Tips for Reading Dickinson's Poetry

Emily Dickinson once defined poetry this way: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold 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 way I know it. Is there any other way?” (L342a, 1870)

 woman reading poetry

 

Reading Dickinson's poetry often leaves readers feeling exactly this way, because she names so incisively many of our most troubling emotions and perceptions. But often, too, her poetry can make readers feel this way because it baffles and challenges expectations of what a poem should be. “All men say ‘What’ to me” she complained (L271), and many of her readers still cry “What?” in their first encounters with this dense and elusive poetry.

While every reader of Dickinson's poems has his or her own approach to the poetry, here are some suggestions for getting started on discoveries of her work:

  1. Stay open to linguistic surprise. The characteristics that help to make Dickinson's poetry so intriguing—the absence of titles, her dense syntax, unusual vocabulary, imperfect rhyme schemes, approaches to abstract ideas—can at first seem to obscure rather than illuminate her meaning.
  2. Read the poem again. Dickinson begins one well-known poem “Tell all the truth but tell it slant—” (Fr1263). The power of Dickinson's poetry often comes from her playful but potent sense of indirection. Trying to understand her poetry doesn’t mean solving it like a riddle, but rather coming to recognize its slippery strategies. Read the poem a third time. Set it aside and come back to it. Look at the poem with a friend.
  3. Review Major Characteristics of Dickinson's Poetry. How does the poem exemplify or confound these characteristics?
  4. Set aside the expectation that a poem has to "mean" one thing. A Dickinson poem is often not the expression of any single idea but the movement between ideas or images. It offers that rare privilege of watching a mind at work. The question of how we know anything comes alive as we read Dickinson.
  5. Try "filling in the blanks." Sometimes Dickinson's syntax is problematic—the poems are so compressed! In lines where a verb or another critical word seems to be missing, what words might create meaning? Don't feel that there is only one possibility. The variorum editions of her poetry reveal that she often thought of many alternative ways of expressing an idea. Looking at her variant wordings for a poem can help illuminate its possibilities.
  6. Don't try to make the poem "about" Emily Dickinson. Dickinson writes in the lyric style, in which the speaker of the poem is often referred to as "I." While the poem may represent the view of the poet, it also may not.
  7. Look for recurring themes, images, and strategies in Dickinson's poetry.
  8. Get out the dictionary. Emily Dickinson once wrote, “ . . . for several years, my Lexicon was my only companion” (L261). She had an exceptional command of the English language. Look up words that are unfamiliar, or that she uses in unfamiliar ways. Try the new Dickinson Lexicon, an on-line resource that defines all words used in Dickinson's poetry with definitions from the dictionary she herself owned, Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language.
  9. Consult a Bible concordance. Dickinson also had an exceptional knowledge of the Bible. Sometimes an unfamiliar word or image may be an allusion to a Biblical passage. A good concordance to use is James Strong's The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, which is keyed to the King James Version, the version that Dickinson read.
  10. Read the poem aloud. Poetry is an ancient, oral tradition. Often reading a poem aloud can help to elucidate its meaning. One of Dickinson's early editors, Mabel Loomis Todd, convinced Thomas Wentworth Higginson (her future co-editor) of the power of Dickinson's poetry by reading selections aloud to him.
  11. Keep reading. Develop new strategies for reading Dickinson—and share them with us!

Below is a short list of poems that provide a good introduction to her work. 

Please note the following about quotations from Dickinson's writings:  “Fr” followed by a number refers to an Emily Dickinson poem as published in The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Variorum Edition, ed. R. W. Franklin (Cambridge, Mass. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998).  “L” followed by a number refers to a letter written by Emily Dickinson as published in The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958).

Major Characteristics of Dickinson's Poetry

Using the poem below as an example, this section will introduce you to some of the major characteristics of Emily Dickinson's poetry.
Sunrise in the Valley
Sunrise in the Connecticut River Valley near Amherst

I’ll tell you how the Sun rose –
A Ribbon at a time –
The steeples swam in Amethyst
The news, like Squirrels, ran –
The Hills untied their Bonnets –
The Bobolinks – begun –
Then I said softly to myself –
“That must have been the Sun”!
But how he set – I know not –
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while –
Till when they reached the other side –
A Dominie in Gray –
Put gently up the evening Bars –
And led the flock away –
(Fr204)

Theme and Tone

Like most writers, Emily Dickinson wrote about what she knew and about what intrigued her. A keen observer, she used images from nature, religion, law, music, commerce, medicine, fashion, and domestic activities to probe universal themes: the wonders of nature, the identity of the self, death and immortality, and love. In this poem she probes nature's mysteries through the lens of the rising and setting sun.
Sometimes with humor, sometimes with pathos, Dickinson writes about her subjects. Remembering that she had a strong wit often helps to discern the tone behind her words.

Form and Style

Dickinson’s poems are lyrics, generally defined as short poems with a single speaker (not necessarily the poet) who expresses thought and feeling.  As in most lyric poetry, the speaker in Dickinson's poems is often identified in the first person, "I."   Dickinson reminded a reader that the “I” in her poetry does not necessarily speak for the poet herself: “When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse – it does not mean – me – but a supposed person” (L268).  In this poem the "I" addresses the reader as "you."
Like just about all of Dickinsons' poems, this poem has no title. Emily Dickinson titled fewer than 10 of her almost 1800 poems. Her poems are now generally known by their first lines or by the numbers assigned to them by posthumous editors (click here for more information).
For some of Dickinson's poems, more than one manuscript version exists.  "I'll tell you how the Sun rose" exists in two manuscripts. In one, the poem is broken into four stanzas of four lines each; in the other, as you see here, there are no stanza breaks.
The poem describes the natural phenomena of sunrise and sunset, but it also describes the difficulties of perceiving the world around us. Initially, "I" exhibits confidence in describing a sunrise.  As the poem, like the day, continues, "I" becomes less certain about what it knows: "But how he [the sun] set – I know not – / There seemed a purple stile."
One of Dickinson’s special gifts as a poet is her ability to describe abstract concepts with concrete images. In many Dickinson poems, abstract ideas and material things are used to explain each other, but the relation between them remains complex and unpredictable. Here the sunrise is described in terms of a small village, with church steeples, town news, and ladies' bonnets. The sunset is characterized as the gathering home of a flock. The shifting tone between the beginning and the end of the poem, the speaker’s more confident telling of the sun’s rise than of how its sets, suggests that more abstract questions about the mystery of death lurk within these images.

Meter and Rhyme

The meter, or the rhythm of the poem, is usually determined not just by the number of syllables in a line but by how the syllables are accented.
Dickinson’s verse is often associated with common meter, which is defined by alternating lines of eight syllables and six syllables (8686).  In common meter, the syllables usually alternate between unstressed (indicated by a ˘ over the syllable) and stressed (′).  This pattern--one of several types of metrical "feet"--is known as an "iamb."  Common meter is often used in sung music, especially hymns (think "Amazing Grace").
Below is an example of common meter from "I'll tell you how the Sun rose."
metrical scan example from "I'll tell you how the Sun rose"
However, as Cristanne Miller writes in Reading in Time:  Emily Dickinson and the Nineteenth Century, Emily Dickinson experimented with a variety of metrical and stanzaic forms, including short meter (6686) and the ballad stanza, which depends more on beats per line (usually 4 alternating with 3) than on exact syllable counts.  Even in common meter, she was not always strict about the number of syllables per line, as the first line in “I’ll tell you how the Sun rose” demonstrates.
As with meter, Dickinson’s employment of rhyme is experimental and often not exact. Rhyme that is not perfect is called “slant rhyme” or “approximate rhyme.” Slant rhyme, or no rhyme at all, is quite common in modern poetry, but it was less often used in poetry written by Dickinson’s contemporaries. In this poem, for example, we would expect "time" to rhyme with "ran."

Punctuation and Syntax

Dickinson most often punctuated her poems with dashes, rather than the more expected array of periods, commas, and other punctuation marks.  She also capitalized interior words, not just words at the beginning of a line.  Her reasons are not entirely clear.
Both the use of dashes and the use of capitals to stress and personify common nouns were condoned by the grammar text (William Harvey Wells' Grammar of the English Language) that Mount Holyoke Female Seminary adopted and that Dickinson undoubtedly studied to prepare herself for entrance to that school. In addition, the dash was liberally used by many writers, as correspondence from the mid-nineteenth-century demonstrates. While Dickinson was far from the only person to employ it, she may have been the only poet to depend upon it.
While Dickinson's dashes often stand in for more varied punctuation, at other times they serve as bridges between sections of the poem—bridges that are not otherwise readily apparent.  Dickinson may also have intended for the dashes to indicate pauses when reading the poem aloud.

Diction

Dickinson’s editing process often focused on word choice rather than on experiments with form or structure. She recorded variant wordings with a “+” footnote on her manuscript. Sometimes words with radically different meanings are suggested as possible alternatives.  Dickinson changed no words between the two versions of "I'll tell you how the Sun rose." 
Because Dickinson did not publish her poems, she did not have to choose among the different versions of her poems, or among her variant words, to create a "finished" poem.  This lack of final authorial choices posed a major challenge to Dickinson’s subsequent editors.