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Helen Vendler Re-Introduces Emily Dickinson

Posted by Josh Rothman  October 25, 2010 07:30 AM

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Emily Dickinson's poems are both widely known and unknown - you can memorize them in high school and, decades later, still find them defiantly weird and enjoyable. They're among the most accessible and the most gnomic of American poems: dark, prickly, funny, and surprising.

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If it's been a while since you last sat down with Dickinson, now is a great time: Helen Vendler's new book, Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries, is both an anthology (it contains 150 of Dickinson's nearly 1,800 poems) and an interpretive introduction, with a short essay following and explaining each poem. Vendler is almost certainly the best poetry critic in America, and she's hit upon a great way of writing about poetry. Reading each poem, followed by Vendler's commentary, it feels like you're in your own private poetry class. (Full disclosure: the graduate seminars I took with Vendler were among the best intellectual experiences of my life.)

What's the best thing about Dickinson's writing? For Vendler, it's the mix of surprise and concision - the way that Dickinson can take an old theme and see it, vividly and instantly, in a new way. Dickinson's poems are about the usual subjects (death, the soul, the meaning of life), but those subjects are often re-imagined suddenly, sometimes even in the first line of a poem, like "Because I could not stop for Death-- / He kindly stopped for me." Renunciation, Vendler writes, is another of Dickinson's themes, and "a longstanding religious concept. But on her page, it is ‘the putting out of Eyes / Just Sunrise —’.” You can listen to Vendler reading and explaining about a dozen of Dickinson's poems with Christopher Lydon in this wonderful, 90-minute radio interview.

This would also be a great time of year to visit the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, where she wrote almost all of her poems in the privacy of her bedroom; its repressed, slightly Gothic atmosphere matches that of the poems, which Vendler describes as "epigrammatic, terse, abrupt, surprising, unsettling, flirtatious, savage, winsome, metaphysical, provocative, blasphemous, tragic, funny." Or you can make it to Harvard's Houghton Library on Fridays at 2 for a tour which includes the Dickinson Room: it contains the Dickinson family library, the desk where she wrote most of her poems, and the bureau into which she stuffed more than 1,000 of them, and in which they were discovered after her death. Dickinson was, to say the least, a private person:

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us - don't tell!
They'd advertise - you know!

How dreary to be somebody!
How public like a frog
To tell one's name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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