National Poetry Month, Starring My Favorite Poem

npm_logo_2008_finalEvery April, thanks to the Academy of American Poets, is National Poetry Month.  Although only 13 years old and ostensibly developed for celebrating the American poetic tradition, this annual celebration of poetry, poets and poetic traditions is looked forward to in bookstores, schools and libraries all over the world.  Our school here in The Netherlands is no exception.  Our English Department is hosting events in honor of the occasion, including posters of teachers’ favorite poems formatted and printed by English students for classroom doors, National Poetry Month art posters created by Art students to be displayed throughout the building, and a poetry slam afternoon in the High School Library on Wednesday, 22 April.  We will be inviting students to read and/or perform poems in a café-style atmosphere with hot drinks and snacks, imbuing the space to the best of our ability with a salon-esque, literary vibe.  This is our first year hosting a school-wide celebration, and I’m already scheming with my buddy Katie in the English Department to bring Austrailian YA author and poet Steven Herrick to come spend some time with us next April.

You too can have an Emily Dickinson T-Shirt from, just click on the image above!

I’m kicking off the month by including my favorite poem by one of my all-time favorite poets, Emily Dickinson.  I discovered her outrageous intellectual and artistic independence when I was in high school in Ansonia, Ohio, in the early eighties.  Her poetry had had to have been assigned, and most likely it was included in our English textbook, because although I wrote notebooks full of absolute drivel and called it poetry at home and at school, I wasn’t reading poetry by “Poets” voluntarily.  I recognized Dickinson immediately as someone who had observed and decreed that it was OK to be selective in who and what you let into your life.  You control how, where, when and why.  Indeed, here was a writer who knew herself and her limits and created her world accordingly, despite what society said or thought.  Her intense internal world, cocooned in the privacy of her parents’ house, meant more to her than any worldly excursions or charms.  For her, the chosen few were infinitely more desirable than the capricious demands of the many.

Her poem “The Soul selects her own Society (303)” stopped me in my tracks.  Meeting this eccentric, reclusive woman-in-white from the late 19th century while squirming in the dull routine and petty boredoms of rural high school life, I felt as if she was speaking directly to me, putting into words the way I often viewed and interacted with the world around me:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I've known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

c. 1862

Amen, sister!  What a close-your-eyes-in-relief feeling it was (and is!) to know that I wasn’t the only person who had ever felt the personal need to put some distance between myself and the wear and tear of the outside world.  Re-reading these comforting words at different points in my life, I have come to cherish her no-nonsense acknowledgement of her (my) limits, her (my) need to sift through the hustle and bustle of the world and choose the most important bits and people to cherish, discarding all that is superficial or political (Chariots passing and Emperors kneeling).  This is not a purely anti-social poem, rather a decisivly, selectively-social poem.  Ultimately, it is a brutally truthful poem about how much one can give or take in life.  It’s all about choice and focus.  Poet and critic Michael Ryan believes that Dickinson deliberately created poetry that was to be this kind of revelatory, visceral “experience” for her reader, and to that end, her poetry “is in the service of truth: truth-telling and truth-discovering” regardless of how painful or perhaps unpopular the sentiments are (Ryan

It is hard to set and maintain personal boundaries in an over-committed world full of new ideas, new technologies, new places to go and people to meet.  Thanks to this poem, my touchstone for so many years, I am no longer inarticulate when I find that my well has run dry, when I run out of resources and energy for all the demands I face in my daily round.  My Soul goes into Select mode and my well begins to fill again.

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