Emily Dickinson explodes
So did she or didn’t she and do we care? Travis Nichols is right to question the misguided investment made in how a poet goes about things and what they were wearing at the time, although there is sometimes something to be gained from putting the books down and going there.
I lived in Amherst for five months and failed (quite unconsciously) to visit the Dickinson home. I sat in an apartment belonging to the college founded by her grandfather, and read her poems and letters instead. It helped to be there under her sky (what could be seen of it through all those trees) and to get a sense of life in the kind of place you felt yourself entering or leaving, but I had no curiosity about her chairs and tables, let alone what action might have been seen by her sofa.
Some years later, I went back to make a radio programme about her and so had to get over myself and go inside.
The replica portraits and furniture, the stagings of Dickinson family life, left me cold, but the physics did say something about her metaphysics. Her room surprised me. It is more lighthouse than attic – spacious and with large windows from which she could have seen everything going on in the centre of town.
It seems to me that in several ways she made the most she could of the space available, and that one of the things she depended on from space was containment. If you follow Don Share’s link to Dickinson’s snood, you can see just above it a sampler she sewed as a child. With each line, she runs out of room, bringing to mind something she said in a letter to Higginson: ‘When I try to organise, my little force explodes.’ She has to squeeze words in above and to the side, like the variants in her manuscripts. She neither measured the space nor unstitched and corrected her work (and as the Houghton curator, Betsy Falsey, pointed out to me, no one made her: perhaps her first reason not to leave home).
Dickinson wrote on whatever came to hand and left her poems in roughly sewn bundles. It was in her town, however, that I first encountered the notebook as fetish object. Does anyone really believe that if they write on pages containing gold thread or pressed leaves, their words will emerge all golden and pressed? You need to be able to make a mess of a page and how can you do that when the page is so pretty and so expensive? And why bother with notebooks when all you really need to do is lock your door, pour a glass of sherry, part your hair dead centre and climb into a white dress? And a snood. I was forgetting the snood.
Lavinia Greenlaw has published three books of poems, most recently Minsk. Her two novels are Mary George of Allnorthover and An Irresponsible Age and she has also published a memoir, The Importance of Music to Girls. Her work for BBC radio includes programs about the Arctic, the Baltic, the solstices...