“I’m nobody! Who are you?” “I felt a funeral in my brain,” “The heart asks pleasure first.” To glimpse the fertile mind and genius of Emily Dickinson, all you have to do is scan her first lines: lyrical, whimsical, cutting to the bone — they convey whole worlds in a handful of exquisitely chosen words.
Emily would jot down notes on labels, old envelopes, scraps of paper, even newspapers — often in the pantry where she spent much of her time. Later, she would write and rewrite her poems in her small, cozy bedroom at a tiny desk with a single drawer by lamplight late at night. “I burn my candle at both ends” she once wrote as a way of describing her mode of working. Over a period of months or even years, she would create drafts and revise them, often copying them into slim handmade books and recopying them into letters.
One of the most fascinating exhibits at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst traced the writing and revision of one of her poems. When Emily created the draft of a poem, she would often note at the bottom of the page alternate words she was considering for certain lines. In one poem, “woods” became “fields” and “denying” became “disputing.” In the poem featured in the exhibit, not only did she change a number of words, but she also performed major surgery — cutting the poem from 20 lines in its original draft down to 12 lines in the final version.
Think about it! To strip her poem down to its essence, she was willing to discard almost half of the poem she started with. Pruning words so ruthlessly isn’t easy — not for me, anyway. But sometimes letting go and paring down is absolutely the right decision. When you wield your pen — or delete button! — like pruning shears, the results can be amazing. Just ask Emily: “I never hear the word ‘escape’/Without a quicker blood,/A sudden expectation,/A flying attitude.” Astonishing — and austere. Bravo!