Are people naturally inclined to write poetry

Book of the weekThe Secret Lyrics of Emily Dickinson

The attention was great and the response enthusiastic when the Carl-Hanser-Verlag published a first volume with a selection of Emily Dickinson's poetry seven years ago, in 2008, an edition of just over 600 poems, also supervised and transmitted by Gunhild Kübler which put all previous translations in the shade. The Paul Scheerbart Prize of the Rowohlt Foundation was the reward and probably also the incentive for Gunhild Kübler and Verlag to plan and carry out the really big success - all 1,789 poems by Emily Dickinson in original and translation, on a total of 1,400 pages, with afterword, commentary and register.

We shall speak separately of this fabulous, well-founded appendix. First and foremost, let my knees bow to a brilliant achievement in terms of both translation and literary criticism. This edition forms the benchmark and foundation for all future engagement with Emily Dickinson in Germany. What kind of poems are they and who was this poet? How is their tremendous poetic power connected with the fate of a life that is peculiar and only depressing to posterity? We are told this story, too, and with it the development of self-confident poetry that sounds so modern and contemporary, as if it had recently been written for us:

Poem 1263

Tell the truth completely, but say it weird -
Success lies in circles
The shock of truth meets too brightly
Our understanding
Like lightning by kind explanation
The child is relieved
Must blind the truth gently
Otherwise everyone would be blind

Poetic self-confessions

When Emily Dickinson wrote this poetic self-confession in 1872, she had already withdrawn from all over the world, was the "White Lady", as the citizens of Amherst called the ghostly apparition who wandered through their garden at night in snow-white robes. Emily Dickinson was 42 years old at the time, lived in her parents' house and rarely left her room. And there, after her death in 1886, one came across almost forty small notebooks with over 1700 poems in a heavy chest - a world literary find about which the younger sister Lavinia, who discovered the treasure, was of course not clear.

Because everyone in the family knew that Emily was writing, but you were silent, embarrassed, because what should it be? Emily Dickinson's biographers have woven a sad bouquet of reasons why this woman hid herself and her work so much, always with the thought that everything could have turned out differently, much nicer. Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830. The now world-famous Amherst College had been founded nine years earlier. Emily's grandfather was one of the initiators, her father and brother, both respected lawyers, organized the university's finances for decades. So the Dickinsons were someone in Amherst, and of course the daughters were sent to good, newly created girls' schools. The college was only for male students, but at the Amherst Academy Emily and Lavinia learned ancient and modern languages, they took courses in philosophy, history and - most importantly - natural sciences, the terminology and style of which fascinated the very young Emily and the The basis for the wonderfully exploring and inquiring tone in many of her nature poems was laid:

Poem 177

Like a flower from the Arctic
On the polar hem
Draw the circles of latitude down
Until it got dazed
To summer continents
To summer companies
To rare, light masses of flowers
And birds with strange tongues!
I say, as if these little flowers
In Eden, move in -What now?
Well nothing at all, from it
Only your conclusion!

Poetry as an affront

A delicate lyrical journey ends abruptly with a scientific hypothesis: Paradise? Nothing there, because of! "What then. Why nothing, only your inference" is the sober-analytical name in the original and at the time it was a real affront. These verses were written in 1860, a year earlier Charles Darwin had published his epochal study on the "Origin of Species", which even then was promptly taken as an insult to the divine idea of ​​the Creator, especially in the puritanical East of the USA. Exactly in the same atmosphere in which Emily Dickinson grew up and was brought up.

At an early age she began to doubt the religion that was propagated at home. At 17 she became a student at the "Mount Holyoke Female Seminary" and quickly conspicuous as a mocker and renegade in view of the strict religious rituals of this secondary school. In the asylum jargon she was considered a "no hoper", as hopeless in her faith, after only one year she left the seminar. Her father decided that education was enough; above all, she herself was fed up with eternal prayer. She was also no longer quite healthy, her lungs worried, the doctors prescribed long walks, and father Edward gave Edward a dog, Carlo, to accompany her, whom Emily was to love dearly. Probably the happiest time for Emily Dickinson began. Closely linked to the academic and intellectual life of Amherst, the Dickinsons were frequent and popular people. Renowned personalities, scholars, writers, and journalists got the handle on each other, especially as Edward Dickinson's prominence increased politically, as a member of the Boston state parliament, and later even in the Congress in Washington.

And it was not only discussed with great guests in the Dickinson house, one was also up to date about everything in the world through 15 subscribed newspapers and magazines, and no one in the family pounced on it more cheerfully than the young, clever Emily, who loves simple everything seemed to interest: science, technology, politics - and especially literature! Because writing was the still silent passion, the secret goal, the father's well-stocked library, the literary feature sections of the magazines a source of first poetic inspiration. Emily didn't have to worry about a job at first; in the style of the American upper class, the father wasted no thought on it, although it was quickly foreseeable that his mentally lively little daughter had little in mind with the planned future as a devout housewife and mother. That will be fine, the parents may have thought. Until they got it served in black and white, wherever their Emily was drawn:

Poem 1

You muses, up! Agrees with the divine song,
that noble thread is woven into the Valentine's poem!
Oh yes the world is there for love, for virgin, and fear Galan,
for sighs, sweet whispers, and being one of two,
each one is looking for a bride on earth, air and sea,
God created nothing that is alone down here but you!

Secret engagement

This is poem one of all these poems, and as cheerful and lighthearted as it sounds, it had a fatal effect: in the early 1850s, the rhymes appeared anonymously in local newspapers along with another cheerful poem and a letter of the same kind. The addressees were young, unmarried men, today their identity is known. One was called George Henry Gould and had gone to class with Emily's brother Austin.

In that letter he is addressed directly as "fiancé", and then a dog named Carlo frolicked through the lines. There was only one Carlo in the town, and everything came out with the beloved animal! "Look, little Dickinson" , the good citizens of Amherst must have whined, Father Edward didn't think it was funny at all. To learn from the newspaper that his daughter had apparently been secretly engaged to an insignificant youth with nothing on the claw, that was bad enough, what A scandal! But then poetry - as a woman, impossible! The tatters flew, Dad must be downright freaked out. "No more nonsense" was the patriarchal-puritanical prohibition, there was no longer any talk of engagement and female poetry in the house Dickinson: And Emily? She complied, went quietly to her room, in no way left the "nonsense", but only wrote in secret, her family should never again read a verse from her daughter t get.

Inner exile

This is how Emily Dickinson's inner exile began, which continues to raise questions to this day. Why didn't she protest? With her already strong rebellious spirit and wit? Her poems are not only beguilingly beautiful, but often have a real bite, testify to sparkling intellect and understanding, which simply does not want to go together with a completely reduced, later weird-whimsical existence that determines our image of this poet. In the end she will not receive any more visitors, listens to family house concerts behind the ajar door, orders from the stairs that everyone should disappear before she steps down. Certainly there are explanations: the time, the milieu, lifelong unfulfilled erotic longing for sometimes unreachable men, including a married preacher, of all things.

A late love for an Amherst judge has been reconstructed from her letters, she is even said to have been happy, one hopes that it was so. However strong and unhappy this or that influence may have worked - from the paternal rumble of thunder on, Emily Dickinson firmly encapsulated her poetry. There was no lack of encouragement and encouragement from editors, journalists and literary experts, with whom she exchanged letters over decades and intensively exchanged views on poetic questions. Emily Dickinson developed her poetic language primarily in disputes with writers: she experimented with new rhyming forms, thought a lot about metrics, and sometimes proudly mocked her correspondents when they reacted critically to this unusual style, the bold imagery. Today you can see how far ahead of its time it was literarily. Emily Dickinson would have sparked a lyrical revolution if, yes if. In any case, the fact that only ten poems appeared in her life, all of them anonymously, was not due to an uninterested public. She herself held her hand tightly on it. In her correspondence she scattered lavishly poems, over 160 are documented. But it is only thanks to the persistence of some of the recipients that at least a few poems were published without the poet ever giving her consent. The head of the "Springfield Daily Republica", for example, Samuel Bowles, wrested at least this from her:

Poem 124

Keep in their alabaster chambers
No morning - and no noon
touch her
The humble Easter company sleeps
Atlas beams
And a stone roof

The breeze laughs brightly
Up in the castle
The bee chatters in the dull ear
The birds whistle in artless sages
Oh, how much ingenuity was lost here!

Remained in the world as a poet

As extreme as Emily Dickinson personally withdrew from all over the world, as much as she remained as a poet in the world, in the reality of her time, of historical and intellectual events. The newspapers and journals continued to pour into the house, Emily still got everything, wanted to know everything that was going on in politics, science and art. Due to the so far limited selection of your poems and the gloomy, legendary "White Lady Tums", the idea of ​​Emily Dickinson as a pure natural poet who sings about bees, flowers, sun and rain, lets metaphysical shivers waft and black and romantic ones has developed in Germany Staged elegies about being and time.

Everything is correct, but the overall picture now shows a lot more: Numerous poems work with reflexes, references to concrete events, people, historical and philosophical developments. Many verses arise in the first place on such occasions, and much of what was previously considered incomprehensible-metaphorical-allegorical is clearly and clearly outlined in the context. A good example of this are poems that Emily Dickinson wrote from 1863 onwards, since the start of the American Civil War, which turned into a national tragedy, with gigantic battles and hundreds of thousands of deaths. The news reached Amherst too, the newspapers printed harrowing reports and grayish pictures of the battlefields and the hospitals. Emily was also horrified:

Poem 704

My part is today - the defeat
A paler skill than victories
Hardly any hymns of praise - the sound of a bell
No drummer follows me - with singing
It doesn't go as fast as shots
Debacle - dragging on -
It is full of spots, full of bones
And men too stiff to bend over
And piles of moans
White from splinters - in boys' eyes
Prayer rubble
Clearly carved in stone
Death's striking action

Sister in spirit

"Scraps of prayer" is the original, Gunhild Kübler turns it into "prayer rubble", and this one word alone illustrates the achievement of her translation. It is simply sensational. After just a few lines you can feel that a sister is at work here in the spirit, familiar with the sensory and thought space of words and concepts, her aura, which she instinctively, apparently effortlessly, is able to grasp and transform into her own language. The poet and translator seem like two close friends who understand each other without having to say or explain a lot. If a word is uttered, they both know what is meant, if they look at an object together, they see the same thing.

Gunhild Kübler recently said in an interview on Deutschlandfunk that she only came across Emily Dickinson by chance, in a private reading group. The poems hit her "like lightning" and she immediately felt the need and urge to translate the poetry. It must have been a lightning bolt of understanding and closeness, the way lifelong camaraderie sometimes emerges on the first day of school when two previously strangers share the bank and after a few sentences know that they belong together. For 15 years now, Gunhild Kübler has been concerned with her companion and the mutually highly problematic nature of life and poetry, the result is a literary milestone. The appendix to this complete edition shows the immense effort under which it was built. The edition history of Emily Dickinson's work is so complicated that to date there has been no American historical-critical edition.

Comprehensive Notes

This is not formulated as a reproach, because the numerous handwritten variants in the notebooks, blatant, subsequent interventions by the Dickinson family and constantly differing versions of punctuation and line breaks prevented a reasonably legible book edition. A coherent commentary was also neglected. The American colleagues can now cut a slice of Gunhild Kübler's annotation apparatus: the translator turned every line of these 1,789 poems up and down, consulted all existing textual historical sources, the entire research literature and contemporary lexicons. She decodes puzzling formulations, historical and biographical references, searches for and finds related passages in the text and can relate them to one another.

This is scientifically meticulous and yet exciting to read, as is the elegant epilogue that Emily Dickinson's vita drafts in the context of her time and epoch. "Slow Gold - but everlasting." A verse from another little-known poem is the motto of Gunhild Kübler's epilogue, you can take it literally to describe this volume in its entirety.

Poem 536

Slow gold - but durable -
The bars of the moment
Are the contrast to the currency
The eternal duration knows -

A beggar only - sometimes -
Has gifts to penetrate
Where broker knowledge ends
Here money - and there - the mine -


This poem, writes Gunhild Kübler, is one of those that Emily Dickinson definitely "let no one see". It is one of a series of self-confessions that help shed some light on the decision to only want to be to yourself as a poet. Like gold deep in the earth's interior, would she have closed her work, would it have lost its value - unearthed? Would it have become mundane money, ruinous to character? This is probably how Emily Dickinson thought, the "White Lady" in her garden. And you wish that a Gunhild Kübler would have been there, shaking your friend's shoulders and - unlike your father - saying: "No more nonsense - gold only shines in light, you belong in the light!" It's a shame that that didn't happen. But now we have these poems, in this volume: "Slow Gold - but Everlasting."

Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems. Bilingual. Translated and commented by Gunhild Kübler. Publishing house Carl Hanser Munich. 1,404 pages. 49.90 euros.