One of the dilemmas I’m grappling with is that of an audience. Who am I writing for? It’s not that I write to be read – this would be foolhardy- but that the proposed reader influences how any text is constructed. It’s a question answered instinctively when you write for publication, even when that publication is simply your own blog. But I remain entirely at sea when it comes to writing as a graded exercise with defined guidelines. Partly, of course, it is that I carry it badly. Last semester I folded my words into my life, rather than the other way around, which is never a good idea for someone as chronically fickle as me.
The Dickinson essay below is a good example of the weird niche I currently occupy. I wrote it (and I admit this is dubious) for a “controversy” assignment, and while it was fun reading Dickinson for two weeks, I’m not sure where/how to pitch it, or indeed if I should pitch it. I’m leaning towards no: which self-respecting books blog would accept my solemn exegesis of her verse? (in less than fifty words!) Who else would care? Is this basically a blogpost pointing out that other people are writing blogposts? Is it only logical to expect my reader to know who Emily Dickinson is and why she is VITAL? If so, why bother writing it?
Anyway. I fully expect y’all to consider this a purely rhetorical puzzle, so here’s another reason to read it. This essay has sentimental value: the first booksy thing I did in NYC was attend the launch of Paul Legault’s Emily Dickinson Reader. It was my first solo outing in DUMBO; I got spectacularly lost* and I kept circling this guy selling pretzels until eventually he took pity on a starving student and gave me one. It was a magic pretzel. I finally found my way down Water Street the next go-around and a great good time was had. I mingled. I sipped artisanal beer and made eye-contact and small lit-chat and was generally an urbane sophisticate** and a new din was born. All for the love of Emily Dickinson.***
*Even google is stumped by Brooklyn.
** yeah, ok. I wore perfume and I scuffed my sneakers.
***tbh, I often find Dickinson fucking exhausting. So frenetic! So baroque! I know her well enough to misrepresent myself as a fangirl, but in most moods I’m.. conflicted.
All great poets spawn cottage industries of interpretation. Emily Dickinson, High Priestess of American Literature, is no exception. There is an Emily Dickinson museum, an International Society, and an academic journal dedicated entirely to explicating her riddling verse. Several poets have written tributes to Dickinson, from William Carlos William’s “To An Elder Poet” to Adrienne Rich’s essay “Vesuvius at Home” to Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters.
What is curious is the extent to which she survives in the popular imagination. There has been a novel written about her every year for the last five years, as well as six popular biographies, a parody, and a book inspired by her penchant for writing on envelopes. In 2010, the New York Botanical Society held a Dickinson-themed flower exhibit. She was on Broadway in 1976, as the protagonist of The Belle of Amherst.
She turns up as a larger-than-life puppet in the movie Being John Malkovich,
a mockery of the Dickinson cult that Joyce Carol Oates expanded by writing a novella featuring a diminutive robotic Emily. 2013 will see a Dickinson biopic starring Cynthia Nixon, Sex and the City’s
Miranda. Popstars, a certain barometer of the cultural temperature, have also invoked the spirit of Emily Dickinson: Pete Doherty admits to “nicking her lines
” because she’s “fucking outrageous”; Carla Bruni went so far as to set an entire poem to music
. As Paul Legault writes in the introduction to The Emily Dickinson Reader,
“Emily Dickinson used to exist. Now she’s doing it again.” The question, then, is why.
What’s the secret to Emily Dickinson’s immortality? The best vitality,
she once said, cannot excel decay. But what of that?