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  • EDIS conference, “’To another Sea’: Dickinson, Environment, and the West,” August 2019. Keynote Address: “’The Soul Selects . . . ’: Dickinson and Me”
  • Alicia Ostriker (bio)

Where do Emily Dickinson and I intersect as poets? I’ve asked before, and have reported my findings to this very organization, mostly in terms of our shared resistance to the God of the Bible — for which she was precedent and courage-bringer. But there is always more to say, and I am offering this talk in the hope that others will be inspired to go and do likewise — discover what they share, intimately and personally, with ED.

As a young woman student and then scholar, part-time poet, and full-time mother, I had no models for the writer I was going to be in the late twentieth century. The few women poets I’d read, including Dickinson, couldn’t help me. Or so I thought. I enjoyed Dickinson but she was not a model. Or so I thought. Plath electrified me, I wanted to be able to write like that. But I didn’t want to die, so there was a problem. My hero and guru was William Blake, whose complete poems I was editing throughout the early seventies, ultimately to the tune of 200 pages of notes. Buzzing away at William Blake like the worker bee I was, I could not come up for air until the mid-‘70’s. Then, with alacrity, I made a bee line for American women poets, and their delicious and spicy wild honey. There was a new sound in the air, the sound of a revolutionary literary movement, as important as Romanticism or Modernism. I couldn’t define it, so I read hundreds of books of women’s poetry, and wrote Stealing the Language to say what I found there. And here is where Emily comes flying in. [End Page 1]

Researching pre-modern American women’s poetry to understand what women’s poetry was like prior to our own time, I thought it would be marvelous if I could find a “forgotten” woman writer who was as great a poet as Dickinson. As you know, that didn’t happen. And it never will. Foraging around in nineteenth-century women’s poetry, I found some interesting poets, but none who came up to Emily’s knees. Not even close.

So I leaned in. And became analytical. Among other things, I discovered a quality I needed to call duplicity. A duplicitous work is a work in which contrary meanings exist with equal force. Paradise Lost is a duplicitous poem. What it says is the opposite of what it does — its message is piously Christian, yet Milton’s Satan is more interesting than God, and his Eve more interesting than Adam. This is what Blake meant when he said Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it. Emily Dickinson is of the devil’s party — did she know it? I would be interested in the opinion of others about this question. My example in Stealing the Language is “I’m Nobody,” where the poet is modest . . . while the poem is arrogant; where the poet scorns the idea of public fame, while simultaneously manipulating us, her readers. making us into her audience, becoming our Somebody.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?Are you – Nobody – too?Then there’s a pair of us!Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!How public – like a Frog –To tell one’s name – the livelong June –To an admiring Bog!

I had loved that poem since girlhood. It made me laugh, and made me feel better about always being an outsider, and all the poems I will be looking at here are alike in that they are poems that penetrated my limbic system at an early age. Another poem I had loved was “The Soul selects her own Society”:

The Soul selects her own Society –Then – shuts the Door –To her divine Majority –Present no more – [End Page 2]

Unmoved – she notes the Chariots – pausing –At her low Gate –Unmoved – an Emperor be kneelingUpon her Mat –

I’ve known her – from an ample nation –Choose...


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