I must preface this by saying poetry is not my strongest suit. I actually barely understand it most of the time, which I find both infuriating and invigorating. Yet, I have always been attracted to it. Case in point: In middle school I had to attend library seminars (or classes, if you will) once a month. I actually looked forward to them for many reasons, but the main one was a poster of Emily Dickinson that hung right by the exit. Her eyes always asked me, “Have you read my stuff yet?” and I, right on cue, would look away so she couldn’t see my guilt-ridden face. She never reprimanded me; however, she kept asking me to give her a chance. I didn’t.
It wasn’t until high school that poetry struck a chord with me. I remember being in sophomore English with one of those big fat textbooks with the title “Understanding Literature” or “Literature Through American History.” Our teacher made us read one of Dickinson’s most well-known poems, “I heard a fly buzz when I died” , in class and discuss our interpretations of the piece. I was floored. I didn’t know how I felt about the poem because I was trying to figure out what she meant and reading it seven more times wasn’t making things more clear. However, I liked the words she used to describe the scene and how simple yet cryptic all four stanzas were.
To say the least, I didn’t participate in class that day. I just heard the distant rumbles of my classmates as I felt like I missed out on something amazing and life-altering.
My senior year was no different, except I was in AP English with seven other girls – a very small group. Our teacher had split us up in pairs to analyze a poem by Andrew Marvell entitiled, “A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body.” After choosing a remote section of Room 7 to work, my friend and I spent a good portion of forty minutes discussing Marvell’s poem and breaking it down to what we thought were its essentials. When it was our turn to discuss our findings, we were told we had pretty much missed the entire point.
As this sunk in I felt like I had once again disappointed Emily Dickinson. Her stern yet welcoming black-and-white image tugged on my mind as I left class that day. Why didn’t she just give up on me already? Couldn’t she see I was a lost cause? At this point prose had taken me captive as its eternal prisoner and she was not going to give me up just because the soul and the body were quarrelling in a poem.
In college, poetry became more dominant in my life. Because of working on the school literary magazine and taking plenty of English courses, Emily Dickinson was always a poem away. But I think the poem that really converted me was one I read in my penultimate semester–Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” It completely went over my head on the first read but our professor told us to keep at it and even insisted that each of us draw what we read.
And then one day, without my consent, it all clicked. Poetry was no longer a foreign language to me but an extension of who I was. I began to actively seek out poems to read, to love, and to cherish. Emily Dickinson was no longer a ghost haunting my very being but a kind reminder of what was always a page away.
Yet, I always wondered if the clicking happened all those years ago in middle school, but I just wasn’t ready. My soul knew I would love it, but my mind was being extremely stubborn and logical. Nevertheless, I am happy to say that if I ever see that black-and-white Emily Dickinson poster again, I can look her straight in the eyes and say, “ Yes, I have read your stuff, and can you please explain it to me?”
Do you have a story to share about poetry and its impact in your life? Leave a comment below. I would love to read yours.