Emily’s Hat


From Annie Finch at harriet:

I propose that what those of us who think about poetry will find most deeply startling about this piece of photoshopping, inspired by the “Aretha’s hat” post-inauguration website, is neither its humor (everyone knows Dickinson had a great sense of humor), nor the chronological workout it puts us through, nor even the implications about Dickinson’s political views. What is most profoundly startling, most unprecedented, is that the photo situates Dickinson blatantly in relation to another woman’s ideas. And this is not how we normally think of Dickinson.

Dickinson, after all, famously claimed that “she never had a mother.” This remark, with its combination of defiance and wistfulness, surely applies to the literary and intellectual as well as to the familial realm. Dickinson passionately admired Barrett Browning and hung her picture on her wall—but this fact is not part of the Dickinson myth, nor does it affect the way in which her poems are usually read. To think of the Emily of this portrait as not only digging on Aretha, but publicly sporting her affiliation with the older woman, does violence to the usual idea of Dickinson as the perpetual daughter, the rootless wonder, the eternal anomaly, sprung Athena-like from the brow of patriarchal culture.

I have written elsewhere online and in print about Dickinson’s relation to the long-forgotten “poetesses” who were the literary source of much that seems to us odd and singular about her. As Dickinson’s letters attest, these are the poets that she, now considered without question one of our greatest poets, most often read, learned from, and rated herself against. Wouldn’t you expect that the work of these, her influences, would be combed over, studied, valued, if only for its influence on her? And yet it is, in general, not even physically available to us (in dusty, gold-carved volumes sold for their bindings) —and if we do encounter bits of it, they are not poems written in a tradition we have any idea how to approach, to read, but only caricatures set up in contradistinction to her.  [more]

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