A New Look at Emily Dickinson

Portrait of the poet Emily Dickinson at the age of sixteen. Property of Amherst College.

For years, scholars have had only one image of the enigmatic Emily Dickinson to go by–that of the poet as a sixteen year-old, taken in 1847 (above). In that time, observers have been unable to help themselves from forming certain ideas of the poet, given this picture of a heavy-lidded, pale, and fragile looking adolescent, coupled with her well-known depressive nature. However, it seems that a new discovery may serve to change our views.

That is, if the photograph below is truly the second portrait of Emily Dickinson known to date.

Could the woman on the left be Emily Dickinson, twelve years on from her famous daguerrotype above?

The picture recently surfaced in Dickinson’s hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, and has been on loan with Amherst College (the owner of the first Dickinson daguerrotype) while it undergoes tests to determine its credibility. And what scrutinizing tests they are; the photograph has thus far been evaluated by historians, members of the Emily Dickinson International Society, and even an opthalmologist. The last, Susan Pepin, concluded in her report,

The two women have the same eye opening size with the right eye opening being slightly larger than the left. The left lower lid in both women sits lower than the right lower lid… The right earlobe is higher on both women. The inferonasal corneal light reflex suggests corneal curvature similarity, allowing us to speculate about similar astigmatism in the two women. Both women have a central hair cowlick. Finally, both women have a more prominent left nasolabial fold… After a thorough examination of both of these women’s facial features as viewed from the 1847 and 1859 daguerreotypes, I believe strongly that these are the same people.

Kate Turner, age sixty.

And she’s not the only one. Others at Amherst College, after comparing the fabric of the subject’s dress to swatches belonging to the Emily Dickinson Museum’s textile collection, feel strongly that she must be the famous poet.

Further forensic-style investigation was used to determine the second sitter in the photograph, Kate Scott Turner, which corroborates the conclusion that the image is of Dickinson. Turner, a recent widow at the time, met Dickinson in 1859. The two shared a strong relationship–which some have purported to have been more than mere friendship–until they suffered a parting of ways that deeply hurt Dickinson. In a letter to Kate circa 1860, the poet wrote, “Why did you enter, sister, since you must depart?” lamenting that loss of a close friend. Thankfully, multiple photographs of Turner exist in the world, as the ability to identify her as one of the subjects in the photo makes it more likely “that the other sitter who looks like Dickinson is Dickinson.”

But what exactly is the significance of finding a second portrait of Emily Dickinson, you may ask? It’s all in our perceptions of her. Reducing our image of her to a photograph of a waifish teenage girl, we’ve been short-sighted in our considerations of Dickinson as a grown woman. It seems impossible to believe that she could be so composed–strong, even–as we imagine her now, extending a protective arm to her far meeker looking friend.

If the daguerreotype is eventually accepted as Dickinson, it will change our idea of her, providing a view of the poet as a mature woman showing striking presence, strength, and serenity. She (whoever she is) seems to be the one in charge here, the one who decided that on a certain day in a certain year, she and her friend would have their likenesses preserved. In fact, even if this photograph is not of Dickinson and Turner, it has still been of use in forcing us to imagine Dickinson as an adult, past the age of the ethereal-looking 16-year-old we have known for so many years.

Tell us your views: is the image above, in your opinion, of Emily Dickinson? If so, does it change your perception of her? Leave us a comment below.


Newest Poet Laureate to Give Inaugural Reading

Natasha Trethewey, the United States’ 19th Poet Laureate, will give her first reading at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. this Thursday.

Trethewey became the national Poet Laureate in June of this year. The reading later this week will kickstart her duties in the role.

The “poet-historian,” as the Library of Congress describes her, was born and raised in the South, hailing from Gulfport, Mississipi, the state in which she currently holds another Poet Laureate title. Trethewey is also Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University in Atlanta. Besides teaching, the poet and author has published four collections since 2000 and one work of non-fiction, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Her 2006 collection, Native Guard, won her the esteemed Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Of her poetry, James Billington of the Library of Congress has said Trethewey

inter-mixes her story with the historical story in a way that takes you deep into the human tragedy of it. It is her ability to weave the present and the past, to engage the public and the personal, and to give language to the unsaid that makes Trethewey’s poems of such lasting import.

The history Billington references is Trethewey’s own family history, which her poetry relates to the “racial legacy of America” as a whole. At the time of her birth, Trethewey’s parents’ marriage wasn’t legally recognized; on Natasha’s birth certificate her mother’s ethnicity was recorded as “colored,” her father’s “Canadian.” The Supreme Court reversed anti-miscegenation laws a year later, but the impact of racial prejudice surely struck the future poet from a young age. Later, the family tragedy that was her mother’s murder further spurred Trethewey to become a poet, if anything to simply “make sense of what had happened.” Her mother’s life became the inspiration behind Native Guard, which is dedicated to her memory.

Perhaps one of the best examples of the weaving between present and past, public and personal stories, is found in the poem “Letter Home”:

I sit watching–

though I pretend not to notice–the dark maids

ambling by with their white charges. Do I deceive

anyone? Were they to see my hands, brown

as your dear face, they’d know I’m not quite

what I pretend to be. I walk these streets

a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes

of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine,

a negress again. There are enough things here

to remind me who I am.

For a preview of her upcoming reading, view the clip below recorded at Trethewey’s April 12th recitation at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, courtesy of Poets & Writers magazine and the Dark Room Collective.


Happy Birthday Bukowski

bukowski3There are so many quotes I could draw from that would be emblematic of the character of Charles Bukowski, the larger-than-life poet, novelist, alcoholic, and “grim prophet of love.”

But today, on the day he would have turned 92, I choose “two nights before my 72nd birthday.” Written exactly two decades ago, shortly before his death of leukemia, the poem calmly, almost ambivalently, reflects on aging and death. Bukowski seems drained of all the lingering angst from his difficult childhood, only amazed at the fact he’s lasted this long and grateful for his glass of cabernet and the warm night. It’s pleasant to think of him admiring life’s simplicities, not really wanting or regretting, merely enjoying what would be his second-to-last birthday.

That night, I think, a secret bluebird gave a little whistle somewhere.

sitting here on a boiling hot night while
drinking a bottle of cabernet sauvignon
after winning $232 at the track.
there’s not much I can tell you except
if it weren’t for my bad right leg
I don’t feel much different than I did
30 or 40 years ago (except that
now I have more money and should be able
to afford a decent
burial). also,
I drive better automobiles and have
stopped carrying a
switchblade.
I am still looking for a hero, a role model,
but can’t find one.
I am no more tolerant of Humanity
than I ever was.
I am not bored with myself and find
that I am the only one I can
turn to in time of
crisis.
I’ve been ready to die for decades and
I’ve been practicing, polishing up
for that end
but it’s very
hot tonight
and I can think of little but
this fine cabernet,
that’s gift enough for me.
sometimes I can’t
believe I’ve come this far,
this has to be some kind of goddamned
miracle!
just another old guy
blinking at the forces,
smiling a little,
as the cities tremble and the left
hand rises,
clutching
something
real.

Happy Birthday Bukowski.


Poets in Black and White: Remembering Lucille Clifton and Robert Frost

Lucille Clifton and Robert Frost

At eNotes this month, we are taking some time to remember two great American poets:  Lucille Clifton and Robert Frost.  Clifton passed away on February 17, 2010, and March 26 marked Frost’s birthday. Seldom have two writers articulated their view of the United States in such unique and memorable ways.

Lucille Clifton’s often highly personal poems focused on what it was like to be an African-American woman living in the twentieth century. Her voice has been characterized as “earthy” and reminiscent of the “rhythms of the black oral tradition.”  One of her poems that embodies all three of these characteristics is “The Lost Baby“:

the time i dropped your almost body down
down to meet the waters under the city
and run one with the sewage to the sea
what did i know about waters rushing back
what did i know about drowning
or being drowned

you would have been born in winter
in the year of the disconnected gas
and no car
we would have made the thin walk
over the genecy hill into the canada winds
to let you slip into a stranger’s hands
if you were here i could tell you
these and some other things

and if i am ever less than a mountain
for your definite brothers and sisters
let the rivers wash over my head
let the sea take me for a spiller of seas
let black men call me stranger always
for your never named sake

Clifton’s collection of poems Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980 was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.  Twelve years later, in 2000, Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000 won a National Book Award.

Like Clifton, Robert Frost too also wrote of the American experience, but from the vantage point of a white New Englander. However, where Clifton is typically sparse and direct, Frost’s poems are frequently long and colloquial.  And while he is often thought of as America’s kindly grandfather poet, in fact, Frost could be quite dark and brooding.  For example, consider his poem “Acquainted With the Night“:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
A luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Robert Frost won the Pulitzer Prize four times:

  • 1924 for New Hampshire: A Poem With Notes and Grace Notes
  • 1931 for Collected Poems
  • 1937 for A Further Range
  • 1943 for A Witness Tree

Frost died on January 29, 1963. He was 89 years old.


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