Exercise Three: Modeling Emily Dickinson

I admit it - it was very, very hard for me to warm up to Emily Dickinson's poetry. In retrospect, I am pretty sure my litmus test for a poem was length of the line - any good poem had to have long lines, be completely involved, and maybe even have chapters. Think Homer's The Iliad, Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha, or Tennyson's Idylls of the King, and you have an idea of the kind of stuff I used to consider real poetry.

Of course, years later, I came to the conclusion that Emily Dickson and her short, sharp poems (which are perhaps not as short as many may think), was a far superior poet to Longfellow and Tennyson (though I still love both of them), and perhaps even to Homer (but, yeah, that's probably overstating). The point is that her poetry is amazing and more complex than readers often give her credit for. What I would like to do with this exercise is work through some of Dickinson's style while attempting to model her poem 1317 ("While we were fearing it, it came - ").

Step One
This is a simple step in that all you need to do is read a few of Dickinson's most popular poems to get a feel for her language choice, line construction, and punctuation. Follow the links below to the ten Emily Dickinson poems just about every poet knows (and now you will, too):
  1. I felt a Funeral in my Brain
  2. Because I could not stop for Death - 
  3. Safe in their alabaster chambers
  4. "Hope" is a thing with feathers -
  5. Fame is a fickle food
  6. Wild nights - Wild nights!
  7. I measure every Grief I meet
  8. I taste a liquor never brewed
  9. The Soul selects her own society
  10. I heard a Fly buzz
These are just some of the best known, but probably not her best (in my opinion). Still, you should have a good idea of the kind of poems you will be attempting to construct with the modeling exercise. Let's consider a few ground rules for modeling Emily Dickinson:
  • Important words get capitalized; this may or may not indicate personification
  • Lines are composed with a careful attention to meter (often ballad metre)
  • End rhyme is optional, but you should employ some sort of rhyming element in your lines; in many of her poems, the second and fourth lines in each stanza rhyme, following the ballad or hymn meter
  • Imagery is jarring, often she juxtaposes the lovely with the dreadful and the holy with the base
  • Dickinson recycles many images in many poems so we can see her either practicing or creating a linked series of poems. Either way, you will also make a series of poems, always borrowing at least one image from the last.
So let's take a look at our model poem:
While we were fearing it, it came -
But with less of fear
Because that fearing it so long
Has almost made it fair -

There is a Fitting - a Dismay -
A Fitting - a Despair -
'Tis harder knowing it is Due
Than knowing it is Here.

The Trying on the Utmost
The Morning it is New
Is terribler than wearing it
A whole existence through -
This is not one of Dickinson's most famous poems, but I like this poem as a model because it gives us a very clear set of directions to follow.

Step One
The poem consists of three quatrains (that is, four line stanzas) and uses Dickinson's familiar hymn meter, with the abxb rhyme scheme (that is, a = first line rhyme, b= second/fourth line rhyme, x=rhyme that may or may not rhyme with first line). And the subject matter here is typical Dickinson - she is forcing the reader to guess what the poem is about, but it's not clumsy like we find in a childrens' "what am I" book. Choose a subject like fear or happiness or anger or disappointment and choose some end rhymes that you can use for your three quatrains; you'll need three end rhymes and six words to use for those rhymes.

Step Two
Construct your first quatrain. Capitalize words that you want to emphasize (not necessarily what you think most people would emphasize). Go back over each line and be sure that your scansion follows the hymn meter, which is a tetrameter followed by a trimeter, like this:
- / - / - / - /    (a)
- / - / - /         (b)
- / - / - / - /    (x)
- / - / - /         (b)
Step Three
While you construct your next two quatrains, concentrate on the punctuation. Consider all of the ways Dickinson uses dash (-) in this poem and see what you can use it for in your poem. Also pay attention to the internal rhyme of the words, note how Dickinson carries the slant rhyme through with fearing/fear/fearing/despair/wearing and again with so/long/almost/knowing/knowing/morning/whole.

Step Four - Variants
Once you have complete a poem or two, try another method Dickinson used with many of her poems: variants. Here's an example "Morning's Amber Road/Lightning's jointed Road" (you must open the link in Internet Explorer, it doesn't work in Firefox). Dickinson's fascicles show that she specifically wanted poems to have options for words and phrases - showing how completely ahead of her time she really was. This creates all sorts of possibilities for interpretation of one line and one poem. Choose some phrases or words in you poem that you would like to offer alternatives for and list them as a footnote to your poem.