BBC Radio 4: The Poet and The Murderer
(available for a limited time)
Emily Dickinson is hardly a secret: she's one of the American poets whose name might spring to mind alongside Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson - a classic voice that people feel passionately about.
What I hadn't appreciated, until recently, is just how much of a recluse she was while she was alive. Listening to 'The Poet and The Murderer', I learned that Dickinson didn't publish a single poem during her lifetime. It was the posthumous discovery of her poems that released them, in their hundreds, from the confines of a locked box into the waiting world.
I listened to the programme over a week ago - it's about much more than Dickinson's approach to writing. But those introductory comments have stayed with me, as have the echoes of her poem "I'm Nobody! Who are you?".
There's something so brave and so rare in her defiant indifference to being noticed and celebrated. That level of personal contentment feels like a lost skill, maybe even a luxury that our age just can't afford anymore. We have musicians who have to moonlight as social media marketers. We have models who are not only expected to look a certain way, but also to be brands themselves with followers in the millions. We have politicians who are required to take a break from the business of running the country so that we can have a stream of selfies taken with them.
It's not to say there aren't positives in all of this: transparency, power-shifts away from institutions to the individual...
But being recognised has become so important.
Do we do anything for its own sake anymore?
Thinking about Emily Dickinson makes me tingle all over with the realisation that I can write because I love to write, not because I need to be read. I can love because I'm learning to be loving, not because I want to be loved. We can escape the clamour for external validation and just relish the act of the doing the things that make us come alive. We can choose to share selflessly, as a byproduct of being the people we want to be.
We might be noticed. We might not. But we will definitely have lived well.