The Poet's Tool - The Words of Emily Dickinson
A poet couched in mystique and controversy--that is Emily Dickinson. But amidst all the disagreement, one idea critics seem to agree upon is the recognition of this remarkable poet's love of language. Emily Dickinson's love affair with words fed her desire to master their use whether individually or combined in phrases until they said exactly what she wanted them to say. For Emily Dickinson words were a fascination and, in her hands, they become the poet's tool.
The Gospel of John opens with the statement, "In the beginning was the word" (1:1). Donald Thackrey takes this phrase and applies it to Emily Dickinson's fascination with the individual word (1). She "is one of the foremost masters of poetic English since Shakespeare" (Rupp, 93). The determination shown in the masterly quest to discover the right word is one of the primary means of defining what makes Emily Dickinson's poetry distinct from all other poetry (Rupp, 93).
In her poem "I dwell in Possibility--" (#657) she wrote:
I dwell in Possibility --
A fairer House than Prose --
More numerous of Windows --
Superior -- for Door -- . . . (1-4)
The use of the word "possibility" illustrates Dickinson's personal awareness of the range of ideas, feelings, and images to be found in the combination of words into phrases and the linking of those phrases into poems. "Possibility is Emily Dickinson's synonym for poetry" and, since the possibilities are endless, Dickinson's poetry presents no final truth (Weisbuch 1). Further describing her attitudes in "They shut me up in Prose --" (#613), it can be discovered that for Dickinson "The House of Prose" represented "conventional and prosaic conformity" which for her were "a punitive closet" while "the House of Possibility . . . exists wherever the mind is" (Weisbuch 5).
In one poem Emily Dickinson wrote specifically about the choice and use of specific words (Thackrey 11).
Shall I take thee, the Poet said
To the propounded word?
Be stationed with the Candidates
Till I have finer tried --
The Poet searched Philology
And when about to ring
For the suspended Candidate
There came unsummoned in --
That portion of the Vision
The Word applied to fill
Not unto nomination
The Cherubim reveal -- (#1126)
This poem does much to enlighten readers as to Dickinson's careful search for words and suggests "the relationship between rational labor and inspiration" both of which pervade her poetry (Thackrey 11). She "discovered that the most ordinary word, tenderly nurtured int he mind's rich soil, could become a signifier of utmost mysteries" (Weisbuch 1).
Cristanne Miller uses the fullness of word meaning to interpret "How many time these low feet staggered -- " (#187) where she notes that the word "'low' also means 'flame' in Dickinson's 1841 Webster's dictionary"...