Friday, April 12, 2013

A Look at American Poet, Emily Dickinson

Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson circa 1846/7

By: Stephanie Burkhart 

In the US, April is considered National Poetry Month so I thought I'd share one of my favorite poets today with you on the blog, Emily Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson is considered a major American poet alongside Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, and Walt Whitman. Schools have been named after and her poetry is taught in American Middle Schools through college. She's been placed on stamps and was the topic of a Broadway play, "The Belle of Amherst," in 1976. While Dickinson's legacy retains a vitality that refuses to die, during her lifetime she was a recluse, often refusing to leave her home. She harbored a fascination with death and dying and embraced poetry techniques that were frowned upon in the 19th Century. Now her poetry has been acknowledged as innovative and modern.

So what makes her poetry stand out?

Dickinson wrote close to 1800 poems, but less than a dozen were published during her life. She employed the extensive use of dashes and unconventional capitalization along with an idiosyncratic vocabulary and imagery. Her meter is often irregular and she prefers trimeter to iambic pentameter. She also prefers slant rhymes (words that sound the same, but don't exactly rhyme like lover and brother) and the best way to sum up her poetry is that it is consistently nontraditional.

Dickinson mainly wrote from 1858 until her death. Only 5 poems can be traced earlier than 1858. She employed humor, puns, irony, and satire in her writing. (she wasn't all about 'death')

Major Themes

Flowers and Gardens
Nature allowed Dickinson's imagination and emotions to flourish. These poems evoke youth, humility, prudence, and insight.

"Master" poems
Several poems are addressed to "the Master," human, yet godlike, possibly a Christian muse.

Many people Dickinson came to care for – friends, family, and influential writers died early in life, leaving Dickinson with a sad heart. She's not afraid to explore death and morbidity and several poems talk about death by crucifixion, drowning, hanging, suffocation, freezing, premature burial, shooting, and stabbing. These are her most psychologically complex poems.

Dickinson considered herself a Christian and explored many of Jesus' teaching in her gospel-themed poems. Many of these poems are addressed to Jesus.

Undiscovered Continent
For Dickinson, the undiscovered continent is a tangible landscape where one can visit with the mind and spirit. It's a dwelling place for ones' self. Some of these poems invoke a nature landscape and some invoke darkness, like in a castle or a long hall.


Dickinson's younger sister, Lavinia, found the poems after Emily died, and they were published in 1890. Unfortunately, at that time they were edited, primarily for punctuation to fit the expectations of 19th Century poetry. This editing changed many meanings. In 1955, her poems were released again unedited in the original form she'd composed them. She's been in print since 1890.

About Emily Dickinson

She was born in 1830 and raised in Amherst, Massachusetts. She had an older brother and a younger sister. As a young woman, she attended Amherst Academy and Mt. Holyoke College. Her literary influences include Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emily sought seclusion as a choice after the deaths of several friends. Though she took a trip with her family to Washington, DC and Philadelphia, she preferred to stay at home.

Dickinson's Appeal

Emily Dickinson appeals to me because of her word play, her themes, and her unusual choices. I first read her poem, "I heard a fly buzz when I died," as a teenager in high school and while morbid, it challenged me on so many levels – the odd punctuation, the word play, but ultimately I thought how lonely one must be that a fly buzzing is the last thing one hears before one dies.


I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

Author Bio: Stephanie Burkhart is a 911 Dispatcher for LAPD. She's published paranormal, contemporary, and steampunk romance. She's also a published children's author. She adores chocolate and two cups of coffee to start off the day. You can find her at: 
Stephanie Burkhart 







You can find a list of my poetry at here:


LK Hunsaker said...

Hi Steph, my favorite poet, EE Cummings, is my favorite largely because he was so unconventional. I like unconventional even if critics often don't. They started calling him ee cummings, small case, as a slam.

I hadn't realized they published some of Dickenson's work in altered versions. That's a terrible thing to do to an author!

Maggi Andersen said...

Hi Steph, I studied Dickenson years ago and found her enigmatic and her poetry fascinating. Thanks for bringing her to my attention again.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Enjoyed that very much, Steph, as I've always liked her poetry.

Diane Craver said...

I enjoyed this post about Dickinson and I'd forgotten about the punctuation being added to her poems when her sister had them published. I'm glad they were changed back to the original form and published again. I used a couple of her poems in my book, Never the Same, because a character loved her poetry but the content editor cut that scene.

anne stenhouse said...

Hi Steph, I, too, studied Emily Dickenson in my Uni course. I'm going to get her work out and have another look, now. thank you. Anne

Linda Swift said...

Great post, Steph. I always enjoy anything about Emily Dickinson's life and work. She was truly a genius and "one of a kind." She had such a talent for saying so much in so few words and her poetry never grows old.

Stephanie Burkhart said...

Loraine, I hadn't read much of ee cummings, so I'll have to spend some time with him this much.

I didn't know they edited Emily, but they did so at the time of publication, 1890, she "fit" into the norms. I don't think the world of literature was ready for her until 1955 when they published her poetry unabridged. I think she was modern before her times.

Maggi, you've summed up the appeal of Dickinson for me.


Thanks for stopping by, Rosemary. I have to - she struck a chord with me especially when she deals with the "darker" themes.

That's a shame the content editor cut that scene. I didn't know she'd been "edited" either. At least in this case, editing wasn't really needed.

If you have a chance, share your insights.

I agree - her poetry never grows old.

Thanks to everyone for stopping by.