Emily Dickinson Isn’t Difficult—She’s Just Misunderstood

The new film "Wild Nights with Emily" fills in the gaps and omissions that have made the poet seem hard to understand

An abandoned white dress, screenshot from Wild Nights with Emily

If you had told me when I was in grad school that one day, I would be holding hands with a woman in a movie theater watching Molly Shannon play an explicitly lesbian Emily Dickinson, I would not have known it was possible. There wasn’t a lot that seemed possible in those days, though. I was working my way through a Ph.D. program in literature, dating a melancholy man on the gallows of the academic job market, and writing about Dickinson. More accurately, I was writing about critics who just could not seem to put their finger on why, exactly, her poetry was so difficult. I thought it odd to say such a thing about a poet—what good poetry wasn’t difficult? Was a Shakespeare sonnet easy? It was so clearly a gendered complaint, a charge you’d level against a woman you didn’t want to deal with. Many of Dickinson’s earliest critics in the first half of the twentieth century presented her particular, peculiar difficulty as self-evident, but struggled to find a way to articulate what it was about her poems that unsettled them so. As critic R.P. Blackmur quipped about reading Dickinson, “One exaggerates, but it sometimes seems as if in her work a cat came at us speaking English.”  

This is the popular image of Emily Dickinson: a Sphinxlike figure, difficult for normal minds to reconcile. Scholars have historically made much of her reclusiveness and her idiosyncrasies, which are seen as counterbalances to her genius rather than evidence thereof (Emily Dickinson’s white dress is, of course, not like Tom Wolfe’s white suit; Emily Dickinson’s reclusiveness is not like J.D. Salinger’s). But Madeline Olnek’s new film Wild Nights with Emily gives a new gloss on the poet: not a hermit or a saint, but a person who was aiming for a different literary and romantic audience. It’s a version of Emily that queer writers understand implicitly. She wasn’t incomprehensible, or difficult, or obscure, as some critics have suggested. She just wasn’t talking to them.

She wasn’t incomprehensible, or difficult, or obscure, as some critics have suggested. She just wasn’t talking to them.

Wild Nights with Emily dramatizes the first moment in history that anyone responded in such an unsettled way to Dickinson: her encounter with Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Dickinson sent him her poems and asked: “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?” He paid a visit, as dramatized in the film, using quotations from their correspondence. “When I read your poetry, Miss Dickinson,” he offers, “I’m left feeling… I’m not sure what.” He asks her to define what poetry is, and she does not hesitate to reply: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Her response evokes a poetry that is embodied, yet uncanny, the hyperbole somehow offering a realistic description of what it feels like to read a poem that unsettles you. Instead of wanting to get to the bottom of poetry, she proposes that poetry should take your top off. Men like Higginson felt something after reading her poetry, but couldn’t name the feeling, or wouldn’t linger with the discomfort.

After she died, Higginson and a woman named Mabel Loomis Todd finally published Dickinson’s poetry. Wild Nights with Emily is framed with a lecture by Todd, the woman who presented Dickinson’s posthumous work to the world—heavily edited to her own liking, of course, after having a long affair with Dickinson’s brother, and without ever meeting the poet in person. Olnek doesn’t pull her punches when it comes to Todd, who is portrayed as a gaudy gossip limited by the poor taste of heterosexuality. This framing is ingenious because it allows us to see the Emily Dickinson that Todd diligently erased: social, singular, and in love with her sister in law, Susan.

The irreverence with which the film treats Dickinson’s critical lineage is matched only by the reverence with which it regards Dickinson’s relationship with Susan. The scenes with Susan sing. They fall onto a pile of coats at a party to steal a moment together, they have a lover’s quarrel over a mutual friend, they make the fuck out. The film is generous enough to wink knowingly at its queer audience:, as a teen, I had certainly invited a “friend” over for a “sleepover” with my parent’s full permission. As all queers know, you can get away with a great deal of mischief when you’re invisible—one feels almost ghostly. As Susan wrote a friend, “We frighten each other to death nearly every night — with that exception, we have very independent times.” But as queers also know, there can be a tradeoff between freedom to do as one pleases and recognition.

If Dickinson’s queerness has long been treated as subtext rather than text, it is thanks to Todd’s diligence, who committed a literal act of lesbian erasure by erasing Susan’s name from much of Dickinson’s correspondence, including the poems she sent to her. Casting Dickinson as an eccentric spinster recluse was Todd and Higginson’s mutual idea, and it still survives, as evidenced by Terence Davies’ film A Quiet Passion, which would be campy if it weren’t so played so irredeemably straight.

Olnek consulted with Dickinson scholar Martha Nell Smith, who gave the world Open Me Carefully, the 1998 collection of Dickinson’s letters to Susan. Much of the dialogue from the film in fact comes from this collection. Smith and her collaborator Ellen Louise Hart were able to use high-quality photographs to detect where Todd had erased Susan’s name, and, to the chagrin of more buttoned-up members of the academy, where Dickinson had written her most explicitly erotic letters to Susan.

Smith interrupted the Dickinson criticism mythmaking machine by showing how Dickinson was devoted to her work and to Susan, and did not withdraw from society, but rather chose it selectively, as any male poet might have. Thoreau, for example, is not pathologized as agoraphobic, as Dickinson was, because he lived alone in the woods for a brief time. We take him at his word—he wanted to live deliberately. For too long, we were unable to do so for Dickinson.

Olnek’s film takes Dickinson at her word — to the letter, even. “I taste a liquor never brewed, from tankards scooped in pearl?” She said what she said. I wasn’t surprised to laugh so much in her film because I knew Dickinson’s humor, but I was surprised to find myself in tears at a few touching moments. The film felt recuperative, giving back not only her passion (no longer quiet) but her presence, and how she shared it with the woman she loved.

The film felt recuperative, giving back not only her passion but her presence, and how she shared it with the woman she loved.

For a woman who left so much material behind, Dickinson’s “inheritors” have certainly had trouble evoking that presence in a way that doesn’t make her seem ghostly, a specter even in her own day. Though she published ten poems in her lifetime, she wrote around 1,800, many of which she sent to friends and family. After her death, her sister Lavinia discovered hundreds of her poems locked in a box, some bound together in fascicles, some left loose. Lavinia was the one who enlisted the help of Higginson and Todd. In 1890 and 1891, Higginson and Todd published two volumes of Poems of Emily Dickinson, and Todd published the third, along with a collection of letters, on her own in 1894 and 1896, respectively. Together, they made extensive edits to Dickinson’s poems: they normalized her punctuation, tinkered with word choice to make rhymes fit, and added titles that they deemed to reflect the poem’s meaning. Dickinson’s niece and Susan’s daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, inherited her papers and edited new volumes of poetry that restored original word choice and rhyme scheme, and omitted the tacked-on titles.

A single edition of Dickinson’s complete poems was not available until 1955, when Harvard scholar Thomas H. Johnson published all 1,775, with variants, in chronological order—Dickinson remastered. Ralph W. Franklin published The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson in 1981, “restored as closely as possible to their original order…much as she left them for Lavinia and the world,” as well as a variorum edition of Dickinson’s poems in 1998, the same year Open Me Carefully appeared. Ironically, arguing for the primacy of the original materials written by Dickinson leads easily into speculation about her intent for her work: whether she wanted to be published and what audience she had in mind. Getting closer to the materiality of her work sometimes means a desire to get closer to the poet herself. Consider the poet Susan Howe’s remarks in a 1990 interview:

I think I have the best intentions when it comes to reading The Manuscript Books, but I often wake up in the night and think, No, I am wrong. She would not agree. She would be angry with me.  It’s something to do with her way of not publishing, of copying her work into packages she sewed together herself, with what she left out (numbers, titles), with what she left in (variant word listings, various marks). I think she may have chosen to enter the space of silence, a space where power is no longer an issue, gender is no longer an issue, voice is no longer an issue, where the idea of a printed book appears as a trap.

It is as though the only space her critics are able to imagine the poet in is the grave.

This is how the ghostly spinster myth has persisted into a new century. In her tellingly named 2005 work, Dickinson’s Misery, Virginia Jackson writes, “her old-maidenly strangeness, her nunlike privacy worked (and still works) to make her poetry seem to readers like the voice that speaks to no one and therefore to all of us.” The opening scene of Jackson’s book uses the second person to rope the reader into imagining themselves in the position of Dickinson’s sister, Lavinia — “Suppose you are sorting through the effects of a woman who has just died and you find in her bedroom a locked wooden box” — furthering the ghostly image of Dickinson apart from mortal society. Jackson therefore asks us to scrutinize how we call a poem a poem and what reading practices have sprung up around what we call the lyric. In the case of Dickinson, who is to say what is a poem and what is a scrap of paper? But as Jackson shows, getting closer to what Dickinson wrote with her own living hand doesn’t undo the ghostly fantasy that has been projected onto the poet.

Even scholars who are attuned to gender concerns continue to comment on the unique sort of riddle a Dickinson poem poses. As University of Buffalo professor Christanne Miller observes,

The fascination of reading Dickinson’s poetry is one and the same with the frustration of reading it…The power of her words lies at least partly in their (and her) ability to give more than a reader can entirely understand but not enough to satisfy the desire to know.  Regardless of how many times you read her best poems, and how many times you persuade others that you know what they “mean,” you feel the tickle of unsolved mystery in the poem; you do not convince yourself that you have gotten to the bottom of it; the poem, like the poet herself, is never quite your own.

Miller’s remarks are indicative of a critical desire not only for the poem’s meaning, but a drive towards mastering them. Meaning, for the Dickinson critic, is not something that can merely be divined through interpretation, but through a mastery achieved after you’ve “gotten to the bottom of it.” Her feminist critics, at least, seem to realize that there is no getting to the bottom of it, and that itself is part of the allure of her poetry, an elusive satisfaction.

Generations of Dickinson editors have chipped away at the early editorial changes to return to Dickinson’s original manuscripts. Finally, in 2016, Miller published Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved Them, which includes every poem she collected herself into fascicles, offers her alternate words and phrases, and separates out the poems that the poet herself had copied out from those she treated as unfinished. There is still infinite possibility for interpretation, for reading, with minimal editorial interruption. And possibility, in all its queer openness, was where Dickinson dwelled.

There is still infinite possibility for interpretation. And possibility, in all its queer openness, was where Dickinson dwelled.

Although I did not know it at the time, writing about Dickinson was good practice in learning how to let go (“First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go —”). Most of the time I was in grad school, or, for that matter, in my longest straight relationship, I kept thinking: not this. As I was preparing to leave academia, I started to believe that there might be a possibility of something else for me, which both institutions of the university and heterosexuality tend to block from view. A something had overtaken my mind, as Dickinson once wrote.

My last day as a professor, I taught Anne Boyer’s essay, “No.” “History is full of people who just didn’t,” she begins. Poets are “expert-class of refusers,” Boyer remarks, and includes Dickinson in the “pantheon of ‘not-this.’” I think of Dickinson as one such person, who declined to publish, declined to leave her home when it didn’t suit her, declined a life of straight norms. Funny how when you start saying no, you can start to dwell in possibility, you can throw open the windows and doors to the fairest visitors.

“Poetry’s no can protect a potential yes,” Boyer writes, articulating poetry’s power against the police who would erase our potential, our breath, our love. The grace of Wild Nights with Emily is that it allows us to see what she said “yes” to: namely, her committed and erotic partnership with Susan, the driving force behind her work and her creative collaborator. The film celebrates Emily and Susan’s great yes, the paradise they were able to gather in constant communication. The film also offers tenderness, particularly when Susan is asked to wash her lover’s body before her funeral. In real life, Susan wrote Emily’s obituary, and surrounded her body with violets. So let Susan have the last word on Emily: “Not disappointed with the world, not an invalid until within the past two years, not from any lack of sympathy, not because she was insufficient for any mental work or social career — her endowments being so exceptional — but the ‘mesh of her soul,’ as Browning calls the body, was too rare, and the sacred quiet of her own home proved the fit atmosphere for her worth and work. All that must be inviolate.”

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