The Poems (We Think) We Know: Emily Dickinson




The Poems (We Think) We Know: Emily Dickinson by Alexandra Socarides

June 25th, 2014 reset - +

LAST SPRING, I decided to sell my house. Thus began the endless months of walking strangers through my kitchen, of explaining how one could turn the downstairs office into a bedroom, of saying nice things about all those fraternity boys who live in the lot behind mine. I found it to be one of the more demoralizing experiences in recent memory. This house that I had loved — where my children took their first steps, where we had celebrated countless birthdays — was now open for scrutiny. And scrutinized it was. Not enough closet space! Looks like a leaky roof! How can anything grow in that weedy garden!

But every now and then potential buyers would, for a moment, stop imagining all the ways in which my house would or would not work for them, and, instead, make small talk. This is often when it came up that I had written a book about Emily Dickinson. I didn’t give up this information easily — it was only after they pushed me to name my specialization. Upon hearing I was an English professor, most people were sure to make a joke about being careful not to use bad grammar in my presence. By summer I had probably heard this line a dozen times.

But on two different occasions, right as we stood in the middle of my by-now-I-was-sure moldy basement, I got some curious folks, and so I told them, yes, in fact, Emily Dickinson. And what did they both do? They looked right at me, eyes wide, and said: “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”

In all my time reading, studying, researching, and teaching the poems of Emily Dickinson, I had never once given “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” a second thought. I knew it, but only because, I think, I had learned it in grade school, and it’s an easy one to memorize. Also, people say it (or its first line) enough that it’s hard not to let it seep in. Given this, you’d think I would jump at the chance to write about this poem for this column, but the truth is that I didn’t want to write about Dickinson.

Although I’m loath to assign genres to different kinds of writing, I think in the first year of writing this column I had imagined that what I was writing was essays. I like the essay because it is, at its best, deeply uncertain. Given that I mostly write academic articles, which are driven by arguments, I rarely get to be as uncertain as I feel. But here, I get to follow strange leads, tell a variety of different kinds of stories, and hope that by the time I am finished I will have somehow organically woven an alternative narrative rather than the one that normally circulates through our culture about a given poem. This, to my mind, is a particularly good way of thinking about poetry, given that most poems don’t make arguments; most poems are borne out of a wild and heart-piercing sense of uncertainty themselves. 

Maybe because of this, though, I didn’t want to write about Dickinson. It’s one thing to say that Dickinson’s poems are uncertain, or complicated, or contradictory (all of which they are), but it’s an entirely other thing to compound that uncertainty with my own. In my basement, visitors wanted to connect with me by reciting the first line of a Dickinson poem that clearly summed something up for them. I was happy to let them do that, even if I was a little freaked out by the whole experience.

But, in the end, Dickinson got me, as she always does.

One of the mysterious things about poetry is how a reader can walk away from a poem with what he or she thinks is a clear sense of its message or moral, when really the poem itself says something far more complicated than that. One famous example is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” which tends to be read as a call for people to strike out on their own independent course, when really Frost marks no substantive difference between the two roads in his poem. (In an episode of the first season of “Orange Is the New Black,” Piper Chapman explains as much to her cellmates, who are highly annoyed by her need to complicate the meaning of the poem for them.) A similar thing happens with “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” The message of this poem is almost always taken to be that it is a mistake to seek fame, that it is preferable to be a nobody than a somebody. Coupled with the knowledge that Dickinson only published ten poems in her lifetime, this poem becomes (often for aspiring writers) a statement of artistic intent, a declaration of the joys of private, anonymous art making and a rejection of publicity. But in order to make this poem into a manifesto on the pleasures of the private world versus the dreariness of the public world, one has to make a variety of assumptions about both Dickinson and poetry. 

Here is the whole poem, as Dickinson wrote it, in late 1861:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d banish us – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell your name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

I’ve always said that it takes reading a Dickinson poem three times out loud to even begin to understand what is going on, and I actually think this deceptively simple poem requires even more than that. That’s because, upon those first few reads, it really is that “Nobody” that stands out (early readers of this poem would have felt this even more, as the poem was given the title “Nobody” when it was first published in 1891). There is a seemingly stark private/public dichotomy laid out by the poem’s two stanza structure. In the first we meet a good Nobody, in the second a corrupt Somebody. But upon about the fifth read, you start to notice some things that deeply complicate the take-away we deliver up to school children.

Firstly, this is not actually a poem about a loner; in fact, the poem is a dialogue, and the first stanza clearly registers two figures’ recognition of each other as it relays their intimate discourse. This is the story of a pair of Nobodies, and together they have a job to do: to protect their shared identity. In this way, the poem is not about individuality at all, but about friendship and community, for it is the recognition of the other that is the occasion for these lines in the first place.

Secondly, the reason given for keeping their identity secret — a reason that is, we can assume from the “you know!,” known to all who are part of this particular society — is fear of banishment. In other words, this “Nobody” and his or her partner-in-crime don’t want privacy; they want to be part of the crowd from which they fear being ostracized. Because Dickinson included the variant “advertise” for the phrase “banish us” when she copied out this poem, she indicates a relationship between visibility and banishment. While we might normally think of these words as opposites (to be banished is to be sent away or exiled, whereas to be advertised is to be made public), when Dickinson puts them together like this, she invites us to think of them as possible synonyms, so that to be advertised is to be banished, and to be banished is to be advertised. Because Dickinson’s variants don’t all work in the same way we can’t say for sure how she meant to render their connection, but it’s clear that she was thinking about the relationship between banishment and publicity.

Thirdly, while the second stanza appears to present the Nobody’s opposite — “Somebody” — as one who is “dreary” and “public,” Dickinson chooses a strange animal through which to convey such a lesson. In fact, this very animal’s presence at this point in the poem indicates that Dickinson is not writing a treaty or lesson or manifesto, but is herself struggling with what to say about sound, about speech, about repetition, and about the activity of listening. Which brings me to the animal beloved by so many 19th-century writers: the frog.

Whenever I introduce Dickinson’s poems into my classes, I always begin by doing a version of an exercise that I learned from one of my great mentors, Carolyn Williams, and that has long circulated through a community of people who work on 19th-century poetics. Over the years it has come to be called “Dickinson Mad-Libs.” The way it works is this: I choose a line, a stanza, or a whole poem, and I take out some of its words (usually nouns and adjectives, but sometimes verbs as well), and I simply leave blanks where those words were. Then I ask the students to fill in the blanks. I tend to switch up which poems I use, even though I know several that work particularly well. I’ll never forget the time I used “Grief is a ________.” 

Students go ahead and put in the blanks what is expected: Grief is a pain, Grief is a bitch. The ones who want to take imaginative leaps deliver up: Grief is a thunderstorm, Grief is a tidal wave. But I can pretty much guarantee that no matter how many budding poets you have in a class, nobody who hasn’t already read Dickinson’s poem would ever write the phrase the way she wrote it.

There are lots of fascinating conversations to have about what, exactly, Dickinson might have meant when she wrote “Grief is a mouse,” but the more interesting point, to me at least, is simply that Dickinson was a master of unexpected, yet absolutely perfect, word choice. Which brings me back to the frog. Imagine the Mad-Lib: “How dreary – to be – Somebody! / How public – like a _______ –.” If someone handed me this assignment I would probably put in “politician,” “actor,” “socialite” — in other words, someone recognizably public. “Frog,” to be honest, would never occur to me. But it did occur to Dickinson, and for good reason.

If we are inclined to see the poem as structured by opposites and as delivering up a message, then it’s easy to treat the the frog as a symbol for one who repeats the same sound over and over again (here its “name”) out in public. And this implies that Dickinson would have considered such repetition as some form of degraded speech — sound echoing, as it does, off the mucky environs into which it is uttered. But just a little digging into the matter of these creatures shows us that Dickinson quite liked frogs, as we can see from a letter that she wrote to her friend Mary Bowles shortly after drafting this poem. As part of a joyous description of Amherst in springtime, Dickinson extols: “The Frogs sing sweet – today – they have such pretty – lazy – times – how nice, to be a Frog!” 

If there were just this one contradiction to what we currently take to be Dickinson’s manifesto on somebodies as dreary frogs, then I’d probably let it go, chalk it up to a change of heart. But as I looked further into Dickinson and frogs, I came across two late poems (one from 1875 and one from 1876) in which she writes even more thoughtfully about this creature. The first is interesting because it refers to the frog as “the Orator of April” who makes “statements” and embodies “eloquence.” By likening the frog to the Ancient Greek orator Demosthenes, Dickinson revives this figure and pays him tribute at the same time that she marks his “Fame” as short-lived and largely inconsequential. The following year, Dickinson wrote her final poem about the frog, and this time she sent it to two different people, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Susan Huntington Dickinson. In the letter to Higginson, she prefaces the poem with this sentence: “I was always told that Conjecture surpassed Discovery, but it must have been spoken in caricature, for it is not true –.” On the heels of such a declaration in favor of discovery she describes “the long sigh of the Frog.” Here Dickinson’s frog, or, more accurately, the sound he makes, brings peace and allows the human who hears it to prepare the way for death. This, it seems, is the very essence of frog sound, now in the form of a sigh.

As I mentioned earlier, Dickinson wasn’t the only 19th-century writer to think about the frog. Poe did. Twain did. And, probably most deeply, Thoreau did. In Walden, Thoreau writes, in what feels like a state of reverie, a paragraph that I like to imagine Dickinson read as she batted around her own frogs in prose and verse:

Late in the evening I heard the distant rumbling of wagons over bridges — a sound heard farther than almost any other at night — the baying of dogs, and sometimes again the lowing of some disconsolate cow in a distant barn-yard. In the mean-while all the shore rang with the trump of bullfrogs, the sturdy spirits of ancient wine-bibbers and wassailers, still unrepentant, trying to sing a catch in their Stygian lake — if the Walden nymphs will pardon the comparison, for though there are almost no weeds, there are frogs there — who would fain keep up the hilarious rules of their old festal tables, though their voices have waxed hoarse and solemnly grave, mocking at mirth, and the wine has lost its flavor, and become only liquor to distend their paunches, and sweet intoxication never comes to drown the memory of the past, but mere saturation and waterloggedness and distention. The most aldermanic, with his chin upon a heart-leaf, which serves for a napkin to his drooling chaps, under this northern shore quaffs a deep draught of the once scorned water, and passes round the cup with the ejaculation tr-r-r-oonk, tr-r-r — oonk, tr-r-r-oonk! and straightway comes over the water from some distant cove the same password repeated, where the next in seniority and girth has gulped down to his mark; and when this observance has made the circuit of the shores, then ejaculates the master of ceremonies, with satisfaction, tr-r-r-oonk! and each in his turn repeats the same down to the least distended, leakiest, and flabbiest paunched, that there be no mistake; and then the howl goes round again and again, until the sun disperses the morning mist, and only the patriarch is not under the pond, but vainly bellowing troonk from time to time, and pausing for a reply.

Thoreau’s drunk community of “ancient” and “festal” bullfrogs sit around entertaining each other with different versions on the same sound: “tronk.” As Thoreau’s long sentences wind in and out of this sound, we are transported to the shores of Walden Pond where we listen with him. Here, as in Dickinson’s poems, frogs make repetitive noises, but these are noises that mark the community from which they emanate as both old and recognizable. They are the noises that transport those who hear them. 

If Dickinson was listening to frog-sound with the same attention as Thoreau, which I think she was, then what is it that she learned from them? What do these old, lazy creatures have to say? Part of the point of the second stanza of “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” is, as with Thoreau’s passage above, that frogs say the same thing over and over again, that there is no sense to be made of their guttural noises, that there is no meaning in the same name said on a loop. But what lurks in both acts of listening is the awareness that there is a kind of beauty to nonsense sounds, a beauty that only the bog itself (and maybe the poet in the bog) can recognize. 

After my house sold, I at first forgot about the Nobodies in my basement who had attempted to pull me into some state of shared, mutual admiration for Dickinson. I’m not someone who likes to recite poetry spontaneously, and I tend to be embarrassed when people do it to me, especially in my basement. But then this fall I was asked to volunteer at my sons’ elementary school, where the fourth graders were writing poetry and needed a little guidance. Despite having once gotten an MFA in Poetry and having taught poetry writing in the years after that, I have almost no memory of how to guide people in the ways of making poems. So, instead, I mostly sat with the students and watched them as they attempted, in their very best moments, to write something beautiful and strange.

It was then, watching these kids shift in their prepubescent bodies, hungry and tired and mostly bored, that I found myself saying, over and over again in my head, just as the strangers in my basement had said to me: “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” This was before I learned about Dickinson and frogs, before I pulled up the manuscripts, tracked down the letters, and returned to Walden to stand, metaphorically speaking, neck-deep in the pond with Thoreau. At this moment the poem simply functioned as an articulation of the alienation that I felt each and every one of those fourth graders knew intimately. To find a friend, and to locate some shared aspect of identity in that friendship, would be to find refuge from all the frogs croaking out on the playground. 

Which is why I eventually returned to the poem, because deep down I knew that Dickinson couldn’t just be saying that. It wasn’t her way to write anything so clear cut, even if it is our way to read it that way. 

And yet my point is not that this poem is not about what we thought it was about. It is, in fact, about alienation and isolation and the pitfalls of fame, but only in so far as it raises these issues for, in Dickinson’s word, “discovery.” In truth, we couldn’t fully revise the story that “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” tells even if we wanted to — and why would we want to? The beauty of this poem is that it delivers up a nugget of wisdom at the same time that it messes up the possibility that poetry could ever do such a thing. Do Nobodies exist alone or in pairs? Do they want to be advertised or banished? Is frog-sound degraded public speech or the echoes from which legends are made? Yes. 

While this column is supposed to be about knowing — about what we know and how we know it — I’ve written here about a poem that I think is interesting precisely because it presents itself as easily knowable when really it is anything but. I’ve gone to frogs, to fourth grade classrooms, down to my basement and back, and I’m still not sure that I’ll ever get this one straight — which I think, in all my uncertainty, must have been Dickinson’s point.
 

_____________________

Suggestions for Further Reading:

 

On essays and uncertainty:

Wampole, Christy. “The Essayification of Everything.” The New York Times. May 26, 2013. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/the-essayification-of-everything/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

 

On the swamps in which Dickinson would have found frogs:

Parks, Cecily. “The Swamps of Emily Dickinson.” Emily Dickinson Journal 22:1 (2013), 1-29.

 

On Dickinson’s variants:

Cameron, Sharon. Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson’s Fascicles.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

 

On the history of reading and misreading Dickinson:

Jackson, Virginia. Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

 

On Dickinson as a “famous Nobody”:

Mossberg, Barbara. “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” The Huffington Post. Dec. 10, 2011.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barbara-mossberg/emily-dickinson-birthday_b_1140653.html

 

On Literature, film, and frogs more generally:

Tatsumi, Takayuki. “Planet of the Frogs: Thoreau, Anderson, and Murakami.” Narrative 21:3 (October 2013), 346-356.

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Alexandra Socarides' first book, Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics, was published by Oxford University Press in June 2012.

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