Columns by Jerome Charyn

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson


She was the first poet I had ever read, and I was hooked and hypnotized from the start, because in her writing she broke every rule. Words had their own chain reaction, their own fire. She could stun, delight, and kill “with Dirks of Melody.” I never quite recovered from reader her. I, too, wanted to create “[a] perfect—paralyzing Bliss,” to have my sentences explode “like a Maelstrom, with a notch.”

It was the old maid of Amherst who lent me a little of her own courage to risk becoming a writer. ” A Wounded Deer—leaps highest,” she wrote, and I wanted to leap with Emily.

We had so little in common. She was a country girl, and I was a boy from the Bronx. She had a lineage with powerful roots in America, and I was a mongrel whose heritage was like an unsolved riddle out of Eastern Europe. Yet I could hear the tick of her music in my wakefulness and in my sleep. Suddenly that plain little woman with her bolts of red hair was as familiar to me as the little scars on my own face.

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