by Elizabeth SchmidtIn our age of memoir, or, if not memoir, then biography after biography after biography (the number on Picasso alone could fill a small bookstore) -- in our age of literary nonfiction, let's say, it's interesting to note how many Emily Dickinson readers have taken the imaginative leap into art and written novels, plays and sequences of poems in response to her work and what is known about her life. Even the most diligent scholars let their hair down when they write about Dickinson, believing, as she did, that the best way to tell any truth is to ''tell it slant.'' (And one could argue that the circuitous route of fiction also happens to be the only way to tell the truth of this particular life, as Dickinson left very few traces of her life behind.) Few literary figures have occasioned such a range of creative response, the latest of which is the extraordinary epistolary novel ''I Never Came to You in White,'' by Judith Farr, which is set during the year that the 17-year-old Dickinson spent at boarding school in South Hadley, Mass.
The eclectic body of Dickinson appreciation also includes work by painters, sculptors, musicians and performance artists. This month, the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College is sponsoring an exhibition of pieces by visual artists who have incorporated Dickinson's poetry into their work. Two young New York sculptors participating in the show use lines from the poetry and letters to radically different effect. Lesley Dill makes constructions representing dresses in the style of Dickinson's New England; the dresses, on which lines from the poems appear to float, conjure up the lost arts of 19th-century sewing circles and link Dickinson with those archetypal women who used looms and needles and thread to create narratives and shape history, from Arachne and Penelope to Betsy Ross. Roni Horn's pieces, by contrast, are minimalist pillars of solid aluminum and plastic, each forming a line from a poem. ''The text . . . is not simply painted on,'' she has written of her work: it ''is a three-dimensional part of the whole, putting it on a level footing with other physical things.'' When you look at Ms. Horn's pillars from the side, you see how the plastic letters cut through the aluminum setting, countering trendy academic notions about the insubstantiality of language -- much in the spirit of Dickinson's conviction that ''a Word that breathes distinctly / Has not the power to die.''
The reams of literature written about Dickinson are more territorial, with different writers, even in fictional accounts, professing to have found the true Emily Dickinson, or at least their own personal versions, as a quick look at some of the titles from the last 100 years suggests: ''Emily Dickinson: Face to Face,'' ''Emily Dickinson's Home,'' ''The Seductions of Emily Dickinson,'' ''The Riddle of Emily Dickinson,'' ''The Passion of Emily Dickinson,'' ''My Emily Dickinson,'' ''The Hidden Life of Emily Dickinson.'' (The list of titles about W. B. Yeats, by contrast, goes on and on in an impersonal vein: ''W. B. Yeats,'' ''W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet,'' ''The Integrity of Yeats.'') Why this persistent desire to imagine the most personal circumstances of the life she wanted to protect and conceal? Why do readers feel so close to her in spite of her attempts to push her audience away? And why, above all, do readers so often choose to answer Dickinson in kind, creating new works of imagination rather than of scholarship?
Part of the reason has to do with the poems themselves. Most have predictable rhyme schemes and were written to the tune of popular hymns, making them easy to memorize. A friend of mine memorized 141 Dickinson poems in one winter; she would learn a new one each morning while she walked her dog, and would often have stories about how certain things that happened to her, like being accosted by a ferocious homeless woman, would affect her understanding of that day's poem. While working on this piece, I pulled out my ragged ''Norton Anthology of Poetry'' from 11th grade, and the book fell open to the Dickinson section, whose onionskin pages are covered with scrawled notes (none very scholarly: ''That's thinking EXACTLY'' beside the poem that begins, ''I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,'' and ''who's thee???'' next to ''Wild Nights''). Written in different-colored inks and pencil, the notes have left a palimpsest, a record of all the times I returned to the poems. In my Norton, ''Because I could not stop for Death'' is barely legible beneath the web of handwriting. My high school paper about the poem became a kind of declaration of independence; my father, who'd come up to my boarding school to show my younger brother around, said with what struck me at the time as genuine amazement, ''I could never have written this.'' (That was the exact moment I realized that something in school could be as interesting as the latest Talking Heads lyrics.)
The abiding preoccupation of Dickinson's poems, which the poet Charles Simic best describes as ''the intimate immensity of consciousness,'' draws readers from all times and places to her work. The Romanian-born poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan loved her poems and spent much of the last years of his life translating them. Her formal discipline -- the economy of her language and her elaborate, idiosyncratic metrical schemes -- turns out to be anything but off-putting. She chose forms that readers could learn by heart, creating one of literature's great, and most unlikely, combinations of style and content. Her poems are often conceptually difficult, and yet they are also surprisingly inviting, whether they coax you to guess a riddle or carry you along to the beat of a familiar tune. She used hymn rhythms to subvert the traditional New England understanding of God. Some scholars now believe that Dickinson composed her poems in her head, that they were the soundtrack to a day filled with household chores -- baking her celebrated rye bread, sewing, gardening, tending to her father -- and that she transcribed them late at night, or in spare free moments at her desk. This may be why she favored dashes over formal punctuation, why the poems have their peculiar rhymes, why the handwriting in her manuscripts looks as though it's catching something in motion -- and why the poems go so easily from the printed page into our memory, returning, you could say, to their original domain.
uriosity about Dickinson's life began just after her death, in 1886. The immense popularity of the first edition of her poems (published in 1890 and reprinted 11 times before the end of 1892) produced a culture of parlor games and ladies' luncheons starring those who claimed they had known her. The publication in 1894 of her letters, which are as elliptical and enigmatic as the poems, didn't satisfy the literary public's hunger for details about her life. The foreword to the 1932 edition of Martha Gilbert Bianchi's ''Emily Dickinson: Face to Face'' re-creates the atmosphere of curiosity surrounding her fame:
''People who had lived obscurely in Amherst in their youth, and left it nearly half a century before, arose now in a reflected light, proclaiming themselves authorities, ready to supply the most intimate details concerning one they had never known. Glib students, who after her death had come to Amherst College for a year or two, related her intimate likes and dislikes unhesitatingly, and were quoted in italics as reliable 'evidence' from 'her hometown.' ''
I imagine that Dickinson would have been less harsh about the creative license her fans have taken, and that she would have appreciated the contradictions and the variety of what's been written, produced and assembled in her name. Hers was a poetry of compression and economy, and her life was pared down to just what she needed to write. She didn't leave much behind, and therefore left plenty of room for her readers' speculation, believing, as she wrote in one of her last poems, that
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
Elizabeth Schmidt, who was formerly on the staff of The New Yorker, is writing her doctoral dissertation on Emily Dickinson.