The Bigness of Small Poems – # 14 in a Series – May 15th, The Death Day of Emily D.

Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Copyright: Lara Lasworth

Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Copyright: Laura Lasworth

I Reason, Earth is Short
#403 (Franklin Edition)

I reason, Earth is short –
And Anguish – absolute –
And many hurt,
But, what of that?

I reason, we could die –
The best Vitality
Cannot excel Decay,
But, what of that?

I reason, that in Heaven –
Somehow, it will be even –
Some new Equation, given –

But, what of that?

Emily Dickinson from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited, R.W. Franklin, Harvard University Press, 1999

Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Copyright: Barry Moser, from Emily:Opposites Attract, Horse Whisperer Press, 2004

Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Copyright: Barry Moser, from Emily:Opposites Attract, Horse Whisperer Press, 2004

One hundred and thirty years ago today Emily Dickinson died, a virtual unknown who had written at least 1789 poems, many in various versions! Although none were published in her lifetime about 600 poems were sent out by her to  some forty recipients. Now, of course, she along with Walt Whitman are seen as the two pillars of modern American poetry. And surely she has entered the pantheon of world-celebrated poets, as well!

(Just to acknowledge a cheat. This small poem above is bigger than my self-imposed limit of ten lines! To compensate I have included an eight line poem below – one of her best known!)

Helen Vendler, the esteemed poetry commentator and author says this about Dickinson in her 2010 volume, Dickinson – Selected Poems and Commentaries:

Dickinson the writer: How do we characterize her? She is epigrammatic, terse, abrupt, surprising, unsettling, flirtatious, savage, winsome, metaphysical, provocative, blasphemous, tragic funny…

Many of Vendler’s adjectives could apply to poem # 403 . Unsettling, blasphemous (perhaps), surprising and, yes, provocative.  If ever there was a  perfect hymn to mindfulness and living in the “now” this poem might quality! Shocking might be another way to describe this poem. For me it has the impact of smelling salts. A stinging wake-up. A stinging rebuke to sentimental notions of our lives here on earth.

The poem’s repeated refrain: But what of that? is so dismissive that it forces me to a deep self examination. Does pain, suffering, death or even promise of an afterlife matter! And if it doesn’t, what does? For me, what matters to me, just weeks before my sixty fifth birthday, is to live wholeheartedly. Awake to all of it. Do I succeed? I’m working on it. Watching for those moments when I split-off and withdraw. Trying to stay present. Ouch!

Now, here is the promised “small” poem. What a great reminder this poem is to me when I want to be celebrated, acknowledged! In a world where so many seek celebrity status this poem is a good bromide. May, today, I feel like a fulfilled and contented Nobody!

I’m Nobody
# 260 Franklin Edition

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

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

Emily Dickinson, ibid

Notes on Images: I purchased the Lasworth portrait at an Image Journal event years ago in Seattle. The Moser portrait comes from a limited edition letterpress volume published by Apollonia Elsted, daughter of esteemed letterpress publishers, Jan and Crispin Elsted of Barbarian Press.