Sunday, August 01, 2010

The top of Emily's head

A citation of Emily Dickinson's that I read today went straight into my bones, or rather, made me feel like my bones are hollow and that in them the whispers and fluid starlight of poetry resides:

"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."

Sadly, I do not know where this is collected from, but it is probably from a letter, as we have no other prose from her hand as far as I know. The art of describing poetry - or should I call it the difficulty, the neverending trial of describing poetry, results in many poetic sayings which point directly to the unspeakable, unnamable thing that is poetry itself.

Just in these two sentences, her strange genius is apparent - or rather, her openness to some unknown and unending realm of reality. I don't know a better way of describing the access to poetry - both creating and reading - than to have the daring to look the unknown straight in the eye. There might always be an abyss ahead (probably there is), but there is no saying that abyss won't be filled with startling and altering newness, ready to greet us.

If I should add an entrance to poetry myself, it would in this moment sound like this:

When light and weight, stone and stellar space meet in me and contains a whole new field, I know that is poetry. When light gathers in me and wishes to burst every boundary, I know that is poetry.

...which is rather more ethereal than Emily's quite corporeal and solid way of describing these things poetic. But pointing, I hope.


Patrick said...

if I only I could gather so much light at will...thank you for sharing.

Lyle Daggett said...

I've encountered reference to the quoted passage before, though have never been certain of the specific source. Your comments here got me curious, and I went hunting on Google.

It would appear the the original source of the quotation may be an article by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "Emily Dickinson's Letters," originally published in the Atlantic Monthly October 1891 issue.

In the article, Higginson recounts his long correspondence in letters with Dickinson, and then he describes their first face-to-face meeting in August, 1870. According to his article, it was on that occasion that Dickinson made, in conversation, the remark you've quoted here. Higginson gives it in his article, based on his notes from their conversation.

The online source where I found this is here. The website is, and it appears to give the original Atlantic Monthly article in full. The quoted passage in question is at the bottom of the second paragraph in the page at the above link.

I found Higginson's account of his encounter with Dickinson to be quite remarkable.

Thanks for posting this and perking my curiosity.

Thekla said...

Lyle, as I read your comment I remembered that I too have seen this quote before, I think probably in one of the Dickinson biographies I have read. When you brought this wonderfully detailed information, I remembered the context as something like you describe.

I don't remember exactly now, whether it was Higginson or some other male acquaintance, but this someone said that being in the same room with her felt as being drained of energy, as she was so intense. I can clearly picture it, one just needs a glance at her poetry to realize she was an intense being.

I will have a look at the article you refer to. How very nice that it is publicly accessible!

Thanks for commenting.


disquietmuse said...

great quotation...and lovely continuation of her sentiment!