Thursday, November 3, 2016

BOOKS: Thoroughly modern Emily: The Belle of Amherst

Quarto Publishing has just released a delightfully accessible yet quite 
sophisticated book about Emily Dickinson, her world and her poetry.

Edited by scholar Susan Snively (whose hometown happens to be Amherst, MA, 
just like Emily) and charmingly illustrated by Paris-born artist Christine Davenier, 
the book brings Emily's poetry firmly into the present tense.
It's the premiere of Quarto's new "poetry for kids" series
but its appeal is to all generations.


It may come as a surprise to learn that Emily Dickinson is considered by many 
devoted readers and scholars to be a Modernist poet. Her spare aesthetic -- with air breathed into the rhythm of her words through the frequent use of long dashes -- relaxed the rules of Romanticism and a broadened its themes, style and subject matter. 

Poet Michael Burch wrote that Dickinson "loosened the corsets" of English poetry, 
leading the way for iconic poets like Walt Whitman, 
e.e. cummings and even Allen Ginsburg.

Photo c. 1847, Emily Dickinson at age 17

Though an introvert by nature, Emily was not nearly the recluse or misfit 
she is often portrayed as. There was also humor and wit in her poetry.

Snively writes in her introduction:
"The poet's life was both quiet and busy. She visited Washington, D.C, 
and also journeyed to Philadelphia, Hartford, Worcester, Springfield,
Boston and Cambridge. Yet Emily Dickinson felt most comfortable at home.
'Home is a holy thing', she remarked. She baked bread for the household, worked in the huge garden, wrote possibly 10,000 letters -- think of what she might have done
with email! -- and created poems that were unlike anybody else's,
full of word-play, startling images, puzzles and surprises."

 Above: Illustration for This is My Letter to the World,
one of my favorite Emily poems
This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,--
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty. 

Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me! 

 Above: illustrations for Exhilaration is the breeze and
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee

Thirty-five poems are included in the volume, organized in sections by season.
The text includes an engaging foreword and definitions of important words;
I have to admit that some such as plashless (smoothly, without splashing), 
lathed (covered), duties (clothing) and
repealless (endless) were head-scratchers for me.
 There's also a commentary section called "What Emily Was Thinking", in
which each poem is interpreted briefly, and with great wisdom. One I
especially liked was for the poem
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee:
"The poet liked to bake sweet treats, Here is her recipe
for a meadow, The secret ingredient is a daydream."

 To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee
One clover and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.

"To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations."

E. Dickinson, in a letter written in1871


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