Go ahead. Name Emily Dickinson’s most famous poem. Chances are 10 in 10 that you will choose “I’m Nobody,” a.k.a. “260” in the canon.
Go ahead again. Name Emily Dickinson’s best poem. Chances are 10 in 10 again that you will choose anything but “I’m Nobody” (unless you’re still in your teen years, in which case, I can sympathize, trust me).
What is it about this poem that scratches people’s itch? First, let’s take a look at one of the versions. Word for word, some versions diverge, but capitals for capitals, commas for commas, and especially dashes for dashes? Almost all do. It’s the Dickinson way.
by Somebody named Emily Dickinson
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us — you know!
How dreary to be somebody!
How public like a frog
To tell one’s name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
First of all, the “you” in the first stanza, though read as a singular “you,” is in truth a plural “you.” And the quip “Then there’s a pair of us”? A lie of the first order. There are a gazillion of us!
Here Emily has tapped into humankind’s natural tendency for solipsism. Secretly or not (especially if you are an “adult”), the world revolves around us. We all pity ourselves. After all, we’ve been practicing the craft since we were children at our mother’s indifferent knee. Poor, poor us! Us nobodies, that is.
And stanza two? It is the “Who Are We Kidding?” stanza. “How dreary to be somebody,” as in famous, as in rich, and in — better yet — both. The reason we find it dreary is because we haven’t experienced it and resent those who have. Naturally, then, the psychology of humans is to lean scornful (and pay no attention to that green-eyed monster behind the curtain!).
That’s right, many of the “nobodies” who read this poem and cheer it all the way to the “man, that was quick!” finish line wish they were frogs shopping the latest bogs (or, at the very least, renovating them on HGTV).
So, if you want to write a viral poem, one that will grab the world by the lapels, play dumb and pretend to ignore what you truly want. Knock it before you try it, in other words. In stanzas. End rhymes optional.
Signed, Yet Another Somebody-in-Waiting (translation in Amherst-ese: “Nobody”)
Summer Reading for Nobody in Particular