Emily Dickinson: Selected Poems edited by Helen McNeil

Just before Christmas I had a lovely evening wrapped up warm, reading Victorian women’s poetry. In one anthology, I stumbled across a very small selection of poems by Emily Dickinson: I was pleasantly surprised to find that poems I used to find confusing and dry were now engaging my emotions and, in some cases, echoing my thoughts. It seemed the time had come for me to retry Dickinson’s poetry, so I quickly added a selected collection to my Christmas list. I’ve definitely been enjoying getting into Dickinson’s poetry again and I don’t quite know why it has taken me so long to fully engage with her poems.

Dickinson’s characteristic style is instantly recognisable: I remember studying her poetry in my first year of university and noting the short lines, hyphens, and upper case letters. Back then, this made it too broken up and difficult for me to read and enjoy. However, it now seems to me that this brings her poetry an immediacy and timelessness that many poets struggle to maintain consistently. As is often the case with the poetry that lasts through time, Dickinson does not stick to the ‘rules’ of writing we are taught in creative writing classes. Yet, on a technical level, her line breaks are some of the best in the English language and her ability to raise emotions in such short poems is clear.

Throughout the collection, the poems I connected with most were the ones in which Dickinson’s emotions come through most clearly; often these tend to be musings about her thought-life, grief, or a longing for happiness. Whilst running the danger of becoming too introspective, in my opinion, Dickinson is at her strongest when she is writing about her inner thoughts and emotions. It is that, perhaps, which has drawn me to her writing now and makes me think I would have particularly engaged with her if I had studied her as a teenager.

McNeil’s introduction and chronology provide a helpful biographical overview of a poet I actually knew little about. I imagine that compiling a selection of Dickinson’s poetry is a difficult task since there are so many short poems that do not naturally fit together. McNeil’s notes on this touch on some of the decisions she has made in putting this selection together; as an introduction to Dickinson’s poetry I would say that she has done a good job of editing this collection. There is a balance in the lengths of the poems, with the most well known mixed in with the lesser-known. However, this collection is meant only as an introduction, a more comprehensive collection would be necessary for someone who wanted to engage further with Dickinson.

Overall, as I have said, I have enjoyed engaging with Dickinson’s poetry through this collection and have come back to it many times in the weeks since I finished my first read through. I definitely think that at some point I may have to invest in a more comprehensive collection, but this one suits my purposes for now. I would certainly recommend Dickinson to others, although I think I would also note that she is the sort of writer it is worth coming back to even if you don’t enjoy the first read: you never know when you might find yourself unexpectedly engaging!

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