A Poet Brought Back to Life
I first encountered Emily Dickinson as a high school freshman after a teacher had dismissed her poem, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.” I’d chosen to memorize the poem for an assignment. That teacher called Dickinson “basic” and “simplistic;” something I wouldn’t come to realize was far from true until later in life.
In November 2019, I came across Apple TV+’s “Dickinson” and found myself falling in love with the show, along with Dickinson’s poetry. The final season of “Dickinson” is set to release this November. I’ve found myself reminiscing on my first experience with the show, and in turn, reading Dickinson’s poetry.
“Dickinson” features household names like Hailee Steinfeld (Emily Dickinson) and Jane Krakowski (Mrs. Dickinson), along with special appearances from Wiz Khalifa (Death), John Mulaney (Henry David Thoreau) and Nick Kroll (Edgar Allan Poe). Mixed with 21st century pop music and language that comment on life in both the 1800s and today, viewers get a fresh look at a poet from a century ago.
Although “Dickinson” isn’t the most historically accurate, often blending real life events with what better suits the plot, the show makes Emily's life in the late 1850s, and the political events that take place, an accessible way into the past. The first season sets up Emily’s struggle as a woman who wants to write rather than find a husband. The second season focuses on the expansion of technology in the 1850s with telegrams, newspapers and literary salons. It also addresses the rising tensions between the North and the South before the Civil War.
I fell down a rabbit hole while researching the poems that were mentioned in the show. Dickinson’s work began to influence my own writing. Inspired by her“Envelope Poems,” I found envelope scraps filling my journals and collecting in my critiques. The poet even worked her way into my class schedule with a course about Dickinson and others who found solace in her work. She fueled my obsession of truth and poetics.
Through reading letters and observing Dickinson’s use of language, I pieced together that Dickinson was anything but basic and simplistic. Her poems were meant to trip the reader up. Every line is packed with a punch and houses recurring “characters,” like Death. In “Dickinson,” the poems frame the episodes and contextualize the possibilities for how each poem may have come to be. In the words of the poet herself, “I dwell in Possibility.” The show takes this to heart when building on Dickinson’s work to create an entry into her life as a poet.
So much is still unknown about Emily Dickinson, but this show offered me a way into her story. My entry began with her work being undermined, but I chose to look beyond that at her words. They are the real history, scrawled and hidden away in a maid’s trunk a century ago.
Art by Kira Bissell