Emily Dickinson at War


When you read Emily Dickinson

           you enter a War Zone

Sometimes the war is over

           before the poem begins

The bodies, including her own

          are already dead

You just need to clear them away

          so you see what happened

and sometimes the war hasn’t happened yet

You hear the gun cocked, you hear the pin                       pulled from the grenade

Your heart quickens

           your hands start to sweat

Terror is knowing the end is coming

Horror is knowing it has come


If Walt Whitman is the father of American poetry, then Emily Dickinson is surely its mother.  The influence of both is incalculable in not only poetry written in the United States, but poetry written in the world at large.

They are very different poets, Whitman with the long incantatory lines designed to be shouted from the roof tops and Dickinson with short bursts like gun fire – dit, dit.  She is the poet of terror and horror.  I can’t think of another poet in the English language who compresses more thought into a few lines:


The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

*I’ve written two extended essays on Emily Dickinson for The Antigonish Review, “A Terrible Simplicity” and “Melody for Bone”.  So much of Dickinson’s strongest work divides into the terror poems and the horror poems:  those poems that embody the slow creep of terror; and those poems that live with the aftershocks of horror.