Watch poet Susan Howe read this Dickinson poem on life and death
Emily Dickinson is back. Perhaps she never really went away. But in recent months, she has begun popping up in film, books, online and in a major museum exhibition.
“A Quiet Passion,” a film about the poet’s life starring Cynthia Nixon, is due out in April. Amherst College, Harvard University and the Boston Public Library have digitized a collection of her original manuscripts. And a new exhibition on Dickinson — called “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” — opened in January at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.
NewsHour Arts Correspondent Jeffrey Brown visited the museum, where visitors can listen to Dickinson’s poems, view the only known painting of the reclusive poet and even see a lock of her hair.
When asked to unpack the poem line by line, here’s what Howe had to say:
It seems to me to be the essential New England landscape poem of winter … It’s both a landscape, but also a profoundly metaphysical statement.
When the dead, when the soul leaves the body, there’s this extraordinary distance. If you have seen a dead body, it’s true. The distance — it’s an impossible distance between the soul and the body, between life or death. But that she would say ‘a certain slant of light,’ that is so perfect.
[Like] late four in the afternoon, when the light is so intense and there’s that word — ‘slant’ — it’s the perfect word. And then, she [writes] that it ‘oppresses like the heft of cathedral tunes.’ Well, she’s not living in a cathedral. America’s not a place, or certainly not New England, of cathedrals. There are churches, but [she used] the syllabic ‘cathedral’ and then, ‘the heft.’ What an odd word to use: ‘heft.’
That is so Noah Webster, because Noah Webster is a Calvinist dictionary. The Webster Dictionary before the Civil War is Calvinist and Dickinson uses her dictionary. If you’re really reading Dickinson, you need to go to Webster and see how he defines the word ‘heft’ — not the Oxford. And then the ‘H’s’: ‘heavenly,’ ‘hurt,’ it does give us heavenly hurt. It gives a kind of hurt in the soul.
‘We can find no scar,’ — where that word ‘scar’ speaks to ‘slant’ — but ‘internal difference where the meanings are,’ that is just so fabulous. Because you know the way you feel when you sit in the late afternoon light? It’s so lonely, it’s like it’s just internal. It’s a difference in what the actual meanings that we don’t talk about — but feel — are.
And ‘the seal despair’ that she [writes], ‘an imperial affliction.’ We’re back with ‘cathedrals’ and ‘imperial.’ Imperial in America — imperial affliction. The L’s, the syllables, it’s just brilliant word use in such brevity.
Howe’s comments have been edited lightly for clarity.
In the video below, Brown takes us inside the Morgan Library and Museum’s new Dickinson exhibit: