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8 Tips on How to Read Emily Dickinson's Poetry

Of all of the past American poets, Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) remains one of the most enigmatic and treasured. There is much we don't know about her life. However, we know that she lived a lot of her life isolated, despite receiving a strong education at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.

Although she had friends, much of her relationship with them was based on correspondence. She never married, and the few times the locals of Amherst saw her in her later years, she would typically be wearing all white and preferred to speak to guests through doors instead of face to face. As mysterious as the poet herself was, her poetry also challenges those who read it, with its unique approach and form.

As with much of writing, to understand the words, you must first understand the author and some of the ways she approached writing poems. With that in mind, here are 8 tips on how to read Emily Dickinson's poetry.

#1. Understand that much of her published poems were highly edited

If you feel like a Dickinson poem is missing something, you might be right, as a 1998 New York Times article revealed that her published work is highly edited. There have been reprints of her poetry collection without the bulk of these edits, but in some cases, we may never know how much of her work was edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson—the first publishers of her found poetry after her death.

Part of the reason they were edited is that much of Dickinson's poetry was highly personal, and at points, even erotic. Dickinson asked her younger sister to burn all of her letters and poems on her deathbed, but when her sister found the bulk of her writing, couldn't bring herself to do it. Instead, she gave it to Mabel Loomis Todd, who was a family friend. According to Todd, when she first saw most of the poetry, "The outlook was appalling. Emily wrote in the strangest hand ever seen, which I had to absolutely incorporate into my innermost consciousness before I could be certain of anything she reflected." A problem also arose in parts where Dickinson had written "six or eight" different words she was considering using, without ever settling on one in particular.

#2. Focus on the lively style and voice

In April 1862, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a literary critic wrote a piece for The Atlantic Monthly titled, "Letter to a Young Contributor," urging aspiring writers to "charge your style with life." This attracted Emily Dickinson's attention, compelling her to contact Higginson and send him a few of her poems. Here is her query letter, revealing the spark of personality that becomes equally evident in her poetry, as well as a glimpse of her unique style of punctuating lines.

Mr. Higginson,
Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?
The Mind is so near itself – it cannot see, distinctly – and I have none to ask –
Should you think it breathed – and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude –
If I make the mistake – that you dared to tell me – would give me sincerer honor – toward you –
I enclose my name – asking you, if you please – Sir – to tell me what is true?
That you will not betray me – it is needless to ask – since Honor is its own pawn –

#3. Realize there is more to her than reclusive poet

Although Emily Dickinson's name is now most widely used in poetry circles, when she was alive, she was best known for her gardening abilities. Dickinson studied botany from the age of nine and was responsible for the garden at her family home. She collected pressed plants in a 66-page leather-bound herbarium, containing 424 flower specimens that she collected, classified, and labeled using the Linnaean system. Her references to botany throughout her poetry reflect this passion.

#4. Think of her poetry as songs

Emily Dickinson's poetry is referred to as lyric poetry, where first-person point of view is common. It's written in common meter, which is when lines alternate between eight syllables and six syllables. In most of her poems, you'll find that these syllables alternate between unstressed (short) and stressed (long) syllables, imitating the beating of one's own heart. While Shakespeare also made use of the iamb (alternating between unstressed and stressed syllables), Dickinson plays with the form—and at points, loses it completely. This is part of what made her poetry very "modern" for its time.

Her poem "Wild Nights – Wild Nights!" is a great example of this.

Wild nights - Wild nights! (269)

Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!
Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
In thee!

#5. Don't expect titles

Finding a particular poem within Dickinson's vast portfolio of poetry (approximately 1800 poems) can be difficult. However, keep in mind that most of her poetry is not titled, and is therefore cited using the first line of the poem as its title. There are also numbers assigned to her poetry, but these have been assigned by editors and don't have intrinsic meaning other than as a system for organizing her work.

#6. Don't get hung up on form

Emily Dickinson experimented with several different forms, which is part of the reason her poetry was ahead of its time. She did this by varying the meter and stanza of her writing. While she mostly wrote in common meter, this was not always the case, and she didn't force a strict number of syllables per line. So, if you're looking for perfect form in her poetry, you'll be disappointed. Some poems, however, do force a strict number of syllables per line, such as "Tell all the truth but tell it slant".

Tell all the truth but tell it slant — (1263)

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

#7. Understand slant rhyme

Just as Dickinson experimented with meter, she also experimented with rhyme, choosing to use what is known as "slant rhyme" throughout much of her writing. Also known as "approximate rhyme," slant rhyme is rhyme in which either the vowels or the consonants of stressed syllables are identical. For example, "crate" and "braid" are slant rhyme because of their shared long a syllable.

When poets use slant rhyme, the listener's ear picks up on it, even though it's subtle. It's obviously not as distinct as a perfect rhyme, but there is still a cohesiveness to the words that can turn them from prose into poetry. It's also unexpected—especially if it follows perfect rhymes in previous stanzas.

#8. Read it aloud

Poetry is meant to be read aloud and is part of an ancient tradition of oral storytelling. Without reading Emily Dickinson's poetry aloud, you'll miss the lyrical quality of her words and cadence, which are much of what makes her poetry so beautiful. In fact, Mabel Loomis Todd convinced Thomas Wentworth Higginson of the power of Dickinson's poetry by reading selections aloud to him.

For example, try reading "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" without reading it aloud first, then read it aloud. You'll understand the difference between the two and how it changes the quality of her words.

"I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" (340)

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading - treading - till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through -
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum -
Kept beating - beating - till I thought
My mind was going numb -
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space - began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here -
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing - then –

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