This year I’m bringing back Poetically Speaking for National Poetry Month (April) to discuss some of my favorite poems. Today’s poem is “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, (340)” by Emily Dickinson:
For today’s Poetically Speaking post I’m taking over to talk about “I Died for Beauty” by Emily Dickinson.
Emily Dickinson is one of my favorite poets. She’s one of the first poets I read as a child and when I’m not worried about sounding arrogant I like to think she’s a poet whose style is similar to my own.
It’s a strange thing that even poems you haven’t read or considered for years can come back to you like familiar friends. I hadn’t thought about this poem for years until I read it again in Maggie Stiefvater’s novella “Ladylike.”
I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.
He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth – the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.
And so, as kinsmen met a-night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.
I’ve always found Dickinson’s style comforting and calming–even when she’s discussing morbid things like death or burial. It’s an odd dichotomy. The only other time I’ve had a similar feeling was exploring the cemetery near St. Paul’s Chapel when I was in college.
Beyond the sense of peace here, I like the style. Dickinson did her own thing in poems and that included determining her own meter and structure. The poem feels carefully organized–because it is–but it’s according to Dickinson’s own choices. There is an obvious cadence and rhythm to each line but it’s one that isn’t always visible in its printed form. The rhymes here comes across more as the poem is being read aloud–a nice reminder that poetry isn’t always meant to sit on a page.
I’ve always liked the idea that the truth–honesty and things that are sometimes ugly in their revelations, especially in the wake of a lie–can be seen as beautiful. At the same time I love that beauty can be something real and true.
I think a lot about how I shape the narrative of my own life; how I want to tell my own story, if you will. It’s something I’ve been gravitating to more recently in the books I read and something that I know has colored a lot of the choices I’ve made this year (usually for the better).
I think about the face I put forth in the world and the reality I create for myself. Sometimes that means presenting things differently to create an actual narrative arc–something, it turns out, that isn’t always easy to find in real life.
This year I’ve been trying to get to some kind of inner truth about myself–my life–and who I want to be moving forward. In seeking those answers and trying to shape my own narrative, I’ve realized that sometimes the truth is the easiest story to follow. Sometimes it’s also the best one, even when it isn’t as grand as I might have imagined. Even if that honesty can be a small thing, as Emily Dickinson clearly knew, it can have its own kind of beauty.
Talk to me about your favorite poems or poetic forms in the comments and be sure to check back every day this April for more poetry-related posts and guest posts.
No one expected senior Paul Wagoner would walk into his high school with a gun. No one thinks he planned to kill himself and never walk out. Not even his girlfriend, Emily Beam, expected to be threatened by Paul as he confronted her in their high school library.
But all of those things did happen.
Paul is gone and with him pieces of Emily are gone too. Even before his suicide, Emily knew she would never be the same. She just didn’t know it would hurt this much.
Vacillating between guilt and anger, Emily Beam is sent to an all girls boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts. Surrounded by history from Emily Dickinson’s life, Emily delves into poetry and her new life hoping to escape.
She has help along the way from her habitual liar roommate K. T. and a girl who likes to steal almost as much as she likes to paint. But it is only Emily herself who can forgive and leave her past behind in And We Stay (2014) by Jenny Hubbard.
And We Stay is Hubbard’s second novel. It was also a Printz honor title in 2015. The story is set in 1995 for reasons that are never entirely clear. Despite the obvious setting (all of Emily’s poems are dated) the novel is largely timeless.
And We Stay is a very short, very fast read. In spite of that, Hubbard’s prose is imbued with substance as this slim novel tackles weighty topics ranging from feminism to processing loss and grief.
Written in the third person, present tense this story is often very distancing. Emily Beam is at a remove from readers, however it’s easy to think she prefers it that way. Flashbacks to Emily’s relationship with Paul, the shooting, and other key moments are interspersed throughout the main narrative of Emily’s first two months at the boarding school.
Each chapter ends with one of Emily’s poems which also further develop the story. Emily Dickinson also features heavily as a character of sorts–her poems are used throughout the story and a somewhat improbable plot thread at the end of the novel revolves around Dickinson’s family home in Amherst.
It’s rare to find books that focus so heavily and so well on girls. And We Stay is one of those books. Emily Beam is a prickly, sad, and surprisingly real heroine. Her observations throughout the story are caustic and insightful in a way heroines rarely get to be in most novels. Hubbard’s portrayal of Emily’s relationships with her new friends and her French teacher are beautifully handled and shockingly real.
Although the pacing was slow and a little strange (with a jarring plot thread late in the story), somehow it all works. The plot develops organically and the included poetry feels seamless. And We Stay is a lovely, thoughtful blend of poetry, feminism and fiction about a girl finding her voice.
Possible Pairings: The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Hate List by Jennifer Brown, Undercover by Beth Kephart, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Falling Through Darkness by Carolyn MacCullough, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough, Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales, Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, The Beautiful Between by Alyssa B. Sheinmel, Give a Boy a Gun by Todd Strasser, Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, Some Things That Stay by Sarah Willis
“The morns are meeker than they were” by Emily Dickinson
The morns are meeker than they were—
The nuts are getting brown—
The berry’s cheek is plumper—
The Rose is out of town.
The Maple wears a gayer scarf—
The field a scarlet gown—
Lest I should be old fashioned
I’ll put a trinket on.
Tomorrow I’m posting a review of a book that features Emily Dickinson’s poetry so this seemed like a good day to share another Emily Dickinson poem.
I always think of this poem as spring-like though, of course, that isn’t what she’s talking about at all. This is a solidly autumn poem. I like the rhythm here a lot–something Dickinson always does exceedingly well with her free verse. It’s just lovely.
“When they come back — if blossoms do” (#1080) by Emily Dickinson
When they come back — if Blossoms do —
I always feel a doubt
If Blossoms can be born again
When once the Art is out —
When they begin, if Robins may,
I always had a fear
I did not tell, it was their last Experiment
When it is May, if May return,
Had nobody a pang
Lest in a Face so beautiful
He might not look again?
If I am there — One does not know
What Party — One may be
Tomorrow, but if I am there
I take back all I say —
Full text courtesy of RepeatAfterUs
Emily Dickinson’s poems are lovely. This one always reminds me of spring because of the obvious imagery. But I also like the undercurrent of doubt and malaise brought on by the narrator’s doubts. What if this is it? is a scary question that many people face. And this poem addresses that in the thoughtful, nuanced way one would expect from Dickinson.
My favorite stanza is the last. And I especially like the last line. We all have doubts, but if they are proven false, the narrator is willing to admit that. I’ve always thought this poem was extremely optimistic and found myself thinking about it a lot recently so I decided today was a good day to share it.
We made have reached the end, dear readers, of what I consider a wonderful month here on the blog. I was so happy to share my love of After the Kiss with you as well as an interview with the author herself, Terra Elan McVoy. (Not to mention that I also got to give away signed copies of this wonderful verse novel!)
I really enjoyed sharing some of my favorite poems with you all and I hope you enjoyed reading them too.
On my last day of poems (until next April anyway) I’m leaving you with one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets (“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” by Emily Dickinson). Dickinson was a formative influence for me when I started writing poems myself, not to sound horribly pretentious. She is really something special. There are, of course, other more well known poems but this one always spoke to me. I just adore it.
I also leave you with “The Poems I Have Not Written” by John Brehm which is another mysterious poem from my computer’s poem folder. It’s a bit poignant and a bit funny. It also felt like the perfect poem with which to end this month-long celebration we call National Poetry Month.
“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” by Emily Dickinson
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
“The Poems I Have Not Written” by John Brehm
I’m so wildly unprolific, the poems
I have not written would reach
from here to the California coast
if you laid them end to end.
And if you stacked them up,
the poems I have not written
would sway like a silent
Tower of Babel, saying nothing
and everything in a thousand
different tongues. So moving, so
filled with and emptied of suffering,
so steeped in the music of a voice
speechless before the truth,
the poems I have not written
would break the hearts of every
woman who’s ever left me,
make them eye their husbands
with a sharp contempt and hate
themselves for turning their backs
on the very source of beauty.
The poems I have not written
would compel all other poets
to ask of God: “Why do you
let me live? I am worthless.
please strike me dead at once,
destroy my works and cleanse
the earth of all my ghastly
imperfections.” Trees would
bow their heads before the poems
I have not written. “Take me,”
they would say, “and turn me
into your pages so that I
might live forever as the ground
from which your words arise.”
The wind itself, about which
I might have written so eloquently,
praising its slick and intersecting
rivers of air, its stately calms
and furious interrogations,
its flutelike lingerings and passionate
reproofs, would divert its course
to sweep down and then pass over
the poems I have not written,
and the life I have not lived, the life
I’ve failed even to imagine,
which they so perfectly describe.