Is Emily Dickinson happy, sitting at the right hand of God? I mean, she wrote for the future: is she pleased with the way we’ve received her? Come to think of it, what I just said was a guess: I don’t know who she wrote for—maybe she wrote for her father or a secret lover or one of the neighborhood bobolinks. I assumed that, since she never published her poetry but still preserved it (she didn’t destroy it by fire or throw it out with the trash—I call that preserving it), she must have written for posterity; and that means us.
I imagine Emily Dickinson sitting alongside all of the other Christs, on God’s right hand, at the top of the dark tower; and I imagine her looking down on the future—the future that she wrote for, which is our present—and I wonder if she is happy with our reception of her. It seems that very many people have heard the name Emily Dickinson, so she’s got a little fame; but comparatively few people have actually read her words. And it’s the same thing with many famous authors and books.
On TV, just two seconds ago, I heard a Rich Man who’s running for U.S. president assert that his favorite book is the Bible. This struck me as strange, because I cannot manage even randomly to open the Bible without meeting a passage that denounces Rich Men who run for U.S president. But I should remember that I also love a lot of books whose authors wouldn’t let me into heaven.
I’ve long held the opinion that any writer who achieves posthumous canonization has reached the big time. Why have I never questioned this assumption? I’ll question it now: If it’s not worth attracting one’s own public, what makes the future’s public any better?
I hit upon a new perspective while I was typing the second instance of that word public. I don’t think that writers like Emily Dickinson necessarily judge their own generation as “not worth attracting”; I think that Emily Dickinson would have been happy if her age had loved her poetry; but it just happened that the people who possessed the creative capacity to embrace her poetry never got to see it.
Why did the right people never see Emily Dickinson’s poetry? Did she hide it from whomever she suspected would adore it, and only show it to those whom she knew would prove clueless? Why didn’t she send her poetry to Ralph Waldo Emerson?—I think he would’ve celebrated it! Maybe she thought that, even if it were almost certain that he’d react positively, the smallest chance of receiving a negative judgment was too hard to face. Or maybe she was afraid that, if Emerson failed to recognize her greatness, her respect for him would die; so, she waived the opportunity to receive confirmation of her worth, as the cost of being able to continue to esteem a great mind.
I mention Emerson and Dickinson by name, because I revere them; but, for this next thought, I’ll keep the subjects generic; for it’s my understanding that the ancient rabbis would simply abstain from mentioning the names of detractors, reasoning (rightly, I think) that to refer to them specifically might potentially afford notoriety to someone deserving only of obscurity—and that, by the way, is why there’s no evidence of Jesus of Nazareth to be found in the literature of his own religion: all talk of Jesus comes from Christian sources. (I myself refer to Jesus by name because I love heretics.)
In addition to wondering why Emily Dickinson avoided showing her poetry to Emerson, I wonder why she asked certain other people’s opinions about its value; I mean: why choose to ask those particular critics—did she know they’d miss the boat? I assume that there also were scenes of judgment unrecorded by history, with family or acquaintances, which informed Dickinson’s opinion about her own writing. The people whose estimations she requested apparently were bewildered by her compositions, but this did not stop them from (however mildly or courteously) disapproving of them.
Did Emily Dickinson want to be disparaged? My guess is no. But I wonder if she suspected that she would be uncomfortable operating from any position other than underdog. This inclination reminds me of Saint Mark’s Jesus, who is always mysteriously trying to dodge recognition—he’s repeatedly warning people: Keep this quiet, tell no one about me!—“And he straitly charged them that they should not make him known.” (3:12)
I think that, if one is going to engage in a pastime as unappreciated as imaginative literature, one must allow oneself to hold inflated notions about one’s own potential. It’s never prudent to ask others to compare you to the mighty men of old, to the men of renown; but privately you almost have to believe that you are their equal. So, since I am now only recording my private thoughts, dear diary, I can safely admit that I often daydream of sitting beside Emily Dickinson, on the right hand of God, atop the dark tower.
Emily’s epoch informed her that, far from being good poetry, her writing was not even poetry at all; yet subsequent generations have deemed Dickinson’s work practically to constitute the definition of poetry itself. So, when people tell me: “Your writings aren’t really novels or poems but some convoluted muddle that consists of the worst parts of both,” I expect that the next age will consider my work to be the practical definition of convoluted muddle itself.
To cope with being misunderstood by contemporary philistines, I remind myself that Emily Dickinson received the same denigration: In the movie Wrong Cops (2013), after listening to Officer Rough’s new song, Officer Duke gives his honest opinion: “I thought it was just awful.” But then Officer Rough says: “I disagree. This song is a huge hit.” —See, that’s what I’m talking about.
So now that we’ve established that I shall be crowned the next Emily Dickinson, I want to ask myself: How does it feel to look down out of the top of the dark tower in heaven and see that, contra the present, all the futures embrace you? (For I think that I should answer this question while I’m yet alive; because I’ve learned that, as soon as you transmogrify, you’re vacuumed right back up into God: thus you don’t give a fig about talking with the people who remain in hell.) So here is my answer:
It’s nice to be accepted, but I’d prefer to have received respect while still an earthling; because then I could’ve purchased a fancy suit and lived in pain comfortably.