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Classic and Contemporary Poetry: Explained

EMILY DICKINSON AND KATHERINE ANNE PORTER, by             Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography


Karl Shapiro's poem "Emily Dickinson and Katherine Anne Porter" seeks to portray the complex relationship between Emily Dickinson and her father, Edward Dickinson. This relationship serves as a lens through which to explore a broader sociocultural dynamic, namely the tension between domestic life and larger existential concerns like religion and modernity. Shapiro, an American poet known for his insightful commentaries on society, uses this poem to delve into the paradoxical life of Dickinson's family, with particular attention to Emily Dickinson's father.

The poem begins with an arresting image: "Emily Dickinson's father yanked on the Baptist bell / To call the townspeople to see the sunset." The action is immediate and somewhat jarring, suggesting a sense of urgency in calling people to witness a natural event. This contrasts sharply with the general perception of Emily Dickinson's home life as quiet and withdrawn. The act of "yanking" the bell suggests an aggressive intrusion of religious symbolism into everyday life, perhaps to elevate the mundane to the level of the spiritual.

However, the poem quickly destabilizes any preconceived notions we might have: "And the Baptists saw the glory of the sunset / And went home to stained-glass darkness, awfully disappointed." Here, the irony is palpable. Instead of finding a spiritual experience in the natural beauty of the sunset, the townspeople feel "awfully disappointed" that something catastrophic, "Like Hell or the atom bomb," hadn't happened. This reveals a deep cultural pessimism, a focus on the apocalyptic rather than the awe-inspiring aspects of life.

Shapiro's choice to mention the "atom bomb" is particularly noteworthy. While Emily Dickinson existed in a pre-atomic age, Shapiro is willing to bridge temporal divides to comment on the human condition, indicating that certain attitudes-like expecting the worst-persist through time.

The description of "Old man Dickinson," Emily's father, serves to complicate the picture further: "who also fed the sparrows over the snow / With grain from his barn (age seventy-one) / And hid until he saw them peck it up." Here, we see a tender side of Edward Dickinson. His kindness toward sparrows mirrors Emily's often empathetic treatment of nature in her poetry. Yet, he hides, watching covertly, perhaps suggesting a hesitant relationship with the world, a trait that Emily also exhibited in her own secluded lifestyle.

The ending line, "And drove the fastest horse in town," seems to swing back to the notion of a Dickinson who embraces life's contrasts-nature and religion, tenderness and aggressiveness, the spiritual and the mundane.

The structure of the poem is conversational and straightforward, eschewing rhyme and meter for free verse. This allows Shapiro the freedom to construct his narrative in a more flexible form, inviting the reader into an intimate understanding of his subject.

In summary, Karl Shapiro's poem, while brief, offers a multifaceted exploration of Emily Dickinson's father and by extension, the complexities that marked her own life and work. The poem acknowledges both the beauty and disappointments that life can offer, painting a picture of a family that mirrors the complexities of human existence.

Poet Snippet:

Emily Dickinson's father yanked on the Baptist bell

To call the townspeople to see the sunset,

And the Baptists saw the glory of the sunset

And went home to stained-glass darkness, awfully disappointed


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