Politics and Poetry

Politics & Poetry Episode 2: Emily Dickinson

February 24, 2021 Lisa Campbell, Ron Campbell and Lexi Hunter Season 1 Episode 2
Politics and Poetry
Politics & Poetry Episode 2: Emily Dickinson
Show Notes Transcript

We're excited to launch our second episode of Politics and Poetry, a new podcast about the power of poetry to engage us in political conversations.  Join three generations of political activists and poetry lovers as we read and share a curated collection of ideas written by critics, reporters, authors, poets, historians and politicians to spur thoughtful discussion about the ways that poetry and politics intersect.  In this month's episode, we're featuring Emily Dickinson, one America's favorite poets, and one of our favorite poets, whom we believe was an activist for truth.  Join us as we explore the ways in which Emily Dickinson uses metaphors, pauses, punctuation, and radical empathetic thinking to capture our interest and prompt questions about the meaning of life--what we know, and knowing what we don't know. 


Biography. (n.d.). Emily Dickinson museum. https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/

Budick, E. (1979). When the soul selects: Emily Dickinson's attack on New England symbolism. American Literature, 51(3), 349-363. https://doi.org/10.2307/2925390

Dickinson, E. (1958). Selected letters, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Belknap Press.  

Emily Dickinson: Poet and Recluse. (n.d.). Hermitary. Retrieved February 9, 2021, from https://www.hermitary.com/articles/dickinson.html

Finch, A. (1987). Dickinson and patriarchal meter: A theory of metrical codes. PMLA, 102(2), 166-176. https://doi.org/10.2307/462545

Howard, J. (2019). Much madness is divinest sense - summary & analysis. LitCharts. https://www.litcharts.com/poetry/emily-dickinson/much-madness-is-divinest-sense

Karra, A. (2014). Emily Dickinson, “We never know how high we are” (1176). Rethink. http://www.ashokkarra.com/2014/02/emily-dickinson-we-never-know-how-high-we-are-1176/

Lambert, M. (2019). Tell it slant: Modern women writers reflect on Emily Dickinson's influence. The Hollywood Reporter. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/tell-it-slant-modern-women-writers-emily-dickinson-appletv-1250744

Larkin, D. (2017). Emily Dickinson was less reclusive than we think. Hyperallergic. https://hyperallergic.com/372801/emily-dickinson-was-less-reclusive-than-we-think/

Prahl, A. (2019). Biography of Emily Dickinson, American poet. ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/emily-dickinson-4772610

Robinson, M. (2017). Marilynne Robinson on finding the right word. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/22/books/review/marilynne-robinson-on-finding-the-right-word.html

Strong, M. (n.d.). The poetry of Emily Dickinson. Digital Public Library of America. https://dp.la/primary-source-sets/the-poetry-of-emily-dickinson

Vendler, H. (2010). Dickinson: Selected poems and commentaries. Belknap Press.

Wolff, C. (1989). Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the task of discovering a usable past. The Massachusetts Review, 30(4), 629-644. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25090122

THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON: READING EDITION, edited by Ralph W. Franklin, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1998, 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1951, 1955 , by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1914, 1918, 1924, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1935, 1937, 1942 by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Copyright © 1952, 1957, 1958, 1963, 1965 by Mary L. Hampson.

Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998)

Visit the Emily Dickinson Museum website at https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/ to learn more about Emily Dickinson! 

Lisa Campbell  0:20 
Tell all the truth but tell it slant

— Success in Circuit lies

Ron Campbell  0:26 
Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth's superb surprise

Lexi Hunter  0:30 
As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

Lisa Campbell  0:39 
The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

"Tell all the truth but tell it slant" - poem 1263 by Emily Dickinson. We thought this was a very appropriate poem given all the events we’ve recently experienced in our nation. As we collectively seek to see the truth that is almost unbearable to acknowledge.  As we bear witness to an insurrection, politicians spreading untruths, and the ongoing pandemic. But our poets, like Amanda Gorman, are coming to our aid-helping us to see with clarity and truth. 

Welcome to Episode Two of Politics & Poetry. Today, we want to talk about how many of our poets are also activists, politicians, and advocates for societal change.  Some are activists in traditional ways, serving as legislators and visible spokespeople giving lectures, talks and leading rallies, and some are activists through their words, art and poetry.  One of America's favorite poets, and one of our favorite poets whom we believe was an activist for truth, is Emily Dickinson, one of the most widely read, cited, studied, acclaimed and beloved poets in America and around the world.  (Excerpts from: Dickinson, E. (1958). Selected letters, edited by Thomas H. Johnson)

So first, a little background about Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson grew up in a prominent and prosperous household in Amherst, Massachusetts in the 1800s. So think about growing up as a young woman and as a writer during America's Civil War; a period of great agony, horror, anxiety, and unrest. She was born on December 10, in 1830, and she died on May 15, in 1886 at the young age of 55. She lived most of her adult life in Amherst, Massachusetts. She was a lively original woman and a keen observer of the inner and outer worlds of a busy circle of friends and family. According to scholars, and based on her own letters, she had a quest early on for knowing the unknowable. We think Emily Dickinson was an inspiring example of a fierce female who treasured her independence and had the courage to live her own way, and host difficult conversations in a time when that was really not popular for women to do so. She demonstrated an abounding creative ability to crystallize her intense feelings into very precise words, punctuation and phrases, and to connect with an acute sensitivity and an enduringly profound charm. (Excerpts from:  Prahl, A. (2019). Biography of Emily Dickinson, American poet. ThoughtCo)

Lexi Hunter  3:31 
Let’s start off with one of Emily’s most well known poems:   “ 'Hope' is the thing with feathers" - (314) by Emily Dickinson:

 “Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all - 

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -

And sore must be the storm -

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm - 

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -

And on the strangest Sea -

Yet - never - in Extremity,

It asked a crumb - of me.

According to the Emily Dickinson Museum archive, along with her younger sister Lavinia and her older brother, Austin, Emily experienced a quiet and reserved family life headed by her father, Edward Dickinson and her mother, Emily Norcross. Her mother had an extraordinary education for a young woman in the early nineteenth century. From age seven to nineteen, she attended co-educational Monson Academy, which her father had helped to found.  She then went to a New Haven, Connecticut, boarding school for one term, and her expanded mind surely influenced her daughter Emily’s passion for learning.   The Dickinson's were well known in Massachusetts. Her father was a lawyer and served as a treasurer of Amherst College.  Her grandfather was actually one of the college's founders. Dickinson lived in a family environment that was steeped in politics. Her father was an active town official and served in the general court in Massachusetts, the State Senate and the United States House of Representatives.  Only ten of Emily’s poems were published during her lifetime. She instructed her sister, Lavinia, to burn her papers upon her death — but Lavinia took that to only mean her letters. Many letters survived, but many were burned as well. She saw the value in the poetry and spent the rest of her life obsessed with seeing it published.  (Excerpts from: www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org)

Ron Campbell  5:24 
Some may think Dickinson's poetry is challenging, because it is radical, and original in its punctuation and rejection of many traditional 19th century storylines, and techniques. Emily's poems necessitate active engagement with their sparse elliptical style and memorable symbolism. But these spaces, pauses, and gaps may be seen to be filled with meaning, if we are sensitive to her use of devices such as personification, metaphors, and syntax and grammar.  Her use of dashes can be tricky, and it may help to read her poems aloud to understand fully how selectively and sensitively the words and spaces are arranged. (Excerpts from: www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org)

Lisa Campbell  6:11 
That's right, and it's kind of interesting, if you think about the brevity of her poems, and then consider her in today's environment of social media.  It's fun to wonder, would Emily have enjoyed, just merely tolerated or would she have hated Twitter?  A space where some folks are very adept at writing, in short powerful phrases. Sometimes a place where contemplation is avoided and the quick sound bite is the goal. 

Ron Campbell  6:38 
Well, Amanda Gorman, our most recent inaugural poet laureate, has a very active Instagram account with 3.2 million followers, and she follows 1,519, and has 719 posts as of January 27, 2021.  Her Twitter account has 1.4 million followers and she follows 606.

Lexi Hunter  7:00 
Emily could have been easily writing about Amanda’s poetry when she wrote: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold that no fire can warm, me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”

Lisa Campbell  7:18 
I think we all felt like the top of our heads were taken off and our hearts were bursting as Ms. Gorman propelled us to brave enough to be the light!  Emily’s words too are loaded with meaning, with wit, pathos and humor.  Her words are often slippery or sort of moving from one idea to another, requiring you to lean in and explore layered, abstract ideas that shift and sometimes surprise. We find this idea of active poetry so aligned with the idea of active citizenship. So both with Dickinson's poems and our own democratic republic, we think there's a responsibility to lean in, to engage in the back and forth of human life, to remain mentally open and flexible to new ideas that might scare us, baffle us or keep us pondering, if we know anything?  The same is true of Emily's poetry, you really have lean in to experience it, to make sense of it. The tradition of the spoken word in this way is simpatico with the activist and the elected legislator.  These are not passive roles.  Instead, the politician is elected to serve the public, to hear and then to actively represent the voices of the people.  Emily also asks us to participate, posing questions, contemplating perspectives and sharing human sorrows, joys and vulnerabilities.  She serves by connecting us to each other.  Much like a legislative leader, listening to individual voices and seeking to make life better for the people they serve. Based on her poems, we understand Emily felt these same disappointments, urges and lived her life with a sense of urgency to connect with others about these human conditions and question the meaning of it all.

Lexi Hunter  9:03 
Right? Well, what may seem muddy or drab on a silent page can really surprise the reader with meaning or vibrancy when it's heard out loud. Sound familiar to politics? 

Lisa Campbell  9:12  
Exactly!  Yes!

Lexi Hunter  9:13 
A nondescript or detailed piece of legislation may actually have surprising personal impact in our lives. It's also worth keeping in mind that Dickinson was not always consistent in her views, and her poems span a vast range of emotion depending on her study, her growth, and her influence from others.  The views expressed in her poems may not even be Emily’s personal views, but instead may be her way of expressing fear, posing rhetorical questions, and continuously working over ideas in her mind.  As we think about the Constitution, our laws and our interpretations, a common debate today is to ask if our views and needs evolve and change over time and how do we amend or interpret the Constitution over time?  All men are created equal, but what about women, Black Americans and Native Americans? One of the reasons that Emily Dickinson is so beloved, we think, is because she is less interested in telling us her absolute answers to questions than she was in simply examining and encouraging us to explore their circumference for ourselves. (Excerpts from: Michael Myers, Thinking and Writing About Literature)

Here's a poem for us to consider. Emily Dickinson's poem number 409:

The Soul selects her own Society --

Then -- shuts the Door

To her divine Majority --

Present no more --

Unmoved -- she notes the Chariots -- pausing

At her low Gate --

Unmoved, an Emperor be kneeling -- 

Upon her mat --

I've known her from an ample nation --

Choose One --

Then close the Valves of her attention

Like Stone

Some say that this is a touchstone poem about selection and choice in Dickinson's canon, and it has been read and much debated. The idea that the soul selects her own society, that people choose a few companions who matter to them and then even exclude everyone else from their inner consciousness. This poem conjures up images of a solemn ceremony with a ritual closing of the door, the chariots, the Emperor, and the ponderous valves of the soul’s attention. (Excerpts from: Budick, E. (1979). When the soul selects: Emily Dickinson's attack on New England symbolism)

Lisa Campbell  11:19 
Is there any relevance in the poem today? You know, as we think about it, many of us have been quarantining, because of COVID-19 and are sheltering in place.  We've been more isolated maybe than we've ever been in our lives.  As we read that poem, I wonder if any of the words elicit feelings that we may also be experiencing in our political environment? How  do we align with our political parties? Do we have an exclusive conversation with like minded people? Or have we chosen a singular news source, or conversational bubble? Have we aligned exclusively with a certain kind of leader, a certain kind of politician, or a certain type of friend or social group? Could this be what Emily is talking about in terms of how our ideas become firm and fixed?  How our view may narrow, or how partisanship takes hold in our modern society.  Is she emphasizing an idea of how we can be solitary but not detached?

Lexi Hunter  12:16 
Another way to read the lines is that she's shutting out the divine majority out of her inner world. She did limit her in person contact later in life and was reclusive. In this sense, the divine majority could mean the social or religious system to which she was no longer present. She bucked the system of not marrying, which was uncommon in the day and in doing so somewhat  limited her potential for interaction in the world. But, maybe rather than constantly chafing at this, and the social etiquette that was required at the time, she actively chose to stay inward.  This might have been less about a rejection but more about a welcoming of the inner world.  We know she had a series of deep relationships with other thinkers and lifelong learners.  Perhaps she chose not to interact in a shallow way but instead dedicate her time  in thought and contemplation, continuing to question the deeper meaning in life.

Ron Campbell  13:06  
This poem may also be thought to be about friendship, or of love, personal love, or perhaps even love of country. The poem describes choosing a friend or lover and rejecting, excluding all others. Dickinson presents the individual as absolute, and the right of the individual is unchallengeable. In this poem, the soul's identity is assured. The unqualified belief in the individual and self-reliance is characteristically and quintessentially American language. The imagery relates to the thresholds of tolerance, space vacated or filled, openings, closures, superiority, and authority. For Emily Dickinson, the soul is that part of the psyche, which shrinks away from the limelight, and seeks inner solace, from silence, from the arts, nature, and the divine. In this way, it becomes distinct. Some might say, there's a feeling about our own individual right, to the freedom protected by our Constitution, to our own individual relationship with our country.

Lexi Hunter  14:22 
When we hear those words, we see these universal themes, the choices that we have in our society as individuals--our choice of partner, our choice of role.  We haven't really resolved all of these in terms of universal freedoms, have we?

Lisa Campbell  14:36 
No, we haven't.  One freedom that we haven't resolved is the freedom of women. You know, many of Emily's poems describe her frustration at the role of women in a predominantly male society. She talks about how it crushes her freedom, intellectually and even physically. In her poem, "I felt a funeral in my brain," number 280, she describes the feeling of being trapped in a coffin, which is pretty somber. Where she's unable to make decisions on her own.  She compares her own role and her inability as a woman to make decisions, to the act of dying. The coffin may represent how confining it was for her, and maybe it still is for many in our society.  This captivity might have been the cause of some depression. In the same poem, she describes the mourners, who seem to be the majority of society, who demand her to take up a pre-determined role as a respectable young woman. Let's listen to, "I felt a funeral in my brain," by Emily Dickinson.

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,

And Mourners to and fro

Kept treading – treading – till it seemed

That Sense was breaking through –   

And when they all were seated,

A Service, like a Drum – 

Kept beating – beating – till I thought

My Mind was going numb –   

And then I heard them lift a Box

And creak across my Soul

With those same Boots of Lead, again,

Then Space – began to toll, 

As all the Heavens were a Bell,

And Being, but an Ear,

And I, and Silence, some strange Race

Wrecked, solitary, here –   

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,

And I dropped down, and down – 

And hit a World, at every plunge,

And Finished knowing – then – 

As we think about Emily's quest to cope with the loss of the ability to live freely as a single woman, we might compare that feeling with the feelings we have when we're faced with devastating loss. Whether it's a personal loss of a longtime friend, loss of a job opportunity, a partner who ends a relationship, or the loss of any type of freedom. Collectively, we've experienced this enormous devastating loss as a country with hundreds of thousands dying during the pandemic.   And do we, as Emily was questioning, have a way to make sense of our shared grief?  Last week, I saw a CNN reporter who after visiting ten hospitals that were maxed out because of COVID, broke down on air, weeping because of the sorrow.  Many of her colleagues called her out for not remaining stoic for not remaining, you know, professional. But many others praised her for showing human emotion and an appropriate response to the devastating loss. I think these are some of the things that Emily is talking about, you know, how do we break out of the norms of society? How do we cope as we push against the expected roles, the reactions, ongoing racism, discrimination, stereotypes? If we choose a path to live in our own way, being true and honest to ourselves, after we experienced the sorrow of not fitting in or losing, do we gain a greater sense of knowing that we're living our divine purpose?

Ron Campbell  17:57 
Thinking about the last line of that poem? Do we finish knowing in our solitary life? Do we come out knowing? Do we finish knowing? In the twilight of our years, we often come to wisdom, perhaps, we may think, and yet who seeks us out? Or, what do we finally know, in our solitary life? Do we finish knowing? And how do we pass that on? Another poem where Emily comments on the pressures of society to conform is called "Madness." In this poem, Emily states that much of what is considered to be crazy, is actually the opposite-clear sighted, truthful sanity. That said, only those who can look at the world objectively and independently will see this. Similarly, much of what is considered normal and sensible, is actually the worst kind of madness. Emily writes that this is the fault of the majority, the status quo of society, which on this issue, as with all others, always wins out. If you agree with society's norms, you're accepted into society, and considered to be rational. But if you disagree with these norms, you're immediately seen as a threat, in which case, you will be restrained and restricted, whether physically, emotionally, psychologically, or economically. (Excerpts from: Howard, James. "Much Madness is divinest Sense)

Let's read her poem, "Madness."

Much Madness is divinest Sense -

To a discerning Eye -

Much Sense - the starkest Madness -

’Tis the Majority

In this, as all, prevail -

Assent - and you are sane -

Demur - you’re straightway dangerous -

And handled with a Chain -

Lexi Hunter  19:54 
So we had some interesting conversation about this earlier and we wonder if madness, in some cases, is just artistic intelligence revealing itself in a way that makes others uncomfortable. You know, there may be a lot of artists that we think, you know, in their times or history were considered mad. Maybe Lewis Carroll who wrote Alice in Wonderland and many others. Of course, there's Van Gogh and E. E. Cummings. But who are today's artists and writers and other passionate people?  The words that they write are often extraordinary. Often they're also shocking. They cause people to challenge the status quo or think differently about themselves. Often, the activists and artists may live on the fringe of what's considered even sensible. But, if we can give them a stage, if we can really listen, there may be great genius in the things that they say.

Lisa Campbell  20:39  
Well, in the poem, you just read, one of the poetical devices used seems to be space. Like beats rest, and a piece of music, which our piano teachers taught us, were just as important as the actual notes.  Or like the whitespace, and artistic compositions. The dashes and the dots and the breaks seem just as important as the words, don't they?  We also know that Emily was a talented pianist. She was drawn to the spaces that allow for a profound pause. She loved to experiment with music, texture, tone, and unexpected silence. We hope that there's some of that in our political discourse as well.  We hope that we don't get so caught up in the back and forth, and the quick response that we don't leave room for contemplation.  That we can begin to find a rest, where we each have a chance to take a break, to think, to reflect, to exhale. As we've been reading speeches and poems, like the one we read last week, Dad, by Winston Churchill, it's the pauses, really in between the stanzas, that give us that thrill right?  They give us those goosebumps.  It's the unsaid sometimes that speaks volumes.

Ron Campbell  21:44  
Yes, there's the pause, and the space where we find the freedom to become mindful and thoughtful.  However long that space or gap may be, that's the time for inner reflection, and mindful consideration, and evaluation.  Coming to grip with what it is that we know, and knowing what we don't know, is equally important.

Lexi Hunter  22:10  
Well, I know we're all excited this week, as we head into the new historic Biden, Harris administration and this period of transition.  From a period of great divisiveness to what we all hope will be a period of coming together and thoughtfulness and change. Hopefully, we can have a time to reflect and to grow and to hear each other. And what about our National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman!  Wow, you know, poetry and politics with superpower impact!  Really looking forward to featuring her work on a future episode.

Ron Campbell  22:38 
Let's close with another of Emily's poems that again, will help us feel very in the moment, as we look forward, and ahead to the possibilities of the new Biden, Harris administration, and the ongoing work of tackling COVID and building an America that's empowering for all Americans, not just a few. The poem is entitled, "We never know how high we are." In this poem, we hear Emily questioning the idea of standards. Standards for ourselves, for each other, or for our nation. She uses metaphors, statues, heroism, the sky, to question how our own experiences, filter our goals and questions the uncertainty of who judges our actions. Is it God? Is it the public? Is it ourselves? As we listen, learn, unlearn, and re-learn, do we have the capacity to consider our statues, our heroes and our goals with a fresh perspective? As we are asked to rise, can we use this moment of transition and societal change to advance a hope?  (Excerpts from: Karra, A. (2014). Emily Dickinson, “We never know how high we are” (1176). Rethink )

"We never know how high we are" by Emily Dickinson. 

We never know how high we are 

Till we are asked to rise 

And then if we are true to plan 

Our statues touch the skies —  

The Heroism we recite 

Would be a normal thing 

Did not ourselves the Cubits warp 

For fear to be a King — 

Perhaps it is humility that propels us to envision that we will be that much greater in the future. And this striving for a more perfect union collectively, is not about an individual leader, political party, or past measure of success.  But instead, perhaps about our willingness to speak as poets, to act as citizens, to lead as legislators to that future place of change, inclusivity and the humbleness to know, we don't know. We never know how high we are. But let's keep telling it slant, embracing the transformational power of poetry to shift our perspective and reveal new truths.