In normal times, other times, I teach American literature to college students. With some frequency I teach Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman side-by-side. Whitman’s appeal is immediate: he’s big and bold, gay and democratic—an obvious rule-breaker. Without Walt, no Ginsberg and HOWL decades later. Dickinson is a harder sell. Her poems seem closed-up; she seems closed-up. I always take it as my task to work with students to uncover how radical she is. In particular, I’m fascinated by her audacious, personal, and maybe even intimate or erotic relationship to God and Death in the poems—she makes them her company, even seems to scold or chide them at times.
Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that I’m turning to Dickinson during this time. If you go to Amherst, MA and see her house, you’ll note its proximity to the cemetery where Civil War soldiers found their final rest. Much as she was a chronicler and observer of the Bobolink and the new England flora, she was also an observer of mass death and national crisis. I find her thinking through of both the natural world and mortality, often happening side-by-side in poems like “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died,” oddly comforting. Maybe it’s because she seems more honest than most about the fact that we are all always dying and that the world will go on without us. In a time of crisis like our own, we find ourselves confronted with this fact, so often shelved away during better, less disrupted times.
Emily deals in shocking twists in her poem, but in addition to her lines, I’ve got clichés running through my mind as well: “in times like these, you get perspective on what’s important.” I’m a person who thinks a lot about productivity, about how people can organize their time well to make the things they want to make. At the moment, with kids home, I’m also discovering, like lots of moms, my own limits. And, like lots of people in general, I’m also questioning the call to be productive at a moment of worldwide trauma.
About a week ago, I flipped out a bit on social media—“we have little kids at home. We are not making or reading anything interesting. No, nope, nothing!” I felt frustrated by seeing notifications of friends and family taking up instruments, delving deep into areas that I usually participate in. I had a general sense of being left behinds—stranded in this little house with my family where we were barely keeping it together from one chaotic mealtime to the next.
There are more things to say about that than I’m going to here, but I have two thoughts related to both Emily Dickinson and to Jenny Odell and her recent, wonderful How to Do Nothing. In How to Do Nothing, Odell reminds readers of the call of the eight-hour workday movement: “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what you will.”
In her book, she bemoans the way in which the “attention economy,” including things like social media sites as well as connective technologies and infotainment sites, devour our time for what we will and increasingly encourage us to self-commodify, branding ourselves for consumption and offering up our precious attention to companies that profit from it. In the desire to always be entrepreneurial, to always be networking, we have very little left for the “what we will” that makes a rich (or more simply, less anxious) life. I’ve been thinking about this when I hear calls to “learn a new skill,” or the ridiculous claims about what people in the past have achieved in plague time.
For one, the idea that, during a crisis, we should all be cranking up the productivity engines has the twin virtues of being both cruel and stupid. And for two, like lots of parents of small children, I find that it simply is not possible. With a 15mo and a 4yo home, my husband and I are grabbing work catch-as-catch can, just enough to get by, to keep the lights on.
But, if I’m totally honest, it’s also not the case, as some of the mom memes would have it, that all we’re doing over here is crying and dunking goldfish crackers in our wine at 4pm. I both have little ability to do the work I would do in normal times, and the desire to feed some kind of soul-nurturing meaning into these strange days.
This is where Emily comes in. I am not going to write a book of poetry, and I am making super-slow progress on the book I am supposed to be writing for work, but here’s a thing, a tiny-little thing, that I am doing. Each week that we are in isolation, I’m memorizing one Dickinson poem.
Her poems work great for this. They are short. They’re often in hymn-meter (think the Gilligan’s Island theme). And the words are pretty simple.
Here’s another thing. Memorizing poems is a practice that’s nourishing, meaningful, and entirely unproductive from an economic standpoint. It’s just for me. I’m not going to be giving a public recitation when this is all over. I’m not going to be “monetizing” the lines rattling around in my head. The poems and my task of working through the stanzas are part of an experience that’s mine alone. And this is very precious in our crowded little house.
For example, I’ve found personal fascinations with her use of simple verbs, like her use of “getting” and “going” in relation to heaven, and her use of coordinating conjunctions such as “so” and “and,” which put the different words in her lines on a grammatically equal playing field—this is weird, nerdy stuff, but I like it. I imagine that if someone else were to approach the poems, she’d get hung up elsewhere—on the images of the natural world, perhaps. Too, I like thinking about my errors. Because I’m doing “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church” this week, I have the opportunity to think about the sounds and meanings of the words Orchid and Orchard which I keep screwing up in the first stanza:
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Just because I’m rejecting the idea that we should all be ramping up creative and intellectual production right now doesn’t mean that I don’t still find joy and solace in the creative and intellectual worlds that shaped my non-quarantine existence. And, even with the kiddos home, I can kick this thing around in my head in off moments, working a line as I wash a plate or walk the dog. It’s a way of feeding myself something nourishing but not having to crank it into productivity.
If you want to learn more about Dickinson and the Civil War, visit her museum’s site: https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/emily-dickinson/biography/special-topics/emily-dickinson-and-the-civil-war/