article, book reviews, Emily Dickinson, poetry

Finding God with Emily Dickinson (and a Giveaway)

33 Comments

We’re so familiar with Emily Dickinson today that we forget she was virtually unknown in her lifetime (1830-1886). She wrote more than 1,800 poems over her lifetime, but very few were published while she was alive. Various editions were published after her death, but a definitive edition of her poems (unedited, as she wrote them) wasn’t published until 1955, notes author Kristin LeMay.

Contributing to the contemporary lack of awareness was Dickinson’s penchant for avoiding people. As she grew older, she stayed inside the family home in Amherst. Few visitors could persuade her to see them; occasionally she would talk to guests behind a door. She also wore all white, all the time.

A factor in the community’s judgment of “eccentric” was that, at an early age, she stopped attending church. And yet her poetry is filled with references to God, Jesus Christ, faith, the cross, and other tenets of Christianity. This is what attracted Kristin LeMay to Dickinson, and how she used Dickinson’s poetry to answer her own doubts, questions, and uncertaintities.

The result is I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson, published by Paraclete Press. LeMay, who teaches writing at Ohio University, has written a book that is part biography, part poetry explication, and part LeMay’s own personal memoir. She takes thirty of Dickinson’s poems and uses them to navigate the rocks of belief, prayer, mortality, immortality, and beauty.

It’s an interesting combination of genres and approaches that could have easily gone awry. But it works, and it works well. Dickinson, in LeMay’s hands, becomes more than a poet; she is a friend (LeMay refers to her as “Emily” throughout), a mentor, a fellow pilgrim in a spiritual journey, and eventually a kind of saint. The author had a strong sympathy for and identification with her subject but never subsides into idealizing Dickinson or glossing over her flaws. The poet is in turn skeptic, doubter, ardent believer, rebel and conformist, and often all at the same time.

In Short, LeMay’s Dickinson is remarkably human. Consider the normal coexistence of doubt and belief.

“Doubt and belief, Emily would be the first to say, are not necessarily in opposition,” Le May writes. “Emily judged that doubt enhanced belief, since doubt’s uncertainty keeps us hunting after God: ‘The Risks of Immortality are perhaps its charm – A secure Delight suffers in enchantment – .’ Her insight stretches into human nature, within and beyond religion.”

Dickinson’s own struggles, as understood from her poetry and the letters she wrote, become a mirror for LeMay. She sees her own spiritual journey in Dickinson’s poems. She attended Harvard Divinity School, she says, “in large part to relearn how to pray, because I’d grown so uneasy about it. ‘I fumble at my Childhood’s Prayer – ,’ Emily mirrors my confusion. Well, I’d fumbled so long at prayer, I’d finally lost the ball.” Dickinson’s poetry will eventually help her recover that lost ball.

I Told My Soul to Sing is the story of two women on a spiritual pilgrimage a century apart. One is an unknowing guide and mentor; the other knows the journey will not necessarily have a reachable destination but is glad for and encouraged by the companionship.

Poetry can do that.

Giveaway

We have a copy of I Told My Soul to Sing to give away. Simply leave your name (or a comment) in the comment box, and we will draw a winner at random (a different random than we did for Rainer Maria Rilke’s Prayers of a Young Poet).

Photograph by Gabriela Camerotti. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Glynn Young, author of the novels Dancing Priest and the just published A Light Shining.

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Your Comments

33 Comments so far

  1. Dickinson remains so fertile a source….

    I’d enjoy this.

    • robin says:

      Robin Smith I love her poetry, so much of it feels sad though.

    • Ann Hostetler says:

      How exciting that Kristin LeMay wrote HER Emily Dickinson (ref. to Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson). It suggests that there are many other versions of Emily out there to be written. Her poems have an amazing way of being intimate with so many readers. I would love to win this book, and if I don’t, I will buy it;-)

  2. Your post piques my interest in this book. Thank you for this review and giveaway :)

  3. Beth says:

    Looks fascinating, as any book with/about Dickinson must.

  4. Tracy Glaser-Bacon says:

    I would love a copy to share with my hospice patients.

  5. Diana says:

    Certainly seems like an interesting read.

  6. Linda says:

    I am fascinated by Emily Dickinson. This book sounds like a lovely way to get to know her a bit better.

  7. Kate says:

    I look forward to reading this!

  8. Kathy says:

    One of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, seems to have been favorably introduced into this author’s search for God and faith. I am intrigued and would enjoy reading this book to give me more insights into the poet Dickinson’s journey through her life.

  9. Pamela Ann Pollack-Goodson says:

    I would love to read this book and so excited about it~ Thank you!!!!

  10. Lynn Hester says:

    I love Emily Dickinson, I always knew her soul was committed to faith, and through that,to God.

  11. April says:

    “…part biography, part poetry explication, and part LeMay’s own personal memoir…” Sounds delicious.

  12. I would love to have this. A recent trip to Amherst and the Emily Dickinson museum still leaves me breathless.

  13. HisFireFly says:

    Your review has left me wanting to read this new book — two travellers, together yet so far apart…

  14. S. Etole says:

    I understand the isolation; the book beckons.

  15. Mary says:

    Looks like a wonderful book!

  16. Todd says:

    I am strangely intrigued.

  17. Tina Donahue says:

    She is my all-time fave! I am intrigued by this book, as well! Thanks!

  18. Amy Krise says:

    I truly love Emily Dickinson.

  19. Pam Traskos says:

    Ah, the mysterious lady in white! I have loved Miss Emily since I was a teenager in high school, many years ago. Thank you for this opportunity!

  20. juliana says:

    this seems a wonderful read!

  21. Looks wonderful. And she had a knockout recipe for a really good cake, too! Emily, that is. I don’t know about Kristin LeMay. :0)

  22. I have only one of her books that was owned by my Grandmother Lydia. Lydia was my only grandparent and she lived with us and she taught me the love for books and writing. I have many of those letters and books with me now. She was a painter too. I’m so glad these desires are mine also, I love the review, it sounds very intriguing. To understand her struggles back then and compare them to the struggles we have now.

  23. Allegra says:

    Kristin is such an inspiring person. I am excited to read her work. Hope I win!

  24. I reread the post again, the part about her always wearing white reminds me of the Virgin Mary or maybe she was saving herself just for Jesus herself. The fact she rarely let anyone into her life and spent so much time alone. Maybe she was in prayer all the time, maybe she didn’t feel worthy and wanted to give her life to Christ. Like she’s trying hard to find her way but must do this in her own way without the presence of others. Just thoughts, would love to read and find out.

  25. Erin Livolsi says:

    My fav. If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain…Would love to win, and read this book.

  26. Lynn Hester says:

    I visited Amherst a few years ago….even though there was till much to do to reclaim the Dickinson home as it was in their day, I felt clearly Emily Dickinson’s element of faith and family in her home. Often it seems the ones who keep the perpetual doubt in their hearts, are more often the ones who hold the most belief in the the things they have faith in. Who’s to say who believes in God and who doesn’t? The ones who proclaim the loudest, are the ones who believe the least. She believed, I know in my heart she did.

  27. Nessa says:

    This is an intriguing idea… Writing along while exploring an aspect of a poet… Love this.

  28. Glynn, I finished Kristin’s book shortly after your review here. It was simply beautiful! I’m so glad you gave her a big shout-out!


Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Take Your Poet to Work - Emily Dickinson - June 29, 2013

    [...] Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, MA, in 1830, the daughter of state and federal politician Edward Dickinson. A prolific poet, Dickinson was known to draft poems on the backs of envelopes and chocolate wrappers. Nearly 1800 of her poems were discovered by her family following her death, many in 40 handbound volumes she had sewn together, written in her own hand with her famously unorthodox punctuation. [...]

  2. Emily Dickinson – Poet to work day | ELA in the middle - July 17, 2013

    [...] Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, MA, in 1830, the daughter of state and federal politician Edward Dickinson. A prolific poet, Dickinson was known to draft poems on the backs of envelopes and chocolate wrappers. Nearly 1800 of her poems were discovered by her family following her death, many in 40 handbound volumes she had sewn together, written in her own hand with her famously unorthodox punctuation. [...]

  3. How to Read a Poem: Feel for the Switch | - August 5, 2013

    [...] when you connect with a poem and fall in love with it.” She invoked these famous words from Emily Dickinson: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are [...]

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