(Yes, you read right!). People might not think of either of these two poets in terms of comedy or even robust spirit–much less joy in being oneself, living this life— an obscure life extinguished after decades of early debilitating illness, and suicide at the age of thirty: these are not happy endings. Nor do their famously fraught lives and poetry suggest froth or frolic. Both Dickinson and Plath are in the news these days in ways that bring up these very issues: how can we understand and represent a poet’s life? As our show considers recent public representations of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, in the film A Quiet Passion, and the exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, and the new exhibition on Plath at the Smithsonian in The National Portrait Gallery, we will ponder (like Dickinson’s Clown) the elements that make a life comic and tragic—and imagine their lives as heroic and epic—in the way of Don Quixote, who takes a sordid and anguished reality and sees it as noble, dignified, beautiful, holy; and epic in general, that elevates and enlarges whatever is small, confined, limited. This might seem strange to apply to someone who wrote, I’m Nobody, who are you? Or about a teenage angst so severe she tries to kill herself: identities that are lacking in esteem . . . yet, in both writers, one mid 19th century, one mid 20th century, we see a celebration of powerful identity of enormous proportion, bursting with a Cyrano de Bergerac like swagger, and convinced of immortality if not also goddess destiny.
I’m your host Professor Barbara Mossberg, since 2008 slowing down with you, bringing us weekly the news we need, the news we heed, the news without with “men die miserably every day,” according to William Carlos Williams—poetry. We’re produced by Zappa Johns, my mentor about all things next generation, and next generation Star Wars and video and ingenious media formats. Emily Dickinson has been on my mind for about 50 years, starting with a bad beginning, which is part of the whole problem of Dickinson’s image—speaking of the film with Cynthia Nixon, A Quiet Passion—in high school, my impression of Dickinson was of a morbid lady who wrote sentimental little poems. I bought a volume of her verse by mistake—I got confused between her and Edna St. Vincent Millay at the bookstore in a 35 cents Dell edition. Edna, Emily . . . it didn’t help that her poems were taught in high school as gotchas, as in, try to say what this poem is about, WRONG (in that case, it was a hummingbird, but we had no idea about what a route of evanescence was or rush of cochineal). Then in graduate school, I was assigned two Emily Dickinson poems, that got my attention as seriously powerful—”One need not be a chamber to be haunted,” and “My life had stood a loaded gun”. I want to read you these poems, and great alive, loving-life poems, as a way of talking about the film A Quiet Passion, which purports to represent Emily Dickinson’s life as grim, bleak, bitter, and horifying. Don’t even get me started! OK, get me started . . .
© Barbara Mossberg 2017