I’ve been fooled by simplicity, or what I had thought was simplicity, before. I’ve known people and situations, I’ve read books and poems, I’ve seen movies that I’d thought were simple—readily perceived, clearly understood, free from symbol or translation, easily dismissed. Oftentimes, I’ve come to realize too late that I hadn’t understood the complexity hidden in the simplicity. I’d been fooled—or I’d been the fool—to accept things right at the surface. Afterwards, I’ve recognized complexities hidden in the simple words or actions or diversions.
Such complexity-hidden-in-the-simplicity is what I’ve come to enjoy in reading Emily Dickinson, the third poet I’ll discuss in this Poetry Month of April. Emily is widely “known” as a quaint New England recluse poet from the mid-Nineteenth Century…she lived a nearly cloistered life by today’s standards. Dickinson is widely known for her simplest, most quaint poems, such as “I’m Nobody! Who Are You” and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” If you read those poems as “simple” or “quaint,” I believe you’re missing their beauty and value.
“I’m Nobody…” is often read as a shy statement of a hidden personality who tells another “nobody” that anonymity is best. It is easy to read the second stanza as a denouncement of a Public life: “How dreary—to be—Somebody!” But there is a complexity underneath…the narrator “Nobody” finds an immediate connection with the other “Nobody”: “Then there’s a pair of us.” Public? Maybe not. But shy? Definitely not…the Nobody ironically isn’t anonymous and immediately makes a connection and invites a conspiracy: “Don’t tell.”
For me, therein lies the beauty of Dickinson’s poems: a deep complexity to her simple expressions. At first, her poetry wasn’t even thought of as poetry and wasn’t published the way she’d written it: her punctuation, vocabulary, and syntax were too idiosyncratic for contemporary publishers. But her idiosyncrasies create surprises.
For example, Dickinson proclaims a quick and powerful four lines about a “Glory,” in fact her “one Glory”:
'Twas my one Glory —
Let it be
I was owned of Thee —
But is her Glory a statement of personal subjugation to a powerful owner: has she surrendered to her owner, her controller? Or is her Glory a statement of pride and equality, that someone whom she values or loves—“Thee”—acknowledges and accepts her? Her concept of Glory turns on the word “owned.”
As a poet, Dickinson knows well the power of language—for loading meanings and sensibilities and surprises into the reader’s perception. What you perceive at first may have more depth beneath…or different meaning behind…or may be twisted into contradiction.
Look at this piece: the sea parts to show another sea and then another…or is it just a “presumption” of the viewer…is it all one sea and did the sea part?
As if the Sea should part
And show a further Sea —
And that—a further—and the Three
But a presumption be—
Look at this piece: a prism is the polished glass that bends light and it is the resulting splay of colors of the rainbow…but Dickinson ignores that relationship and converts the concept from vision to sound:
The Prism never held the Hues,
It only heard them play—
Look at this piece: Dickinson lays out the separation of day from night—suggesting the movement of the “supreme” Sun—but changes the resulting image to one of personal existence…she finds it supreme “to be” no matter where she is.
The Day she goes
Or Day she stays
Are equally supreme —
Existence has a stated width
Departed, or at Home —
Sometimes, of course, her lines are very simple…rich in simplicity that makes life plain, such as “Forever — is composed of nows — / ‘Tis not a different time —” and “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul.” They are the phrases and images that, for me, say things “just right.”
Dickinson holds a unique place in American literature…in world literature, one of greatly idiosyncratic poetry and observation. So often, she serves up small poems whose simplicity belies their depth of thought and expression, belies their complexity and richness.