Friday, March 24, 2017

Saint (not) Emily

"I heard a fly buzz — when I died—" begins a poem by Emily Dickinson. Past tense: "died." Metaphor; we die a thousand deaths a day, after all, though we usually use more banal euphemisms: heartbreak, disappointment, setback, shock.

Saints do not write poetry. Saints are probably not even saints, except (to those who believe) in retrospect. Poets are human beings (what a radical thing to say, I know), with the spectrum of human emotions on display, and sometimes that spectrum is on display in a single poem. From acceptance to denial, from tranquility to upheaval, from sincerity to sarcasm—if every poem is an exploration of some aspect of the human condition, how can we expect a single tone throughout?

We have been conditioned to read Emily Dickinson as Saint Emily, living her monastic existence at a remove from such quotidian things as anger, desire, rebellion, discontent. We do her (and our own critical thinking skills) a disservice when we turn to her poems as examples of sainthood or sacrifice or selflessness. Instead, we should look for what is real, for what constitutes a living, breathing, rejoicing, hurting human being, susceptible to a thousand deaths a day, with the ability to tell us how it feels.

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