When Emily Dickinson died in the 1880s, she was a reclusive, barely published writer. Today, she is a fully canonized, iconic poet. Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins says the progress of her status was unprecedented.
“She is iconic to serious readers of American poetry for two reasons,” Collins tells Terry Gross. “One, the sheer, untouchable originality of her poems — to read her poems, it gives the feeling that no poems before her were written in English. And secondly, the mystery of her fairly undocumented, reclusive lifestyle.”
TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.
In a new book about Emily Dickinson, Lyndall Gordon writes: Dickinson is now recognized as one of the greatest poets who ever lived, yet her life remains a mystery. Gordon tries to solve some of that mystery in her new book, “Lives Like Loaded Guns,” in which she speculates that Dickinson had epilepsy.
The book is also about Dickinson’s brother’s long-term adulterous affair, which led to a feud within the family that carried over into a fight over Emily Dickinson’s poems and her legacy after her death. We’ll hear from Lyndall Gordon later.
But first, we invited former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins to read some Dickinson poems. He wrote the introduction to the Modern Library collection of her poems. He’s a distinguished professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York. His latest collection of poems is called “Ballistics.”
Billy Collins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I’m going to ask you to start by reading a favorite Emily Dickinson poem, and introduce it to us. Tell us why you love this poem.
Mr. BILLY COLLINS (Former U.S. Poet Laureate; Distinguished Professor of English, Lehman College, City University of New York): Well, the poem -of course, she didn’t have titles in her poems. I think she would think titles are immodest. So she just jumps in at the beginning. So the first line is “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.”
It’s basically a poem about a snake and about our kind of fear of snakes. She never uses the word snake or serpent, but she is talking about literally a snake in the grass. But she wants to avoid all those negative connotations.
And I must say, her poems read very well, but there’s – the one thing you miss when you hear an Emily Dickinson poem on some occasions is the visual shock of seeing some of her words. And I think the very last line of this poem contains one of those unexpected verbal surprises.
(Reading): A narrow fellow in the grass occasionally rides; You may have met him – did you not, his notice sudden is, the grass divides as with a comb, a spotted shaft is seen, and then it closes at your feet and opens further on.
He likes a boggy acre, a floor too cool for corn. Yet when a child, and barefoot, I more than once, at morn, have passed, I thought, a whip-lash unbraiding in the sun, when, stooping to secure it, it wrinkled, and was gone.
Several of nature’s people I know, and they know me; I feel for them a transport of cordiality; but never met this fellow, attended or alone, without a tighter breathing, and zero at the bone.
GROSS: Yeah, you mentioned that last line, zero at the bone.
Mr. COLLINS: I just think it’s – I mean, she’s really – she’s trying to get at the idea of a shiver of fear, a frisson, you know, when you see a snake. But the word zero actually seems to create a shiver in the reader. It’s a very unexpected and imaginative way to say that.
GROSS: Would you read another poem that you think really gets to what makes her distinctive for her period and still important today?
Mr. COLLINS: Sure. I think one feature of her poems is a kind of combination of a very cordial, polite tone. These poems are small, they’re well-dressed. They’re nicely organized. They run according to this lovely meter. But the content is often frightening.
And this poem is called “I Died for Beauty.”
(Reading) I died for beauty but was scarce adjusted in the tomb when one who died for truth was lain in an adjoining room. He questioned softly why I failed. For beauty, I replied. And I for truth, – the two are one; we brethren are, he said.
And so, as kinsmen met a night, we talked between our rooms until the moths had reached our lips, and covered up our names.
GROSS: What does that poem say to you?
Mr. COLLINS: Well, she’s fascinated with – I mean, death is the subject matter of poetry. I tell college students, if they’re majoring in English, they’re basically majoring in death.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COLLINS: That’s what you’re getting for your tuition. But Emily Dickinson is particularly fascinated with not just death but the circumstances of death, the funerals and tombstones and graves. And she often kind of domesticates the grave.
In one poem, she is kind of preparing the grave for a guest and as if to serve tea. But here, you know, the poem is kind of conventional in the beginning, you know, one person died for beauty, and another died for truth. So you have the aesthetic quest for beauty and the kind of philosophical quest for truth.
And then they agree, as they lie in adjoining rooms under the ground that they’re both the same. So there you just have the Keatsian equivalent of, you know, beauty is truth, truth beauty.
But the last four lines are a shocker. I mean, she says she’s – just the way kinsmen might meet on a night, we talked between the rooms until the moths had reached our lips and covered up our names.
So there, it ends with the grim realities of suffocation and oblivion when the moths not only shuts them up by reaching their lips, but it even covers up their names on the tombstones and obliterates their earthly renown.
GROSS: Okay, I want to make a confession here. When I started reading Emily Dickinson, it was at a time when modern poetry, for the most part, was not rhyming but greeting cards were.
And so I kind of made the equation since modern poetry isn’t rhyming, and greeting cards are – and Emily Dickinson is rhyming, she’s shallow, and it’s kind of like a greeting card. How arrogant that? But putting that aside…
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: You know, I was really kind of put off by the rhymes and everything. So I want to ask you to talk about her rhymes and where you think they fit in in American poetry.
Mr. COLLINS: Well, your reaction is understandable and probably not uncommon. I mean, it was Whitman who was the – you know, he is the second pillar that holds up 19th-century American poetry. And he was really the first poet in English to abandon both end rhyme and regular meter.
And for me and you, probably, reading poetry in school, he became more popular because he was more of a radical in terms of form. And – but Emily Dickinson seems rather tame because she uses this, pretty much the same meter every time.
It’s called common meter. It’s a line of four beats that’s followed by a line of three beats. So a typical one would be: Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me. And there’s actually kind of a pause at the end of the first line, a sort of silent fifth beat.
This is the meter of a lot of ballads. It’s the meter of Protestant hymns: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. It’s the rhythm of many nursery rhymes: Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he.
So you have a very conventional cadence in most of these poems. It’s widely known that almost every one of her poems can be sung, whether you like it or not, to the tune of “A Yellow Rose of Texas.”
GROSS: I’m going to stop you right there. I read that in the introduction that you wrote for the Modern Library edition of Emily Dickinson poems, and that just kind of shattered me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COLLINS: I know, I’m sorry.
GROSS: No, I mean, I grew up with that Mitch Miller, that horrible Mitch Miller recording of “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” and sadly, I’m going to play that now so our listeners will hear…
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I feel guilty doing this, but I’m going to do it anyway. So here’s Mitch Miller leading a sing-a-long for “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Okay, bear with me.
(Soundbite of song, “The Yellow Rose of Texas”)
Mr. MITCH MILLER and Unidentified Group: (Singing) There’s a yellow rose in Texas, that I am going to see. Nobody else could miss her, not half as much as me. She cried so when I left her, it like to broke my heart, and if I ever find her, we never more will part.
GROSS: Now, that’s exactly what you don’t want going through your mind when you read an Emily Dickinson poem.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COLLINS: Well, thanks a lot, Terry.
GROSS: I can’t help myself.
Mr. COLLINS: Really helpful.
GROSS: And I can’t help myself here asking you to now read a poem that shows that meter but at the same time is so reflective and touching on very extreme issues or states of mind.
Mr. COLLINS: I mean, this poem is not quite an extreme state of mind, but it certainly, kind of in terms of conventional religious belief, very radical, and we’ll try to get – I’m trying to get Mitch Miller out of my mind.
GROSS: You see. I’m sorry.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COLLINS: Yeah, thousands of your listeners will be walking around all day with that song in their heads.
This is a poem which is quite radical in its abandonment or disdain for conventional religious behavior on Sundays. She says the word surplice, which is here spelled s-u-r-p-l-i-c-e, like a religious garment, not U-S.
(Reading) Some keep the Sabbath going to Church. I keep it, staying at home with a bobolink for a chorister and an orchard for a dome.
Some keep the Sabbath in surplice. I just wear my wings, and instead of tolling the bell for church, our little Sexton – sings.
God preaches, a noted clergyman, and the sermon is never long, so instead of getting to Heaven, at last, I’m going, all along!
Mr. COLLINS: And the poem ends with an exclamation point, as if she’s surprised herself with that ending.
GROSS: Billy, what does this poem say about Emily Dickinson’s sense of spirituality?
Mr. COLLINS: Well, it’s very radical. I mean, considering that she lived in a small, New England, mid-19th-century town, it’s a rejection of traditional religious behavior and substituting that for the natural surroundings of her backyard.
The bobolink is a songbird, and so it provides the music. The orchard is her dome. So the trees replace the church. Instead of wearing a surplice or a religious garment, she just wears wings. It’s interesting that she just invests herself with wings. And instead of the bell tolling for church, she listens to the bird.
And then the declaration at the end is very radical, I think. Instead of getting to heaven at last, I’m going all along.
GROSS: So what does it say to you that that poem and many of her poems basically have the same meter, that basically she’s singing the same song with different lyrics each time she…?
Mr. COLLINS: She does. She sings the same little song over and over again, but we don’t want her to change. You know, we want her to keep singing that song.
Well, I think it creates a tension in the poem because there’s the familiarity of the song, you know, the reliable dependability of this da-da-da-da-da-da-da-duh, da-da-da-da-da-duh. That just goes on and on. But then there – within that, there are these counter-rhythms that are created by, you know, her obsessive dashes and these sudden jumps of thought.
GROSS: And talk about those obsessive dashes.
Mr. COLLINS: Well, you find these in her letters, too. I think she just liked that form of punctuation. I mean, to me, there are dashes often between a subject and a verb, you know, there are kind of interruptive and strange dashes that don’t seem to do anything more than just reveal her love of the dash.
But then there are other dashes to me that are indications of a leap of thought, you know, whereas a comma or a semicolon just doesn’t get the sudden transition that – as she’s moving from one word to another. So it’s sort of zigzag type of logic.
So the tension in her poems is, I think – there’s a feeling of reliability about the meter, which is a common meter, there’s a kind of polite vocabulary that’s going on, and then there’s very radical, audacious and daring content and a completely original use of language.
Her metaphors are quite amazing. And they often stop us in our tracks. She did draw on so many areas of things like sailing and geography and chemistry and the Bible to create what I call a kind of – I called in this introduction a kind of New England surrealism.
I mean, just to give you a few examples, in her poems, the sun is all dressed up in a satin vest, thought wears a hood, the Alps wear bonnets. A book is called a frigate. Angels have hats made out of snow. The bottom of the mind is lined with stones.
I mean, these are rather bedazzling, amazing metaphors, but they’re all packed into this little song she’s singing, as you said, this little song that she’s singing over and over again.
GROSS: My guest is former Poet Laureate Billy Collins. We’ll talk more about Emily Dickinson and hear from the author of a new book about her after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is former Poet Laureate Billy Collins. We’re talking about Emily Dickinson. He wrote the introduction to the Modern Library edition of Dickinson poems.
There are many theories about why Emily Dickinson was reclusive, and we’re about to hear from the author of a new book about her who says that she’s found evidence that Dickinson may have been – may have been -epileptic and that that would explain both her reclusiveness and some of the images in her poetry.
And since you’ve studied and taught Emily Dickinson poems, I’m wondering – I know you haven’t read this book yet, but I’m wondering what you think about the idea of, like, a new version of the story of her life coming out, a new way of interpreting what we know of her life. Are you open to that or do you want to just kind of accept her as you’ve known her?
Mr. COLLINS: Well, I prefer the poems to the life. We have to remember that this kind of biographical curiosity would not exist if it were not for the poems themselves. And I find that the poems are pulling us into themselves and not directing us away into the life of the author. I find the poems are magnets of attraction.
So there are many speculations about her, but I think the poems are self-sufficient. And I really, I guess I grew up in an age where – of literary criticism where biographical criticism was frowned upon as a kind of, you know, area of something in addition to the poems.
I mean, I actually at one point, when there were so many books out about speculating particularly on Emily Dickinson’s sexuality, you know, was she lesbian, was she celibate, did she have an affair, I was driven actually by all of that curiosity and speculation to write a poem called “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes,” in which I attempted, in a kind of playful way, to put the matter at rest by having sex with her.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COLLINS: This was my approach.
GROSS: Would you read some of the poem for us? Maybe you can read an excerpt of it.
Mr. COLLINS: Okay, well, it starts by – I start undressing her by mentioning the garments that she was wearing when death took her in her carriage. She says in that poem that only gossamer my gown, my tippet only tulle. Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes:
(Reading) First, her tippet made of tulle, easily lifted off her shoulders and laid on the back of a wooden chair. And her bonnet, the bow undone with a light forward pull.
You will want to know she was standing by an open window in an upstairs bedroom, motionless, a little wide-eyed, looking out at the orchard below, the white dress puddled at her feet on the wide-board, hardwood floor.
Later, I wrote in a notebook it was like riding a swan into the night, but, of course, I cannot tell you everything, the way she closed her eyes to the orchard, how her hair tumbled free of its pins, how there were sudden dashes whenever we spoke.
What I can tell you is it was terribly quiet in Amherst that Sabbath morning, nothing but a carriage passing the house, a fly buzzing in a windowpane. So I could plainly hear her inhale when I undid the very top hook-and-eye fastener of her corset.
And I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed, the way some readers sigh when they realize that hope has feathers, that reason is a plank, that life is a loaded gun that looks right at you with a yellow eye.
GROSS: Yeah, and so many lines that you have in there are directly from Emily Dickinson’s own poems.
Mr. COLLINS: Right. I try to, you know, kind of make up for this, you know, indecent act by ending with a sort of tribute to her, some of her great lines. But this poem was not as, you know, universally popular, as you can imagine. More than one female wrote a poem called “Taking Off Billy Collins’ Clothes,” in which that was described as a disappointing affair.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: That’s really funny.
Mr. COLLINS: Even unpleasant.
GROSS: Now, Billy, much as I like you, I’m going to disagree with you on one thing. I am actually very interested in hearing more about her life.
Maybe it’s because I’m an interviewer, and what I do is try to – in speaking biographically to someone, understand what created their sensibility. I’m interested in what created her sensibility to the extent that we’re capable of knowing that and understanding that.
So I guess I’m interested in what her new biographer has to say, though I really respect your point of view that it’s all in the work, that it’s the work, it’s the poems that we need to know.
Mr. COLLINS: There are two – you don’t have to have one or the other position. I mean, I’ve read Richard Sewall’s, you know, kind of then-definitive two-volume biography. And Brenda Wineapple has a wonderful book called “White Heat” about Dickinson’s relationship with Thomas Higginson. And I’m looking forward to reading this Lyndall Gordon book.
GROSS: Right, right.
Mr. COLLINS: But I like the little poems. I mean, you know, the – I just – one of the things I like about poetry is that the poets make – they’re like apparitional figures. The – her poems are so short, it’s like she appears, then she disappears and rather than, you know, a 300-, 400-page biography, I love the fact of a poet just opening the door, saying something and then disappearing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COLLINS: Maybe it’s the more bite-sized condition of the poems that attracts me.
GROSS: Well, Billy Collins, it’s always great to talk with you. Thank you so much for talking with us about Emily Dickinson and reading some of her poems.
Mr. COLLINS: Well, it’s all my pleasure, Terry, thank you.
Copyright ©2010 National Public Radio
Collins teaches at Lehman College of the City University of New York and is the senior distinguished fellow of the Winter Park Institute in Florida. His publications include Nine Horses,The Trouble with Poetry, The Art of Drowning and Pokerface.