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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Text and Criticism

Joyce Carol Oates on Emily Dickinson

JCO as Emily DickinsonFrom "'Soul at the White Heat': The Romance of Emily Dickinson's Poetry"

No one who has read even a few of Dickinson's extraordinary poems can fail to sense the heroic nature of this poet's quest. It is riddlesome, obsessive, haunting, very often frustrating (to the poet no less than to the reader), but above all heroic; a romance of epic proportions. For the "poetic enterprise" is nothing less than the attempt to realize the soul. And the attempt to realize the soul (in its muteness, its perfection) is nothing less than the attempt to create a poetry of transcendence—the kind that outlives its human habitation and its name.

Full Text of "Soul at the White Heat"right-arrows

From The Essential Dickinson

I began reading Emily Dickinson as an adolescent, and have continued through my life; her work retains, for me, the drama and "white-hot" intensity of adolescence, like the work of Henry David Thoreau. Certain of Dickinson's poems are very likely more deeply imprinted in my soul than they were ever imprinted in the poet's, and inevitably they reside more deeply, and more mysteriously, than much of my own work. For the writer is, as Dickinson's poet persona suggests, a creature forever in motion, calculating and breathless at once; casting out demons, joy, gems, "profundity" in skeins of language, then moving restlessly on. Her work, if it endures at all, can only endure, in Auden's striking phrase, "in the guts of the living."

Full Introduction to The Essential Dickinsonright-arrows

Photo from "Getting Into Character" in The New York Times Magazine, Sunday, Oct 29, 1995:

Emily Dickinson is our great poet of inwardness. The flamelike, always shifting mysterious voice within. She seems to have experienced extremes of raw, terrifying emotion—the intense, erotic joy expressed in poems as: "Wild Nights!—Wild Nights! / Were I with thee / Wild Nights should be / Our Luxury!" And spiritual collapse: "The Brain, within its Groove / Runs evenly—and true— / But let a Splinter swerve— / 'Twere easier for You— / To put a Current back— / When Floods have slit the Hills— / And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves— / And trodden out the Mills—." But the essence for the reclusive, teasing Dickinson, forever dressed in virginal white, in her father's house in Amherst, Mass., has always seemed to me most beautifully embodied in this quicksilver poem: "I hide myself within my flower, / That fading form your Vase, / You, unsuspecting, feel for me— / Almost a loneliness."