by Gillian Clarke
Not long ago, all the poetry ever studied by pupils in school was by dead men. I loved the poetry, but thought this meant that, being alive and female, I could never be a poet. Then one day my English teacher showed me a poem she loved. It was by Emily Dickinson. It had no title, no proper punctuation, but the language was strange and beautiful. It described a snake so exactly right that I shivered with pleasure and fear.
A narrow fellow in the grass
You may have met him - did you not?
His notice sudden is.
‘A narrow fellow’, ‘rides’, his notice sudden is’. I had never read such an extraordinary way of saying quite ordinary things. The poem continues, six stanzas of four lines each. I soon knew them by heart.
The grass divides as with a comb
A spotted shaft is seen
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on.
He likes a boggy acre
A floor too cool for corn
Yet when a child and barefoot
I more than once at morn
Have passed - I thought - a whip lash
Unbraiding in the sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled and was gone.
Several of nature’s people
I know, and they know me.
I feel for them a transport
But never met this fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And zero at the bone.
I love ‘comb’, ‘a boggy acre’, ‘floor’, an indoor sort of word, for the grassy ground. I could feel her fear and excitement at seeing the snake in those exactly right last two lines.
I turned the pages and read this first line about the dead, (I was into death and gloom in a big way then):
Safe in their alabaster chambers
Untouched by morning and untouched by noon
Sleep the meek members of the resurrection
Rafter of satin and roof of stone.
Never mind if at first you can’t understand it. Say it out loud. Let language echo and be remembered, and meaning will follow.
So who was she? Emily Dickinson was born in Massachusetts in the USA in 1830, daughter of a lawyer. She wrote nearly 2000 poems, and although she showed them to friends, one of them an editor, and tried to get them published, only 7 were published, anonymously, during her lifetime. Even after her death family quarrels kept her poems from being published for many years.
One of her poems begins, ‘This is my letter to the world/ That never wrote to me’. It is too late to write to her, but we can value her, read her poems, and learn some of them by heart. I recommend starting with ‘A narrow fellow in the grass’.
(First published in a magazine for young readers)