How Poems Know What It’s Like to Die


Literature generates philosophically interesting knowledge in the process of creating novel aesthetic effects. I explore this dynamic by considering the representation of the experience of death--taking as my chief example Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz--when I died.” To create an aesthetically convincing representation of what it’s like to die, the poet compares this unknown experience with the familiar experience of “losing oneself” in absorbed listening to sound. I argue that the adequacy of this kind of listening as a metaphor for the experience of death requires that the poet identifies surprising aspects of the familiar experience, aspects that align with some of our secular intuitions about death. These intuitions include: death will bring about the end of my self; death will bring about the end of my experiences. I bring Dickinson’s implicit claims about certain modes of sound perception into relation with philosophical arguments by Derek Parfit, David Hume, William James, among others, to suggest their plausibility.