I show a lot of movies in my literature classes, in part because it’s a nice break from other types of classroom activities, in part because the students enjoy it, and in part because it’s fewer classes I have to plan. Look, I’m tired, OK? Movies work well when the subject is something like Shakespeare or 19th century British novels, but this semester’s topic is poetry, which is a bit more challenging. Still, I managed to find a number of relevant films that I figure could be worked into a discussion of the image we create of poets, the personae created by the poets themselves, and some other stuff I’ll make up as I go. This week we looked at several depictions of Emily Dickinson, including one full-length film and a few excerpts from the TV show Dickinson. If you knew nothing about the poet other than what you saw in these two productions, you’d be hopelessly baffled, as there’s almost nothing they share other than agreement on her name and the fact that she wrote some poems.
My students begged me to show Dickinson. I obliged, not without an inward cringe. It is not entirely generational difference that makes me skeptical-to-scornful of Dickinson. I actually think the blending of period dress with contemporary music and slang is kind of fun, and I can even shrug off the massive deviations from historical fact. Dickinson clearly isn’t a documentary, though to its credit it does insistently spotlight Dickinson’s passionate relationship with her sister-in-law, Sue, in a way that actual documentaries had ignored or glossed over for a very long time. What bothers me about Dickinson is that the titular character is in many ways indistinguishable from just about every other young female protagonist in the popular media. I’m thrilled that the show pulled no punches to show that Dickinson was in love with a woman. I’m irked that there’s very little that’s introverted, introspective, or intellectual about her depiction. Admittedly, these are not easy qualities to capture on film—let’s face it, writers are cinematographically boring. Even Hemingway had to have taken significant time off between bullfights and deep-sea fishing to craft his stories, and it wouldn’t have been any more exciting to watch him do it as to watch the reclusive poet of Amherst.
The film we saw, A Quiet Passion, was not quite as big a hit with my students. I had mixed feelings about it myself, but I doubt they were the same mix as theirs. They did like young, rebellious Emily, singled out by the stern schoolmarm for rejecting religious dogma and daring to take faith on her own terms. They want their Emily spirited, defiant, witty and pretty—because let’s not kid ourselves, Emily on film must be pretty Emily, with just enough of a resemblance to her famous family portrait for a veneer of authenticity but with a veneer over the veneer to make her easy on the eyes. There is a sketch of Jane Austen done by Austen’s sister which the famous author claimed was a perfect likeness of herself; it is not a flattering picture, all frown lines and stubbornly set jaw, nothing like the dewy, chisel-cheeked vision seen on Barnes & Noble bags. Ditto Dickinson. We can’t have her truly be a kangaroo among the beauty, so let’s at least make her a pretty kangaroo, sassy and sexy in her period dress but with a kicky skirt so she can leap away in an instant.
They did not like the depictions of older Emily, embittered, cantankerous, rebellious still but not in a way that many people would or could emulate. Hers was not a “girl power” rebellion easily translated to social media memes and T-shirt slogans. Fiftysomething Emily, close to the end of her days, is not easy for teenagers to contemplate. It’s not easy for their fiftysomething-year-old teacher to contemplate either, but it’s a whole lot more relatable. When there is surely more time behind you than ahead of you, what do you make of your life? How do you reconcile yourself with questions that you know now will go unanswered forever?
Of course, unrelatably to most of us regardless of age, Dickinson was a genius, one of the greatest poets who ever lived, and she had to have realized her own brilliance (while doubting it in equal measure) despite only seeing a tiny fraction of her poetic output published in her lifetime. But did that satisfy her in her last days? The TV show Doctor Who brings Vincent van Gogh into the present day to see how loved and admired the painter became after his death; Dickinson does something similar with the poet, and I imagine this is something fans of each artist wish they could do. We want to give back, to answer her “letter to the world” that never wrote back with an outpouring of heartfelt assurance: yes, you made it, you did become famous and you are so very loved. That may make us happy; would it really have done anything for her? I rather doubt it, but it’s all we have to give in exchange for the stunning beauty we have received.