by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
May 30, 2001
SEATTLE, Wash. -- There are times when I consider Whitman to be the greatest American poet. But then there are other days, and today is one of them, when I am absolutely sure that it is Emily Dickinson.
I wish that nothing were known about her life, encapsulated in the title "The Belle of Amherst," for her famously sequestered life is a stumbling block to weak natures who lack the strength to confront what she wrote.
A young woman, a student whom I knew some years ago at Princeton, dismissed Emily as "that sex-crazed old maid from New England."
Something like this fate befell Marianne Moore some years later. Those i= ncapable of dealing with the hard steel of her poems were content to dismiss her as the batty old spinster from Brooklyn who wore crazy tricorn hats and was mad about baseball, especially the Dodgers.
Emily, it is true, by writing about worms and snakes, played innocently into the hands of those who would leer with knowing Freudian smirks at such poems as the one, called a dream, that begins:
In Winter, in my room,
To my shame, I remember reading this when I was an adolescent:
I taste a liquor never brewed,
... and satyrically pronouncing the last word "alcohearl."
My vocabulary did not at the time contain the word "assonance." I did know the word "asinine" but thought it could apply only to other people.
Mr. Rainwater, my English teacher at Anderson Boys High, once kept me in after school and paddled my backside for mispronouncing a line of Byron's in "The Destruction of Sennacherib." (I recited the first line thus: "The Assyrian came down, like a wolf, with a cold.")
Would that he had also caught me in time to beat some opportune respect for Emily into my head.
But Emily herself has provided, in four of the wittiest lines she ever wrote, the proper antidote for me and all such scoffers - a bomb, no less:
A bomb upon the ceiling
But I leave the rest of this space, with the fewest possible interjections, to Emily herself. This is the poem "Dying":
I heard a fly buzz when I died;
[consider the energy that radiates from the single word "heaves"!]
The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
[no more schoolboy giggles over "sure" and "power"!]
I willed my keepsakes, signed away