emily dickinson

2 posts

Why Poetry? Better Still: Why Not?

While the sale of poetry books continues to languish and the number of readers who love reading (asterisk: only not poetry books) continues to skyrocket, there’s still a healthy cottage industry in writing not poetry but ABOUT poetry. Specifically its death. Or long-term prognosis. Or philosophical place in the world (hint: look low).

Among that burgeoning genre, we can add Daniel Halpern’s New York Times column, “A Few Questions for Poetry,” wherein he puts poor poetry in the defendant’s box and grills it much like sourdough bread and cheese (mmm, can we add a slice of pickle?).

The column includes poets attempting to answer “Why poetry?” also known as the mystery of life. “Now pinch hitting for poetry, which ironically cannot speak for itself, number 12, Louise Glück!” Cheer from the crowd. All nineteen of it.

Louise finds consolation in this philosophy: No one buys poetry books much, but at least, when they do, they tend to keep them much longer than, say, a Scott Turow best seller. Feeling better, everyone?

Richard Ford, who is not a poet but somehow crashes the gates here, probably because he responded to Halpern’s query, which 32 otherwise occupied poets did not, overthinks things and claims “Why poetry?” is a bad question. To prove it, he comes up with a much better (just ask him) one: “What is the nature of experience, and especially the experience of using language, that calls poetic utterance into existence? What is there about experience that’s unutterable?”

Huh? Think I’ll write a poem rather than figure that one out.

In a rather lazy gesture, Halpern then gives us an Emily Dickinson response (and I’m almost sure this isn’t cut and paste from an e-mail). You know. The famous one about knowing it’s poetry when you feel like the top of your head has been taken off. To which I would ask the Amherst eccentric: How does anyone know what THAT feels like? And wouldn’t it make you feel more like Frankenstein’s monster than a reader in a state of poetic euphoria (and I don’t mean New Jersey)?

The most prosaic response comes from our Hartford insurance salesman by day, poet by night (uniform in the actuarial tables file cabinet), Wallace Stevens: “…to help people live their lives.”

Only I ask you: Have you ever read a Wallace Stevens poem and felt like it helped you to live your life? I mean, now that I’ve read “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” I can get on with my day, knowing exactly what to do if I find the night help or a co-worker has stolen Christmas candy from my desk drawer again?

Which brings us to this question: “Why columns about why poetry?”

Oh, yeah. Because they sell and some people even read them. Unlike poetry.

I’m Somebody. Who Are You?

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.


I’m Nobody
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