Writer’s Block, Dickinson, and the Wonder of Interior Life

I don’t remember when poetry came into my life. I only remember that when I was in elementary school, I incessantly wrote haikus about natural disaster. I don’t know why. This is, however, the way I’ve always thought poetry should find people: for reasons unexplainable, in ways we don’t remember.

I think I loved the haiku so steadfastly in my childhood because it promised me both imagination and order; it gave my creativity a direction. I could create my own landscape, but I could only do so conditionally. I had to situate my vision in a fixed set of syllables, and I gladly did.

As it remains in my memory, my childhood seems characterized by rules and order. For several months—when I was around 7 years old—my mother made schedules for my 3 sisters and me that meticulously planned every day of our lives down to the minute. 3:30-4:00, watch television. 4:00-4:30, fun time with mom. 4:30-5:00, David’s haikus. Seriously.

These are the kinds of ridiculous things one remembers about their childhood after being beyond it for many years. I didn’t think it was abnormal at the time, but then again, this was also an age at which I was a fervent lover of mathematics, which I assume was for a similar reason to the haiku: it promised me an answer. I liked knowing what I was going to get at the end of the problem and the poem. I knew what the solution to a factoring problem would look like. Likewise, I always knew what my haiku would look like, too.

In middle school, somewhere along the way, I abandoned both mathematics and the haiku.

I don’t remember how poetry found me again, but it was at around age sixteen, and this time—like many sixteen-year-olds I associated with—I had no interest in either rules or order. And I certainly had no interest in math.

I kept writing poems, and now, at twenty, I find myself confronted with a harrowing realization about the work of the writer: it seems there inexorably comes a time when it feels impossible to write anything at all. Grandiose? Likely. Dramatic? Of course (I’m an Aries, after all). But especially at age twenty and formally studying the craft of poetry, I find myself confronted with a terrifying legacy of emerging and seasoned creatives alike who had to endure seemingly impossible writer’s block. The question looming in the young creative’s mind: When does it happen to me?

When confronted with the legacy this terrifying legacy of artists and writer’s block, an extreme case first comes to my mind: Sergei Rachmaninoff. After the failure of his first symphony, the composer Rachmaninoff succumbed to a three-year depression and stasis in his work, during which the Russian great published no works at all. It wasn’t until Rachmaninoff met with a hypnotist for four months that he was able to overcome his ailments and write again.

 My experience (which I’m sure will not be the last) with seemingly ‘impossible’ writer’s block came last spring. In a program in which I was surrounded by students—in both Columbia’s English and Creative Writing departments—fixated on the mechanics of the publishing world, I was constantly hearing students ask professors questions that were set on figuring out the ‘formula’ and the ‘industry’ of poetry, as if such a formula existed: “How do I get published in The New Yorker?” “What kind of poems should I be writing?” “What rules govern a successful poem?”

From these iterations, a cynicism festered within me. I found myself surrounded by poets who were more concerned with whether a poem was publishable than if they actually liked it! Poems were validated only by the names of the magazines in which they were read. The legitimacy of poets was determined by publication numbers and prize names. Peers criticized poems in workshop using metrics deduced from poems published in the most famous or award-winning books and magazines, because surely these represent what a poem should be, my peers seemed to suggest.

Remembering my early fascination with rules and the haiku, I realized that my childhood compulsion toward the haiku was entirely antithetical to my current understanding of how a poem ‘happens.’ I uphold that one can’t enter the poem expecting ‘the answer’ to look a certain way, determined by a fixed set of rules.

Whatever happened to making the art, writing the poem, living a life for no reason other than that we must?

I became so disillusioned by the workshop space, I convinced myself that the poetry workshop was kind of quasi-market, a place where new poems would go to be adjudicated by market buyers and die, failing to live up to the expectations of the titles which have so successfully been sold by major presses like Penguin and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. When you convince yourself that the market is constantly evaluating your writing—whether in the workshop “quasi-market” or alone—writing seems an impossible thing. How could I be an ‘I’ and still write a poem that satisfies?

This summer, I had tea with one of my mentors at Alice’s Tea Cup in the Upper East Side. We talked all this over. Being a Sagittarius and an experienced poet seemingly immune to these overarching feelings of cynicisms toward poetry, he saw through my lamentations and told me I was being overdramatic. I was. The most important thing he told me was: those poets who are obsessed with publication and the market don’t survive history.

I left wondering if “those poets” were really poets at all. But that’s a different essay. I found myself wondering too: which poets did survive? I took to the canon, and of course, found Emily Dickinson. I suppose this is the point in the essay where I shamefully admit that this essay is not about my disillusionment with the poetry workshop or poetry in general. This essay is about Dickinson and how I relied on her to bring me back to poetry, for the third time.

Dickinson is perhaps most famously known for living a life characterized by the domestic. She lived a rich but largely interior life alone, albeit in constant correspondence with her friends and relatives. And alone, Dickinson wrote hundreds of poems. These poems weren’t published, sans a few that had (likely) non-consensually made their way into her friends’ publications, and she faced continuous pressure from her friends who did publish or worked in publications—author Helen Hunt Jackson and Samuel Bowles (of The Republican), to name a couple—to publish, but Dickinson refused. Of course, her works were preserved after her death by her sister Lavinia and eventually published and anthologized, thus surviving these steadfast hesitations. But what would prompt one of America’s most-celebrated and mythologized poets to so continuously resist publishing? The answer, I believe, has everything to do with Dickinson’s approach to poetry and the idea of the interior poet.

Given her affection for the domestic and pastoral, Dickinson led a life much unlike her contemporaries. She preferred gardening to the social and commercial activity of the marketplace, and this philosophy permeates into Dickinson’s poetics. Whereas other poets sought compensation, readership, or publication, Dickinson maintained a pious and singular devotion to her craft. Dickinson’s poetics is one of the interior: a poetics that springs from and for her own mind, and one that was shared with several fortunate friends and relatives. In a letter received by The Atlantic Monthly publisher and eventual mentor and friend T.W. Higginson (dated April 25, 1862), she writes,

Soon after, my Tutor died – and for several years, my Lexicon – was my only companion…. You ask of my Companions Hills – Sir – and the Sundown – and a Dog – large as myself, that my father bought me – They are better than Beings – because they know – but do not tell – and the noise in the Pool, at noon – excels my Piano. (L261)

Indeed, Dickinson held close the trifles of the domestic: those daily comforts that sought only to set and give character to the landscape in which she communed with her mind and lexicon.

Upon the suggestion that she might publish, Dickinson writes to Higginson (in a letter dated June 7, 1862),

I smile when you suggest that I delay ‘to publish’ – that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin – If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her – if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase – and the approbation of my Dog, would forsake me – then – My Barefoot-Rank is better – . (L265)

Dickinson’s skepticism toward fame is remarkable. She discards the prospect of publishing (and seeking fame or the approval that is synchronous with it) as if to say ‘That isn’t the point.’ The point was, of course, the writing itself, the work done in the interior life, peopled only by the hills, sundown, her dog, and lexicon. This was poetry without the expectation of publication, and thusly done by and for itself. For Dickinson, craft begets craft, and craft alone provoked her famously prolific writing practice.

Although she opposed to being published, it is not so clear that Dickinson did not want her work to be eventually read, perhaps after she had died. A common piece of misinformation that runs insidious about oral histories of Dickinson is that she wanted all her poems to be burned after her death. This, however, is not true; Dickinson only requested that her sister Lavinia burn all her correspondence. This is fascinating to me, as it beckons us to consider what it may be about poetry—absent in correspondence—that lends itself to eternity, and what about this strain toward eternity opposes itself to publication. What may Dickinson have thought about all of this? Consider her poem “This was a poet”:

This was a Poet –
It is That
Distills amazing sense
From ordinary Meanings –
And Attar so immense

From the familiar species
That perished by the Door –
We wonder it was not Ourselves
Arrested it – before –

Of Pictures, the Discloser –
The Poet – it is He –
Entitles Us – by Contrast –
To ceaseless Poverty –

Of Portion – so unconscious –
The Robbing – could not harm –
Himself – to Him – a Fortune –
Exterior – to Time –

While this poem certainly dazzles—as all of Dickinson’s do—in its richness of diction and syntax, I am especially struck by the truths concerning poetry, eternity, and “fortune” evoked in the final stanza. Dickinson seems to suggest that poets are allotted “a Fortune/ Exterior—to Time,” which, considered alongside Dickinson’s hesitations about publishing, gestures toward the idea that poetry is not an art form meant to be yoked to any finite temporality or material worth.

Author Helen Hunt Jackson, a friend of Dickinson’s, once wrote to her, “You are a great poet –and it is a wrong to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud. When you are what men call dead, you will be sorry you were so stingy” (L444a). However, it was Dickinson’s very decision to not publish that allowed a continuous ‘right’ to be made for future generations of poets and readers, persisting still into modernity, as Dickinson’s refusal to commodify her craft and risk the possibility of losing one’s practice to fame allowed her a prolificity that burgeoned an unparalleled oeuvre.

Without the seduction of publication, compensation, or fame driving her production of poems, Dickinson was a warrior in the face of writer’s block. She wrote out of necessity and love of craft. In this regard, I find Dickinson medicinal for writers who feel paralyzed when fronted with the prospects of fame or publication. Dickinson thus serves as a necessary reminder that our motivations for creative work must come independent of any social venue, material goods, or market into which we pour our works. Devotion to craft must come from within.

It is the idea of the interior poet—the idea of Dickinson—that seduced me back toward poetry. Feeling like all I loved about poetry was being commodified and my mind was being surveilled by the market, it was the notion that a poet can live a life of writing poems for themself and themself alone that bought me back. If Dickinson could devote her life to a craft and write hundreds of poems only to reject all opportunities to publish, I was convinced that I could live a life devoted to the steadfast love of my art, too. And, perhaps most importantly, I was convinced that such a life or work would not be inexorably robbed from me or corrupted because of any market. I could ‘do’ poems for me and for no other reason than that I needed to.

The only response—and perhaps best—I have to poets who enter poetry looking solely for money or celebrity is Dickinson’s “Fame is a fickle food”:

Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate
Whose table once a
Guest but not
The second time is set
Whose crumbs the crows inspect
And with ironic caw
Flap past it to the
Farmer’s corn
Men eat of it and die

Dickinson astutely reminds readers that fame is a temporal luxury; men will “eat of it and die.” Poetry, thus, has a higher purpose than fame, as, after all, poetry extends to the poet a “Fortune/ Exterior – to Time.” As if through premonition, poetry speaks toward an eternity, and each poet is obliged to join the polyphony of verse that came before and will come after death.

Even now, in times in which I’m discouraged about the work and life of the poet, I think of Dickinson. Her devotion. Her practice. Her ability to flourish a love for craft even in a life defined by the interior, even straining under the incessant suggestions that she publish. I am emboldened by Dickinson’s relishing in an interior life; during times I require the most resilience, the thought of Dickinson reminds me to strip myself of the pressures that distract me from what brought me to poetry in the first place: love for the craft.

In her Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle cites an excerpt of one of Dickinson’s letters that contains several of Dickinson’s last words: “But it is growing damp and I must go in. Memory’s fog is rising.” Ruefle is enamored by how Dickinson’s speaks “as if she had been out, exploring the earth, her whole life, and it was finally time to go in.” I, too, am enamored by the great mystery of this letter, and I wonder whether all of domestic and writerly life for Dickinson was a continuous “go[ing] in.” Even now, I stay stricken by these words as a truism: “I must go in.” I hold fast to these words still. As in most cases, I take Dickinson’s words as a guidebook by which I may strive toward a better life. Whether thrust upon the seeming impossibility of writing or even death, I think we would all be well-served to follow Dickinson’s words, take a turn toward the interior—whichever “interior” that may be—and “go in.”

Note: Citations for the letters of Emily Dickinson are taken from Thomas Johnson’s The Letters of Emily Dickinson (1958), the preferred scholarly edition of Dickinson’s letters. Transcriptions of Dickinson’s poems “This was a poet” and “Fame is a fickle food” are taken from R.W. Franklin’s The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1998).

David Ehmcke is junior at Columbia College majoring in English and concentrating in Slavic Studies. The recipient of the 2018 Van Rensselaer Prize from Columbia University, his poetry, short stories, and essays have been recognized by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers and are published in Euphony JournalInk Lit, and elsewhere. David is a teaching assistant at the University of Iowa’s Summer Writing Residency for High School Students, and serves as an editor-in-chief of The Columbia Review.