I entered an MFA program knowing two things for sure: I loved poetry, and I couldn’t stand Emily Dickinson.
Admittedly, my exposure to Emily Dickinson’s work was limited to say the least, consisting entirely of anthologized poems and the weekly ritual of singing “Because I could not stop for death” to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” at the end of a local open mic. (The latter possibly contributing to my sourness around Dickinson given the host’s noisy obsession with her and eventual shunning of me after I dated said host’s ex-girlfriend, thus introducing me simultaneously to Poetry Community Drama and Lesbian Community Drama, two joys I’d come to know all too intimately in years to come.)
In my first year of grad school, I expressed my distaste for Dickinson to a professor in conference who, after dropping her shoulders and narrowing her eyes in either despair or distaste, pushed the left side of her signature mane back with a deliberate hand, leaned to me and said something to the effect of, “You are allowed to dislike Emily Dickinson, but you are not allowed not to understand Emily Dickinson.”
When I was a sophomore in high school, a new girl moved into the neighborhood. She had a nose ring, blue hair, and a palpable disdain for everything. My mother, quite uncharacteristically, tried to insist that we become friends. I didn’t like her. I explained this to my mother who said something about judging books by covers and guilted me into at least riding the bus with her a few times.
The everything New Girl disliked included me, so we managed largely to avoid each other despite our respective mothers’ efforts. About six months later, I was sitting in the school pick-up/drop-off area waiting for my ride to the orthodontist when an ambulance blew in and New Girl was carried out on a stretcher: bad acid trip during lunch period, possible overdose, reliable sources reported.
A point (or two):
When we meet a poem that doesn’t fit our aesthetic – that is too abstract or too narrative or too political or too minutely descriptive of the bark of an old oak tree – we often say “this is not a good poem” or “I don’t like this poem” or “this poem has little or nothing to teach me.”
But what if we approach the poem on its own terms? What if we assume that the poet who formed it and put it out in the world did so with great purpose and focused effort? What if we begin with curiosity instead of criticism?
If we do this, we can discover things to which our initial judgments blinded us. This is relatively common practice in educational settings where groups of people gather to analyze published work and learn from it, but it’s equally applicable when we approach poems in workshop settings, on open mics, in slams, and so forth.
There’s a parallel to this in human interaction. Ideally, we do not meet someone and immediately consider what we would change about them. Ideally, we assume positive intent on their part, that they are who they are intentionally and have shaped their lives and the way they move through the world not to injure or offend us but because it is an authentic (at least to them) representation of who they are.
But if we encounter a person who is brash and seemingly sure of everything, robust in their opinions, and our aesthetic is for a softer, more inquisitive, gentler person, we may immediately think “I don’t like this person,” or “this is not a good person” or “this person has nothing to teach me.”
But if we go forth in relationship with curiosity – if we ask why this person sets off in us these feelings, how they connect with parts of ourselves in shadow or light, disgust or desire about ourselves, we can see them as a teacher and potentially make different choices.
The point (really, this time):
Certainly, not every person needs to become our intimate companion, nor every poem have a place among our beloved library. Not every person or every poem is even “good,” though “good” becomes less important in this framework than “transformative” or “teaching.”
But Emily Dickinson taught me to dig into abstraction, and to trust even what I couldn’t fully intellectually comprehend but could feel. And while I still don’t belong to the Emily Dickinson fan club, understanding her work opened the door to my reading and loving Li-Young Lee’s work, and Anne Carson’s work, and the work of poets I meet whose work treads a more fantastic terrain than I was previously open to traversing.
The New Girl down the block didn’t get to teach me anything, because I decided there was nothing to learn. But ten years later I was the one with blue hair and piercings, and I wonder still what became of her.
What makes some poems worthy of our assuming they were created with intent? What makes some people worthy of our pushing past our prejudices? These are questions that go beyond aesthetics and move into the arena of why we assign value to what and to whom.
It’s only when we are able to meet people and poems on their terms, rather than ours, that we are able to apprehend their magic. Every one we encounter has something to teach us. What a heavenly laboratory that makes this planet. What a gift.