Last week, I caught my daughter stealing Emily Dickinson. Well, actually, I caught her stealing a small volume of poems I’ve been reading. To say she stole it may be a bit strong. She didn’t keep the volume, or even hide it. But, she did take it, and while I can’t be entirely certain, seemed to read several pages. Maybe, instead of “stealing,” I should say that I caught my daughter reading a book of Dickinson poems without telling me. But, that doesn’t sound as provocative, and fails to capture my emotional struggle in light of the discovery.
I haven’t confronted her yet. I’ve not found the opportunity. I’ve also not settled my feelings.
Maybe you’re thinking that I’m making too much of this. In fact, when I first discovered the mislaid volume in the spot where she’d been sitting rather than on my nightstand or in my briefcase, I felt what you’d expect: pride. After all, my ten-year-old daughter can read 19th Century poetry. What parent wouldn’t be proud?
Actually, she reads a lot, and writes just as much. She’s precocious, and I’m not bragging. She does well in all subjects, but when it comes to reading and literature, she’s pretty advanced. Ok, maybe I’m bragging a little, but I’ve seen the test scores to prove her abilities. I’ve also watched her read books most kids her age just wouldn’t try: Little Women, To Kill a Mockingbird and even Gone With the Wind. She reads kids books too, especially the Warriors series, books about anthropomorphic cats organized in clans and constantly engaged in pitched battles. I know. Warriors books sound bizarre, but when I was her age I spent an awful lot of time watching “He-Man” on television, and I’m not in a position to criticize her book preferences.
When I really thought about it, reading Emily Dickinson wasn’t out of the ordinary, and that tempered my pride. Then, I really thought about it. My daughter was reading Emily Dickinson. If you haven’t read Dickinson, here’s a sample of opening lines:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,
Death is the supple Suitor/That wins at last,
Because I could not stop for Death–/He kindly stopped for me.
Dickinson’s poems can be disturbing, even to 21st Century ears. She wrote often of death. She questioned truth, religion and even, God, or at least the concept of God held by her family and surrounding New England community. Subtly, she questioned authority, even ultimate authority. She also behaved strangely, again even by today’s standards. She lived reclusively, often wore all white and suffered with bouts of depression.
I don’t really want any of this for my daughter. I don’t think I’m overly protective, but I do think about the things she reads, watches or experiences. She’s only ten. I don’t need her dwelling on death, questioning her existence, wearing all white or turning into a recluse.
I’ve been reading Dickinson as part of an effort to read more poetry, and to intentionally read material with which I’m less familiar, less comfortable. I picked up the volume specifically because I wasn’t that familiar or comfortable with Dickinson. I read a few of her poems in college, and honestly, didn’t enjoy it. I’ve even liked poetry more generally for most of my adult life. I took a class in college and developed a bit of an appreciation, though I never became anything like an expert or enthusiast. In that class, I loved Wordsworth who seemed to look at the world and see something Divine in every babbling brook. I liked Whitman and his incredible sense of the human spirit. I liked William Carlos Williams, though I’m still not sure exactly what depends on a red wheelbarrow or why. I could even appreciate the priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and his homage to the “grandeur of God,” though I still don’t understand what “sprung rhythm” means.
Dickinson just seemed dark, brooding and a little too obsessed with images of death.
In the past, I’ve actually tried turning my daughter towards some of the poetry I like. I think this is what disturbed me about discovering her reading Dickinson. Every time I’ve read or suggested another poet, she’s responded with disdain. She found Wordsworth “too sappy.” Whitman’s poems were “too long.” She couldn’t think of a single thing that actually depended upon a red wheelbarrow and she couldn’t figure out what Hopkins meant by anything.
She’s even purported to dislike poetry, but now she’s reading Dickinson. Maybe it’s because they share the same first name, but after refusing my poems, the ones I screened, the ones I felt were safe, she goes and chooses the poet who questioned authority, dismissed God and lived as a recluse. That just nags at me.
Then again, maybe that’s why she took an interest. As I read Dickinson in light of this discovery, I certainly see a poet who struggled with life. She wrote of death while coping with her own anxiety and depression surrounding loss. She found a way to put something that deeply troubled her on to the page in ways that readers even today find compelling and common to their own struggles. She did it with compact poems that mirror the meter and rhyme schemes of the hymns her family would have sung in church. That makes Dickinson poems a bit more accessible than other poets of the 19th and early 20th Centuries.
Maybe there’s more. Despite her reputation, Dickinson didn’t stop with death, didn’t deny the eternal entirely. She wrote of life, love and while she certainly questioned the Calvinist conventions when it came to God, she didn’t discount Divinity or its role in the world. Most of her poems sound downright religious, but rather than disparaging the world, and accepting its subjection to an authoritarian God, she wrote with incredible detail of a world which she saw as central to her own self. “Mine–by the Right of the White Election!/Mine—by the Royal Seal!”
She could even be playful and endearing, writing a prayer for a mouse trapped by a cat. “Papa Above!/Regard a Mouse/O’erpowered by the Cat!/Reserve within thy kingdom/A mansion for the Rat!.” I figure if my daughter loved any poem, she would have specifically latched on to this one. She likes animals and underdogs. She sympathizes with victims, especially animals about to be eaten. Reading that strange little prayer, one can’t help but think Dickinson saw herself somehow under an overpowering paw.
I don’t know that my daughter, Emily, can quite articulate this, but I suspect these might be just the sort of things a ten-year-old girl would need and want to read. I doubt she can fully appreciate it, but I suspect that preadolescence can make even the most precocious kids feel like a mouse overpowered by a cat. Maybe reading the poems both entertained and gave her something to which she could relate. I suppose it’s normal for her to struggle with authority and the place of self. It’s definitely natural to fear death. And no, it’s not lost on me that the poets I chose were all men, and the books my daughter, Emily, seems to prefer, are all written by women, the Warriors series included.
As I think about it, and think about the struggles of women in the current political and social climate, as I worry about the day when she has to face discrimination based on her gender, when she has to deal with sexual harassment, I wonder if Dickinson isn’t exactly the sort of poet I want her to read. I’d like to pretend those things won’t happen to my daughter, that society will move to a better place before she reaches her teenage and adult years, but I know better. I’m an optimist, tending to think that one day it will be better, but I also know that my daughter will be driving in just over five years, and in college in just over seven. We have much too far to go.
I don’t want my daughter to be a recluse. I don’t want her depressed by societal ills or death. I want her to have a sense of the Transcendent and her own intrinsic value. But, maybe that means confronting all of the hard, nasty and deep issues in the books she reads, finding authors who dealt with it openly on the page, breathing meaning into struggle. Maybe it means allowing her to work it out for herself, to find meaning in whatever books she decides she likes, Emily Dickinson or those about anthropomorphic cats.
As I think about it, maybe I won’t confront her for stealing Dickinson after all.