to come talk with you. One of the first female poets on North American soil, her poetry was published in England without her consent, and was very well received. Please welcome Anne Bradstreet!

<clapping as Anne Bradstreet enters and sits>

Anne Bradstreet: Thank you. Miss Dickinson, it is a pleasure to meet you.

ED: Likewise, but please call me Emily. I cannot believe I’m meeting you – the female Puritan poet! I found it quite interesting that you wrote at all, considering your placement in life. You defied the odds – you were educated in an era when few females were, you live a Puritanical life, which frowns on such frivolity, and you still managed to keep up with all your housework and your family without help! With my servants and no children, my life is terribly easy compared to yours, Mrs. Bradstreet.

AB: Thy world is much different than mine, but I would not have changed mine. And please, call me Anne.

LF: Ladies, you have many things in common, the chief things being your femininity in the traditionally masculine role of poet, and your reluctance of publicizing your work.

ED: It’s like having the average man read your journal – embarrassing without reason, because it is your private thoughts.

AB: I agree. My poems were written for only a few eyes to see – my own, and those of my family and a handful of friends.

LF: Anne, what do you have to say about being a woman in the male-dominated world of poetry?

AB: I think that each person, male or female, has his own thoughts. These thoughts should be expressed in the way most natural to the thinker, whether through speech or prose, or poetry. Many people think otherwise, men and women alike. I have said this before in my Prologue:
 “I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits,
A poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits:
If what I do prove well, it won’t advance,
They’ll say “it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance.”
 But I say, “Let Greeks be Greeks, and women what they are;
Men have precidency but still excel,
It is but vain unjustly to wage war;
Men can do best, and women know it well
Preeminence in all and each is yours;
Yet grand some small acknowledgement of ours.”

LF: Emily? What do you think about being a woman in the male-dominated world of poetry?

ED: People should express themselves however it fits them best, and women should definitely be acknowledged, but men and women are equal in life and in poetry. I think that this needs to be recognized more widely. Poetry is not a man’s world, but an individual’s world.

LF: But you don’t want to publish.

ED: I don’t want them to change my writings. Besides, my journal-like scribblings have too much of me in them.

LF: Shouldn’t poems contain their writer? If you weren’t in it, would it be poetry at all?

AB: Not good poetry, at least.

LF: There you have it. Thanks, Anne, for coming. Everyone, give it up for Anne Bradstreet!

<clapping>

AB: Thank you.

<Anne Bradstreet exits>

LF: We have another guest today. He’s the controversial poet who thinks big, focusing on themes of nationalism and sex. Please welcome poet Walt Whitman!

<clapping. Walt Whitman enters, bows and sits>

Walt Whitman: Thank you! And thank you, Lizzie, for inviting me. <extends hand to ED> Miss Dickinson, a pleasure to meet you.

ED: And you, Mr. Whitman. I have read your book, Leaves of Grass.

WW: I’m flattered. What did you think?

ED: I enjoyed it, on the whole. I thought the way you portrayed sexuality was shockingly real, and as such, rather refreshing. It’s high time real life found its way into poetry. Your statement that the poet “spans… from the east to the west and reflects what is between them,” though, I cannot quite agree with (997). Surely one can be a poet without speaking for any other.

WW: A bard is to commensurate with a people, yes?

ED: Yes, but may not a humble poet simply write about her own humble life and still be called a poet? I think so, especially if she is a “complete lover of the universe,” to use your words. After all, as you said, poets are “the voice and exposition of liberty”. It seems to me that the liberty they voice and expose should include the liberty to write how they chose and still be known as poets.

WW: While I’m flattered you quote my words, do you propose that any writer is a poet? That a stolid fact-mongerer or a novelist is writing poetry?

ED: You have quite misunderstood me, Mr. Whitman. I speak of poets, not those who deal in cold fact or complete fiction, but those who use rhyme, rhythm, meter, etc. to speak of life, nature, events and experiences and in doing so bring beauty and understanding.

WW: My apologies, Miss Dickinson. In that case I cannot disagree with you. After all, a poet “is more the channel of thoughts and things without increase or diminution, and is the free channel of himself,” as I wrote in my Preface.

LF: Emily, what did you think of Walt’s style?

ED: I thought it truly American – defying the norms of Europe and writing without limits. The lists were fascinating – a new idea to be sure! Yes, I enjoyed the style very much.

WW: Thank you for your kind words.

LF: Walt, what did you think of Emily’s poetry?

WW: I found Miss Dickinson’s work intriguing. Some poems rhyming, some not, many with that unique dash driving the poem as much as containing it. The focus varied widely, which I enjoyed. The themes of death, self, and nature have been used many a time by other poets, but are wholly new here. But it’s that air of mystery – that need to look at each poem multiple times before you catch a glimpse of meaning – that mystery really makes Miss Dickinson’s work interesting to me.

ED: Now it is my turn to thank you for your kind words.

LF: I must say, I’m glad you two have gotten along so well. You’ve got such different styles – humble versus grandiose, concise versus lengthy, personal focus versus public focus, female versus male, private versus public, and the list goes on. But your similar views on including sexuality in poetry and ignoring the standards of rhyme, rhythm, meter, and punctuation have prevailed over all your differences.

ED: If after the War we could not be civil to other people, there would be no real peace.

LF: Speaking of the War and of peace, what are your opinions on human rights?

WW: Go ahead.

ED: Thank you. I believe that all humans ought to be given some rights – man or woman, African, Irish, and English alike.

LF: Yet you employ Irish as servants with low wages, do you not?

ED: We pay them what we can, and what they expect. All of our servants are well treated, and if any one of them complains, we do what we can to oblige them and fix whatever they feel is amiss.

LF: Okay. And you, Walt?

WW: I agree with Miss Dickinson – all humans should be treated the same, regardless of creed or color or sex or where you live or who you love. Our differences should not matter. We are all Americans. We are all equal. We are all necessary. We are all –

LF: I think we understand your view, now, Walt.

WW: Of course.

LF: Well, we’re running out of time. Thank you, Walt, for coming.

WW: I wouldn’t’ve missed it.

LF: Everyone, let’s give it up for Walt Whitman!

<applause. Walt Whitman bows>

WW: Thank you! To learn more about me and my poetry, pick up my latest edition of Leaves of Grass, in all major shops!

<Walt Whitman bows again and exits>

LF: Why did that not surprise me? Anyway, we have enough time to take a couple of questions for Emily Dickinson from the audience. Yes?

Woman 1: Did you have a romantic relationship with your sister-in-law, Susan?

ED: Gracious! Wherever did you get that from? Of course not. Next question, please.

Man 1: Miss Dickinson, why have you published a few poems if you don’t want people changing them and critiquing your inner thoughts?

ED: Some of my poems are a part of me for myself alone, while others are made to be shared with various friends. Still others are to be made public. But I had not discovered how much they would change my poems until they had been published.

Man 2: In your poem that begins “I’m Nobody,” do you mean Nobody to mean a private person who is not recognized in public, or do you mean it in the way Odysseus used it – a way to hide your true identity while you escape your prison through wit?

ED: Are they mutually exclusive?

Man 2: I suppose not.

ED: Well, then, I don’t have to say either is wrong. Last question?

Woman 2: Why do you focus on death so much?

ED: I suppose because I have known many people who have died, because it is something we all share, and because I look forward to it as the attainment of paradise, I hope, and the end of “the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” as Hamlet spoke.

LF: That’s all the time we have today, folks. I would like to thank all of you for joining us today. I especially would like to thank our guest, Emily Dickinson! Give it up for the reclusive poetess! As always, I’m Lizzy F, and I’ll see you next time!


Bibliography:

Gordon, Lyndall. Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds. New York: Viking Penguin, 2010. Print.

 “Emily Dickinson”.Poets.org. n.d. Web. 29 March 2015. poets.org/poetsorg/poet/emily-dickinson

“Emily Dickinson’s Love Life.” Emily Dickinson Museum. 2009. Web. 29 March 2015. https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/love_life

Murray, Aife. Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language. New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2009. Print. 

The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. Print.

Pak, Eudie, “Poetic Provocateur: 7 Surprising Facts on Emily Dickinson.” Bio. 10 March 2015. Web. 23 March 2015. http://www.biography.com/news/emily-dickinson-biography-facts

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, 3.1.63.

Walsh, John Evangelist. Emily Dickinson in Love: The Case for Otis Lord. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2012. Print.

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