21st of March, Easter week. Spring is here but London is so cold snow has appeared for three evenings in a row. The wind is freezing, and walking downhill from Highgate towards Archway tube station, my eyes fill with tears caused not by emotion but by erosion – or whatever you want to call the evil air whipping my retina. Wrapped in my puffy jacket, armed crossed against my chest, hair in my mouth, I look like Jeremiah Jones’ younger sister (who’s Jeremiah Jones? Shame on you! Read the Robert Redford post, NOW).
During the short trip down the escalator I keep my head down as my bones still haven’t managed to absorbe the station’s warm air. As usual, the floor is littered with old papers – Metro, London LITE – I wouldn’t normally pay them much attention but I notice a familiar face smiling at me from among those discarded pages:
The Independent is running a poetry series, and every week a little booklet is given away for free with the newspaper. I pick it up.
“Hello Em, long time no see,” I say. She’s one of my oldest friends, you see, even though it’s been some time since I last thought of her, too busy with prose to stop and think of poetry… Of course she’s also one of the greatest poets of all times. And there she is, on the pavement, like rubbish, chucked away by somebody who considered her as valuable as the supplement on holiday properties.
I place the booklet safely in my bag. I have already several copies of Dickinson’s poems – in English and Italian – and half a dozen books on her life and work. I don’t need the Independent’s little volume but it’s a question of principle. I’d never leave a poet on the Tube’s floor, at the mercy of the mice. I don’t think this is what it’s meant by “underground poets”.
I discovered Emily Dickinson in my early 20s, when I still thought I could write poetry. I also didn’t have a boyfriend, I was slightly depressed and thought I could easily spend my later years locked in my parents’ room dressed in white and speaking only to children like Emily. She was such a lovely nutter… And a witty one. And somebody able to express such passion and erotism and desperation…
When trying to write poetry, I would spend weeks running after words, looking for images and assonances and metaphores, fighting in vain with language… Then, just by chance I would open one of my many Dickinson’s volumes and there it was, exactly the words I had been looking for, precisely what I wanted to write. Sometimes the resemblance with the images I had been trying to convey was shocking.
It’s such a joy, and a surprise, to read a verse or a chapter and to see there, printed on the page, words you’ve been looking for for ages. Or to recognize images or metaphores you have thought up yourself, only expressed with so much more clarity, style, art. With Emily this happened constantly.
The only other writer that gave me the same experience was, a few years later, Virginia Woolf, who’s my absolute and maximum literary idol.
I have these kind of obsessions with writers. I believe our favourite authors are kindred spirits who put into words our most intimate thoughts, friends who speak our same language through the barreers of time and space. When a book “speaks” to me, I feel an affinity with its creator, I want to know everything about him or her, find out about their lives and experiences, see their houses and their gardens, in order to understand how some people so far from me in time and space came to express with such precision feelings and ideas so familiar to my heart. The only things I’m not interested in are graves. Cemeteries don’t influence a writer’s art. Their life is the source of their nourishment.
Last year I visited New England. I must admit my friends weren’t happy when I asked them (forced them I should say) to go from Connecticut to Vermont via Amherst, Massachussets. It’s a silly route, we’re going to waste a whole day… And what is there to see in Amherst? They protested.
What there is to see?
Emily’s house, of course.
I must confess it was a partial disappointment. The outside is intact but the morons who inherited or bought it in the 60s decided to “renovate” the inside, stripping the famous austere wallpapers off the walls, painting them magnolia and covering the dark wood floors in light parquet. The result could be succesfully displayed in an IKEA catalogue but bares little resemblance with the oppressive place Emily wrote about. Luckily, they preserved her bedroom intact.
The garden was beautiful though, and especially the tree, the famous tree she mentions in so many of her poems. I took this picture. I have no idea who’s the woman paiting but somehow she looked so appropriate…
But back to the Indpendent booklet… Once on the underground carriage, I take it from my bag and open it. The usual picture of Emily, the usual quotes, the usual explanation about her punctuation. Then, right in the middle, her voice. That defies explanation. Revolutionary and perfect in its studied imperfection. Pure.
The heart asks Pleasure – first –
And then – Excuse from pain –
And then – those little Anodynes
That deaden suffering –
And then – to go to sleep –
And then – if it should be
The will of the Inquisitor
The privilege to die –
This is one of my most favourite piece of writing of all times. How simply she managed to convey that slow process that is falling from hope into deep dispair…
And of course how many people know where the title and inspiration for this superfamous piece of music comes from?
At London bridge I place the booklet back in my bag and get off. On the platform edge, I see another Dickinson booklet, but too many people are pushing me, I can’t rescue it. Boots kick it, soil it, tear it apart. I reach the station hall. In one corner, next to an empty can, a third discarded poetry booklet…
My poor Emily, who would have thought it! Nobody published you when you were alive, they thought you were too unconventional – with all your dashes and your Capital letters and your uneven metric… Isn’t it ironic that now that you’re unconditionally considered a “classic”, one of the “Greatest”, you should experience the same ill fortune that first met you, and end up ignored and discarded by people who don’t have time to try and understand the greatness of your voice?
There’s no point in giving poetry away for free. It’s a noble attempt but bound to fail. Most people will always prefer a CD or an anti-wrinkle cream sample, or a fashion magazine. Poetry can’t compete with gadgets. Better to charge for it. At least the ones who choose to have it will know its value and hopefully won’t leave it on the underground pavement.
The Soul selects her own Society
Then – shuts the Door –
To her divine Majority –
Present no more –